Last week the majority of the novitiate spent the week in Oxford. There [at Campion Hall, the Jesuit College of Oxford University] they took part in lectures on a range of topics complementary to our novitiate studies. Three of us, Jacques, Aurimas and I were instead asked to travel to Belgium – and although we were disappointed to miss out on the Oxford trip, our week in Drongen Abbey, Flanders turned out to be a fantastic experience.
We were invited to Drongen to help out with the Conference of European Provincials which took place in a beautiful retreat centre in rural Flanders. This is basically a regular meeting in which the heads of each European province meet in order to consider the direction in which the Society of Jesus is moving on a European level. We worked alongside John Dardis SJ (President of the CEP) and Jose de Pablo SJ, (CEP Socius and Assistant to John Dardis) to ensure that the event ran smoothly by helping with a range of activities. We photocopied documents for the Provincials taking part, delivered participants to and from the airport, organised the liturgy of the week (including music), maintained the PA system and prepared the various rooms required for the assortment of meetings that took place. While that all might sound like a fairly menial week, it turned out to be moving, fascinating, exciting and immensely rewarding.
After a ‘mad-dash’ to get everything ready for the arrival of Provincials, I found the first evening of the event special as we shared a drink and social time with such an eclectic mix of cultures and languages, and yet, felt ‘at home’ thanks to the shared faith and Ignatian experiences across the room. The most striking aspect of the week for me was the ‘down-to-earth’, friendly nature of the Provincials – perhaps not what one would expect from such important and busy men and yet a true witness to the humility espoused and expected by St Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises. As someone still ‘testing the waters’ of the Society and deciding whether to take vows as a Jesuit, it was hugely affirming and reassuring to experience the humane nature of governance in the Society of Jesus first-hand. Across the week I was blessed to have a number of extremely meaningful and memorable conversations in which experienced Provincials took the time to share their experience and advice with me. At one point during a social evening I took the time to look around and imagined that this is what the First Companions must have seemed like 500 years ago – a diverse group of Europeans unified by a desire to serve God and emulate his son Jesus Christ by serving others.
Another poignant experience was a day-trip we all made to Flanders Fields, including visits to several First World War cemeteries, a frontline on the Ypres Salient and finally a Sounding of the Last Post beneath the Menin Gate. I had done this once before at school and yet this visit had a freshness and resonance having taken part in it alongside people who hailed from across the continent, who shared differing perspectives on the conflict and, ultimately, were united behind a desire for peace and reconciliation. Unlike other ‘top level’ meetings of European decision-makers, the Provincials actually began their meeting with a prayer retreat focussing on this very theme of reconciliation. Again, I found this a small but impressive touch to the CEP and Jesuit approach to governance.
As the week progressed, the meetings and conferences took place and all went smoothly. I had a successful moment of “Agere Contra” [an experience of going against my natural tendencies] when managing to fix a microphone battery in the blink of an eye – something I had never done before but was ‘thrown into’ as the designated tech “expert” of the week. I’ve learnt that seeming like you know what you’re doing and exuding confidence when little is actually present is handy in such situations! In fact we all were pushed and challenged to great effect, for example Jacques rose to the challenge of preparing and executing a beautiful array of songs, many of which were previously unknown or even if a different tongue! By the end of the week I think that we all felt we had “grown” thanks to this experience. Although it was only just over a week, it felt like a full experiment, such was the number of mind-opening moments and meetings.
After saying our goodbyes and manifold ‘thank yous’ to John and Jose, we returned to Birmingham to begin for our next ‘proper’ experiment: the pilgrimage. One second-year and seven first year novices, four pairs, 500+kms and no money! Please keep us all in your prayers over this time (and excuse the blogging silence as a result of our excursions…)