It has been only a few days since I returned from my Short Experiment in Blaenau Ffestiniog, North Wales, and I feel that it would be helpful for me to reflect upon my experience there. Perhaps it will not be an exhaustive reflection because the totality of events that I experienced would be too difficult for me to put them onto paper at the present moment, but, nevertheless, I will attempt to express my thoughts.
I should begin by describing some of the people that I encountered. I will refrain from using people’s names out of respect for their privacy, but, in general, I am able to say that it is rare that one meets a group of people over a few weeks and feel as if he has known them for years. This was my feeling living and working in North Wales. From the hospitality that was offered to me to the conversations that I had the privilege to take part in, I am filled with gratitude. I realize that gratitude is a common characteristic of Ignatian spirituality, but I must emphasize the sincerity in my gratitude since I received so much from the people that I met. They freely gave of themselves, from their hearts. I was a stranger when I arrived in North Wales, but towards the end of my Short Experiment, I can honestly say that I felt at home albeit there was a different milieu there, which I found difficult at first to reconcile because of the dialectic present: on the one hand, the indifference to religion and spirituality, and on the other hand, my ardent desire to make faith and the Church relevant.
Though I found the dialectic difficult to reconcile I placed myself at the disposal of Christ, and I trusted Him throughout my experience. In hindsight, one key word that comes to mind when I reflect on my experience is eccentricity. Everything about North Wales proved to be eccentric for me, and I mean what the very word denotes: “off centered”. I have never come across such a place that seemed off centered like this one before. And with all due respect, I suspect that it was because of an unfamiliar cultural ethos and the array of people with big personalities that I met. I had to ask myself: “Vinny, do you trust that the Lord will be able to work through you in spite of your lack of experience, the eccentricities, your fears, your pessimistic outlook by nature?” That question became fundamental for me. I would often try to answer it when helping to lead prayer, knocking on people’s doors in the surrounding village of Gellilydan, listening to people speak about their hardships, sitting-in on catechism lessons, visiting the diocesan priests in the deanery, and learning how to be a good pastor from the retired bishop with whom I was living.
In retrospect, I can say that I was challenged by participating in a variety of traditional prayers like the Stations of the Cross, which I had been accustomed to attending before entering the Society of Jesus. It was not challenging because of the traditional nature of the prayers, but, instead, it was because I was surrounded by older people, with whom I found difficult to relate at first. Before I became a Jesuit novice, I held the following belief with ease: “It doesn’t matter about community so much as long as I get to Mass because Jesus is present regardless of the social environment around me.” However, after this experience, I nuance this belief a bit to say that though Jesus is present in the Eucharist during the Mass regardless of the social environment, the kind of community at hand is pivotal for my relationship with Jesus Christ. I suppose that I knew that truth theoretically beforehand, but it is something that I had to learn experientially.
For me, drawing the young people of Gellilydan to Christ was one of the main priorities. I really wanted them to experience what it means to be in love with Christ and His Church since I know what this feels like from my past experiences. I figured that if they fell in love with Christ and His Church then Mass and prayer would naturally follow. I remembered what the Salesians of Don Bosco had taught me when I was young; they used to quote St. John Bosco in his evangelical approach: “Young people must not only be loved; but they must know they are loved. He who knows he is loved and he who loves obtains everything, especially from the young.” So, too, this became my approach. I sought to become their friends first before speaking to them extensively about Jesus and the Church. I wanted them to shake off their preconceptions of those being formed for religious life and priesthood. I wanted them to see that I was in a similar boat to them insofar as I also struggle with my faith at times, I have my doubts, I experience adversity, and I am a sinner. In fact, I am an ordinary person, no one special.
I may not have been able to bring the young people back to Sunday Mass in the end, but I concluded after speaking to both the local Ukrainian Orthodox priest and Anglican priest that this seemed like an impossible task given that the former had been trying to draw young people away from indifference for about thirty years and the latter was experiencing hardships running six churches with an ever-growing “gray-haired” congregation. Nevertheless, I do hope that the Lord worked through my words, my listening, my enthusiasm, my complaining, my questioning, and my efforts. Perhaps, I will never see the fruits of my labour, but as I was told by a priest in Wales: future priests might reap the fruits of the seeds that I planted. As I end this reflection, I think that it is not so important for myself to see the results, but, rather, to trust in the Lord’s providence. In conjunction with the inspiring words of Servant of God Walter Ciszek, S.J. in He Leadeth Me, which resonate with me profoundly, after reflection, I can say: “We tend to concentrate on ourselves, we tend to think of what we can or cannot do, and we forget about God and his will and his providence.” In hindsight, one key lesson that I took from my Short Experiment is the following: More of You God, and less of me.