It has been a busy few months since we all arrived back from our experiments (placements) in different schools. In this time we have had a good number of enquirers and candidates visit individually or as part of the candidates weekend that is run twice a year in April and November. I enjoy welcoming enquirers and being in a position to listen and answer any of their queries, address any concerns and encourage them in their general discernment. Being less than a year into Jesuit life means my own thoughts from this time of enquiry are very fresh. I recall the help and support I experienced by just visiting other Jesuits and having some misconceptions cleared up and generally being impressed by how they lived as a community yet were able to be actively engaged in a diversity of works outside of the community.
When I was enquiring about the Jesuits I often found the novice blog and vocations web site helpful. So I am conscious we have not posted anything since April. What I found interesting and is reflected in the questions I have been asked recently is what the novices actually get up to? The programme is available on the link to the right of this page ‘Novitiate Year Plan and Timetable’. As there is little time between now and the next experiment I thought it would be useful to briefly summarise what we have been up to and tell you what is happening next.
During Holy Week we were sent to help run and assist on retreats – Rene went to Loyola Hall for the Young Adults retreat. Carlos and I were at Stonyhurst which has an annual retreat during the Triduum for alumni and their families. We were leading a group for 11 – 15 year olds which worked very well with the challenge of making the actual events of Holy Week relevant, engaging and at times fun for the younger children. We did this through guiding in prayerful reflection and art and joining with the other children’s groups to stage our own passion play outside in the sun. I was particularly pleased with their thoughtfulness and prayers that they made when they drew out the stations of the cross – which we used to pray with. It was a good challenge to be in this sort of guiding role for the kids and one that was helped by the recent experience teaching in Schools.
The other big highlight was our jam-packed week-long tour of the Irish Province. We visited Jesuit communities in Dublin, Belfast, Galway and Limerick. We were able to see how the Jesuits and their co-workers worked together in a range of areas from education, spirituality, supporting refugees and sheltering the homeless through to grass root community work. The commitment to social justice particularly impressed me. When I was enquiring about joining the Society one of the things that appealed to me was this diverse nature and hands on approach of Jesuits in their works. There were several ‘eye openers’ in Ireland. One was the experience of being in Belfast for the first time and how to the outsider there felt a tension and unease as we toured through republican and nationalist areas either separated by high walls or identified by the flags, murals and the quality of housing. The Jesuits there are doing great work through ministering to lay people from both sides of the divided communities, diocesan priests and seminarians in the area of spirituality and accompaniment.
The biggest shock came when we stayed in the heart of the community of Moyross, Co. Limerick. We listened to local people, teachers and the Jesuit parish priest tell the story of this community that was rapidly reduced from 6000 to 2000 residents during a regeneration project that stalled when the recession hit. The process of demolishing 40-year-old houses from a terrace once they became vacant with the unfulfilled aim or rebuilding, leaves a community with roads that lead to nowhere, terraces with several houses missing and a walled off area between the estate and better off neighbouring areas. You can imagine or search on line for what this may look like and consider how it must feel to reach your secondary school through a narrow gateway in a high dividing wall. This blog is no attempt to explain the full story just to share some of my immediate reactions. I remember feeling angry and despairing. Angry that people were living in poor and stressful conditions due to the prevalence of crime and drugs and lack of a full range of community resources more unbelievable in a place like Ireland. When I trained as a nurse I remember being taught that the measure of a civilised society can be judged on how we look after the most vulnerable in our society. The fact that such conditions exist angered me. I felt a sense of powerlessness to do much about it. Moyross is no secret yet measures to improve the situation are slow. I was thinking how do people cope?
Part of the answer came in the hope, the hope found in the people who have refused to move away, who have stayed in order to help other residents, especially those isolated and afraid. One simple yet vital community initiative consists in just going door to door and listening to people and when appropriate referring them to others who can help: this scheme, set up by the residents, is known as ‘Community Companions’ . Other examples of community spirit came from listening to the Parish Priest as he told how in its early days the people of the estate built the Church first then a primary school and a community centre in that order and all physically joined up on the same street. The teaching staff and the young head teacher were particularly impressive and dedicated people. The head teacher gave us a guided tour of the area and I was impressed as to how he knew all of the kids and their families who were playing on the street.
Further work through the Jesuits in Dublin also impressed me especially the work of Fr Peter McVerry SJ and his team who provide a day centre and many hostels for homeless people. Peter described how he first started working with homeless people and set up his first of many hostels in response to finding a 9-year-old boy rough sleeping. Listening to Peter and his team in the Jesuit Faith and Justice Centre it was clear that the face of homelessness is changing: it now includes families and children as a result of the housing crisis through the cessation of building social housing and a reliance on private landlords with high rents and little protection for tenants.
Apologies for the longer entry this time but this is really to fill you in on what has been going on. Our next instalment may be a few months away. Carlos and Rene will walk on pilgrimage across Spain following the Ignatian Camino for 6 weeks surviving on the charity of strangers, providence or good luck as I cheekily refer to it. I will be off to stay with the Jesuits in Guyana particularly in the interior regions with the Amerindian people. In all seriousness both these types of experiments are designed to place us out of our comfort zones and to rely completely on God for all our needs. I hope to return and share some reflections soon.