This past weekend I had a positive experience of being a Jesuit with other Jesuits. Three of us novices went to Loyola Hall retreat centre (http://loyolahall.co.uk) to help the vocations promoter of the British Province, Matthew Power (http://www.jesuitvocations.org.uk/news-from-the-vocations-director), with the organisation and implementation of the bi-annual meeting of European vocation promoters. We drove up on Wednesday afternoon and joined Matthew and Conall O’Cuinn (http://www.heartofajesuit.ie/more-contact), the Irish vocations promoter and Niall, who took vows last September.
On Thursday we moved furniture around in the meeting room and then each novice made several trips to collect delegates from Liverpool and Manchester airports. I don’t know if it will change with time but I find it amazing how I have already met so many Jesuits from around the world and this weekend extended that considerably. Separate from the meeting, a Kenyan scholastic I met in Tanzania who is currently studying in London was at Loyola Hall for a few days’ holiday. The first group I collected was the Italian contingent and because we had to wait for the Hungarian we had a chat and I discovered that one of them lives in the same community as a scholastic I met at the English language school in Oxford last year. One of the Slovakian promoters came to visit us last year and he is the assistant to the novice director in Ruzomberok from whence two novices came to spend six weeks with us and went home the week before last. You might be thinking it sounds more like a crazy inbred family!
The Near East province (Syria, Egypt, Lebanon and Turkey) didn’t obviously fit into any of the administrative regions and is included in the European conference. Their delegate is from Syria (which is where the brother of one of the members of my novitiate community has lived for decades, since before his ordination). We were privileged to listen to a talk on Friday evening about the situation in Syria from a native. He is working in Allepo with internally displaced people with outside support from JRS International (http://www.jrs.net) and internal volunteers from scouts and CLC (http://www.cvx-clc.net). He explained the complex and long-lasting conflicts in the country and region that make the situation so difficult. The most challenging thing he said was that he thinks the fighting could be stopped if international pressure was exerted but that there isn’t the will. He has little hope for the short term but the Jesuits there continue to try and encourage dialogue (http://www.ucanews.com/2011/06/08/syrian-jesuits-speak-out). What am I, are we, doing outside as the killing continues? The usual national responses of doing nothing or invading or bombing only contribute to the killing and destruction. It is easy to say and think that there is nothing we can do. I don’t want to accept that; but I also find it challenging to know what and how. Perhaps at this point there isn’t a lot directly, but, for example, what about the sale of arms and other support that kept the population oppressed for years? There is also prayer – so easy to say but also easy to forget or to do without much belief.
Some people have a stereotype of the Society of Jesus that it is very hierarchical and formal; that was consistently proved false during the weekend. I shared meals and chatted with several people who hold positions of considerable responsibility without any sense of being a second class Jesuit and indeed our contributions were graciously acknowledged. The British Provincial Superior and the President of the European Conference attended parts of the meeting. Father General’s delegate for formation was present for the whole event and was very friendly in talking about the morning routine in the Curia in Rome or about his experiences as a young novice master.
Language is one of the challenges of international meetings these days. We heard about how in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries it was common for Jesuits to be sent to teach in colleges all over Europe because the teaching was done in Latin. At this meeting we had a Spaniard who could not speak English and most of us could not speak Spanish. It was wonderful to hear, through a fellow Spaniard who translated throughout the weekend, that his fears for the weekend had not been realised and that he got a lot out of the experience.
The novices did not take part in most of the sessions, except a talk about the early Society, the talk on Syria and the evaluation session. At the evaluation a few suggestions were made but the general feedback was very positive, the content and opportunity to meet people working on the same project in different settings and learning from them and getting inspiration from one another. It certainly promoted my vocation.