Last week was a half-term of sorts, with no morning conferences and, instead, a series of visits to different Jesuit communities across the country. We went to the Chaplaincy at Manchester on Friday, Stonyhurst on Wednesday and Campion Hall in Oxford last Monday. In many respects, it was a walk down memory lane, with two of the locations playing an important part in my vocation story.
It was in Oxford, almost 3 years ago, that I had the first sense that I was being called to join the Jesuits, following a retreat at Campion Hall that was directed by the late Gerry W. Hughes. And, a few months later, I had my first interview with the Vocations Director, Matthew Power, in the Chaplaincy in Manchester.
We were all impressed by the general buzz and the range of activities underway in Manchester. Since taking over 3 years ago, the Jesuit team there has certainly been working hard, with the fruits of that labour very clear to me – the place was much more alive on this visit than when I was there in 2013. From the foodbank to the group of students preparing for mass and a communal meal that evening, the spirit was clearly at work in a positive and encouraging way.
Campion Hall was much as I remembered it, including the wonderful library. I have yet to find a space better designed for study than the library at the Hall!
We were given a great welcome by the community, including a tour of the house, and we had the opportunity to speak to a range of the scholars and also to some of the Jesuits involved in the Oxford Chaplaincy. It was clear from those conversations that a great deal of excellent work is underway within the Oxford community too. There was a vigorous, challenging and intellectually stimulating atmosphere in the place, which is an impressive combination.
My favourite moment, however, was a personal one. I managed to slip away for an hour after lunch to visit a café where I had sat, all those months ago, and written in my retreat diary that I had this, as yet unformed, desire to serve God. It was great to be in the same place and a few steps further along the path! The experience has certainly refreshed me for the next part of the journey.
I had been a little nervous about our visit to Stonyhurst. I wasn’t sure how I would react to this place of privilege. However, my fears of a negative reaction were unfounded in large part because of the enormous sense of connection to Province, Society and indeed Catholic history. It was almost as though every finely-crafted stone spoke of the people who have given their whole lives (and in some cases, literally given their life) to the work of the Society and to bring people, whether princes or paupers, closer to God.
While we were touring round the country the second years were discovering where they are likely to go for their long experiments – 3 months of work in the field. This provided another powerful and personal link to the reality of Jesuit mission today and, through their anticipation, I couldn’t help but feel closer to real work and real life in the Society.
This week, therefore, has given me a renewed sense of my own roots in the Society alongside a newly discovered understanding of the Society’s roots in this Province. However, more important than the looking back, our travels have also given me a better feel for the work of the Society, in all its diversity, and, perhaps, my potential roles in the years to come. It has been a week of past and future, delivering a double blessing for the present.