WHERE IT ALL BEGAN
A life-size, gilded statue dominates one corner of the chapel. St Ignatius, recuperating from his battle-wound, shown at the very moment, perhaps, when he looks up from reading the lives of the saints to reflect “I too could do what Francis did, what Dominic did – only do it better!” This is the Chapel of the Conversion, in the castle of Loyola in northern Spain. It’s the setting for the opening Mass of the biennial meeting of European Jesuit novice-masters.
There are thirteen novitiates in Europe, ranging from Birmingham to Cairo, and fairly evenly divided between east and west. Four of those from the west (Britain, Portugal, Italy and France) will have new novice-masters in the coming months, and some of those newly-appointed are at the meeting. Its official languages are English and Italian, with a lone Maltese Jesuit doing a stalwart job of two-way simultaneous translation.
And what do novice-masters talk about when they meet? Why, novices, of course! Or more specifically, this time round, about the different kinds of conversation that take place between a novice and his director. There are conversations aimed at introducing the novice to Jesuit life; those which make up the regular spiritual direction that he receives; and the privileged conversations that take place daily through the month of the Spiritual Exercises. The ways in which these conversations are structured, their frequency and formality (or lack of it) varies in the different novitiates. Through reflection and sharing of experience, each director is challenged to consider his own practice.
We are joined for the week by the President of the Conference of European Provincials, John Dardis, and Fr General’s Counsellor for Formation, Orlando Torres. Orlando is another who will be completing his term of office later this year, so his successor, José Cecilio Magadia, is also taking part. The presence of these three opens our discussions to a wider perspective, that world-wide vision that was so important to Ignatius and remains a hallmark of the Jesuit “way of proceeding”.
We were reminded this morning that, of all the continents, Europe still has the largest number of Jesuits – more than 5,000 of the 17,500 in the Society world-wide. But it has only 14% of the novices, compared, for instance, with 31% in South Asia. The Society of Jesus will look very different by the time the novices we are forming today take their Final Vows. The question of what kind of formation can best help these men to meet that change lies at the heart of this meeting in Loyola. How can we do what Ignatius did? And if not do it better, perhaps aim, at least, to do it just as well.
Fr Paul Nicholson SJ
Director of Novices