We have just returned from a visit to the Irish province, a trip that happens every two years. It is an exercise that allows us to recognise that firstly we have joined an international Society and we see another province that is part of what is the north-west European novitiate.
The trip started on the 6th May in Dublin where we stayed for a few days being introduced to the area in the Irish Province where most of the activity occurs. It was a busy few days where we were entertained and made to feel very much at home. Our first visit was to the Manresa Centre of Spirituality headed up by Paddy Carberry SJ; the director of the Centre. Paddy spoke to us about the different programmes on offer at the centre as well as the current strategy and target audience vis a vis the changes that have taken place in the Irish Church – an issue that would take precedence in the days to come. Due to declining numbers in religious, for this was the target audience until recently, they have had to adapt and ultimately launched some new programmes targeting the wider Church. So there were courses such as The Pilgrim Way which adapted the Spiritual Exercises somewhat into a more convivial programme in daily life. There were even programmes about spirituality in movies! All of this displayed a great creativity in the midst of a difficult landscape, a great enthusiasm and passion for the Exercises as a source for strengthening in faith. In the afternoon we visited the Tertianship (the final stage of a Jesuit’s training) which could be described as a third year of novitiate. For us, in particular as novices, it was enlightening to see the similarities and differences to our own experience of formation thus far.
Our final day in Dublin saw us visiting Milltown, a large complex encompassing the Provincial Curia, the Irish School of Ecumenics, the Milltown Institute, Cherryfield – a home for elderly Jesuits – and the Jesuit community. We started with Mass celebrated by the Provincial Tom Layden SJ followed by a light lunch in the Curia where we met some of the Jesuits and lay associates involved in the running of the province. It was in this time in the Curia where we grew to understand the difficulties in governance when the Church is in transition with regard to province planning and the use of resources. And so abreast with knowledge of province management we met Finbarr Clancy SJ, the acting-President of the Milltown Institute to talk about the work of the Institute. At present the Society is negotiating moving the Institute to Trinity College Dublin where it will become the Loyola Institute of Theology. It was great to hear Finbarr talking in his enthusiastic way about the contribution of the Institute to the wider Church. After supper with the community we had a free evening together, testifying that it’s not all work, and went off to Temple Bar for a drink and an experience of Irish culture.
Thursday, a free day. After arriving in Galway the evening before and meeting the community, we spent some time enjoying Ireland old and new by going to the shrine at Knock, and Ballintubber Abbey, a beautiful 13th Century monastic settlement.
Journeying on from Galway we arrived in Limerick City where we were met by Tony O’Riordan SJ who is parish priest of an area of the city called Moyross. It was a fascinating place to be, my favourite of the tour, where Tony is doing work right on the frontiers engaging with people who are on the periphery. The area itself is incredibly challenging with statistics that need not be mentioned however with the dedication of the local community, school and parish the issues are being tackled and the people are coming together for the common good. And so after a meal and drink with the community in Limerick we returned to the Moyross estate to stay with families overnight, it was only through walking round the estate at night did we come to realise the issues faced by those who want to do good there.
After a canter across the country we found ourselves in Belfast where we were immersed in the difficulties of contemporary Irish history where Jesuits have been at the forefront of dialogue and reconciliation during ‘the troubles’. Alan McGuckian SJ spoke eloquently about the history of ‘the troubles’ and displayed how the angst remains strong but how groups must overcome themselves to encounter that reconciliation which is central to our faith. We had a night in Belfast and then following a vibrant First Holy Communion celebration in a local parish we headed south-west to Portadown. This is similar in its landscape to Moyross, however the issues and motivating factors are of course very different being buttressed by sectarianism and violence. Having passed here on Pilgrimage the previous year I understood its particular difficulties being an area within Northern Ireland where the difficulties are continuing to manifest themselves, however after a talk from a British Jesuit Michael Bingham SJ and Brendan MacPartlin SJ we came to understand how the Society has and is continuing to bring people together bringing about peace in a difficult area.
We then left Northern Ireland and returned for our final night in Dublin before returning to Birmingham. On reflection it was a busy time experiencing the great variety of the Irish province. In a particular way I was struck by the commitment to social justice where some of the Jesuits are right on the frontiers bringing the Gospel and their witness of a Jesuit vocation. In the wider sense, the Society in Ireland is living through a time which is to date totally foreign. The Church is said to be in crisis, or perhaps more politely, transition. It is apparent that Jesuits are resilient with their adaptability and commitment to discerning the greatest need in the Church and serving that Church in a way that is representative of the needs in which the Society finds itself.