Perhaps two of the most action-packed and breathtaking weeks of the novitiate took place recently when six of us first-year novices were sent to take part in World Youth Day and MAGIS. MAGIS is the Jesuits’ week-long preparatory event for young people from across the world. For MAGIS I was part of the British group who flew into Łódź, Poland and took part in a series of fun-filled concerts and moving liturgies that brought global young Ignatian communities together as an international group of over 1000 participants.
After a few days of “getting-to-know-yous” we were sent off on our 5-day-long experiments across Eastern Europe. I spent a wonderful mini-week in Prague, Czech Republic as part of an activity called Living Stones. This saw my group and I trained as tour-guides of the Church of the Holy Saviour – but we weren’t cramming dates and facts. Instead we soaked up the meaning of the church in a prayerful atmosphere before being asked to guide tourists around this beautiful, city-centre church for the next three days.
As we were an international group, made up of MAGIS participants from Britain, Netherlands, Poland and South Korea, we managed to offer tours in several languages. It was a wonderful opportunity to share our Christian faith using the beauty of the art and sculptures as a stimuli for our visitors and both us tour guides and our guests experienced many moving moments over the course of the week. What struck me in particular was the potential that this activity has for bringing churches alive as a centre for community appreciation and for deepening learning about faith. Perhaps in future we can import such a practice to our own Province’s shores to truly open up our churches and ourselves to those around us…
With time unfortunately coming to a close on a magical few days in Prague, my Living Stones group was bussed back to Poland and to Częstochowa, where we prepared for the end of the MAGIS programme and the beginning of World Youth Day. This was done with great meaning as people returned from all over Eastern Europe with stories to tell and deepening friendships to treasure. In our British group alone people returned elated (and a little-bit-tired) from countryside silent retreats, Slovakian mountain pilgrimages and theatrical performances of the life of St Ignatius, all enriched by the meaningful experiments which, every day had been bookmarked by Ignatian morning prayers, ‘MAGIS Circle’ faith sharing and communal Examen prayers. For me, the meaning and depth came to a climax with a liturgy of reconciliation outside the famous monastery of Jasna Góra, the spiritual heartland of Poland. It was moving to see so many confessions take place across the grounds and, as a Jesuit novice, it was inspiring to see the many Jesuits offering to hear confessions in a variety of languages.
The service finished with a prayer vigil in front of the famous image of Our Lady of Częstochowa, during which we wrote letters to Our Lady requesting her help, guidance and example in our lives. Before arriving I thought that I would find these mass-events a ‘turn-off’, too busy to find any spiritual meaning. But if anything, the presence of so many young Catholics participating together, across borders of language and race, amplified the depth and meaning of such an event and I felt privileged to be there and to take part. If, as a young Catholic, you ever feel alone amongst your friends of no or different faith, then I whole-heartedly recommend participating in programs like MAGIS, an eye-opener to the young Catholic world and to the deeply enriching spirituality of St Ignatius.
With the MAGIS program coming to a close, our British group headed to Kraków – along with all the other MAGIS participants and the small matter of at least 2million other pilgrims. As the numbers would suggest, our opening impressions were immediately affected by the huge crowds all participating in the array of events taking place during this week. We had a series of uncomfortable train journeys to and from our accommodation (in the very welcoming town of Chrzanów) and, after the deep and intimate, yet tiring, moments of MAGIS, I hit a low-point on the first day in Kraków, bereft of energy and motivation. Fortunately the Holy Spirit snapped me straight out of feeling sorry for myself, delivering a series of intriguing morning catechism sessions led by archbishops from Philadelphia and Edinburgh, all around the theme of the 2016 World Youth Day: Mercy. Or, to be scriptural: Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. (Mt5:7) Or, to put it into (Polish!) song-form, as we did on several occasions, “Błogosławieni miłosierni”. I learned to see the challenges of the day as opportunities to deepen my understanding of mercy and to emulate the love of those around him best-exemplified by Jesus Christ.
In this I was helped hugely by the remarkable spiritual heritage of Kraków. I visited St John Paul II Sanctuary and then learned about the devotion to Divine Mercy at the shrine of St Sister Faustina (whose image of Jesus accompanied all public sessions during WYD and acted as an inspiration to us all).
The days in Kraków climaxed in the huge vigil and Sunday Morning Mass led by Pope Francis. He spoke passionately about his distaste as seeing young people ‘retired by the age of 25’ and encouraging his youthful congregation to deepen their prayer life and to maintain their joy. Again, like in Częstochowa, I found my discomforts and anxieties of the large numbers of people overcome by just looking around and reveling in the powerful gathering of so many young people, united by their faith, gathered from around the world. That being said, one reflection I would share is that in MAGIS, the spirituality comes to you intimately and closely whereas at World Youth Day [which I have read described as ‘Glastonbury with God’] you really have search for the spirituality to come to you amidst the crowds. But if you search, you will find, as I and my fellow novices did, a powerful experience and a deeper learning in faith.
Thanks be to God for the generosity of all our Polish organizers and hosts, as well as the accompaniment of all those who we befriended over these two wonderful weeks.
Click here for the Jesuits in Britain vocations page.