AD MAIOREM DEI GLORIAM
Our September-December Study period, the longest period inside the novitiate itself, was pleasantly interrupted last week thanks to an excellent trip to (North) Belgium and the Netherlands. This allowed us to visit a variety of Jesuit works and communities that are part of the work of the Four Provinces that make up our international novitiate community (Britain, Ireland, Flanders and the Netherlands).
This year, like last year, we are blessed with a great number of novices – 13 of us in total – which meant that we travelled in two separate groups, one from Amsterdam to Leuven and the other in the opposite direction. I was part of the latter group and so my visit began at the Heverlee community nearby the famous Katholiek Universiteit Leuven. Here we learnt of the past, present and future of the Jesuits in Flanders. We listened eagerly to the life stories of Fr. Jan Lambreck SJ and Fr. Bob Albertijn SJ, who told us of their experiences as a Biblical scholar and a missionary in Congo and Burundi respectively. This set the tone for the rest of the week, in which we were introduced to the variety of ministries undertaken by Jesuits in the Low Countries. An evening tour of Leuven itself was enjoyable – not only because we sampled some local Belgian beer, but because we visited many of the local landmarks. The atmosphere reminded me of the first time I visited Oxford, with many quaint cobbled streets surrounding college after college. Most impressive for me was the church of St Damian of Molokai, which contained a poignant display dedicated to this famous Belgian priest who dedicated his life to serving in a leper colony during the early 20th Century. Another experience worth mentioning took place at the university theology library, where I held a copy of the famous Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius that were published in Rome in 1548 – perhaps the man himself had held this very book sometime before me…
The next day saw us rejoin our other band of brothers for a joint tour of Brussels. We were kindly led by Fr Jan Stuyt SJ, Socius of the Flanders and Netherlands Provinces. The morning’s events were dominated by the presence of the European Parliament and the Jesuit response at the epicentre of European politics. We heard from Fr Martin Maier SJ about the work of JESC (the Jesuit European Social Centre) and the work he does lobbying for the poor and voiceless in the corridors of power often dominated by big businesses. We also learnt about the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service Europe at their headquarters. Finally, I was reunited with Fr Jose de Pablo SJ and the CEP team I worked with earlier in the year when helping at the Conference of European Provincials in Drongen. It was really interesting to hear about the pastoral work that the Society manages to provide to the many passing workers in Brussels by running the ‘Chapel for Europe’, an ecumenical chapel that offers many Masses and young adult prayer and social gatherings in the beautiful brick church a stone’s throw away from the glimmering glass of the European Parliament.
The afternoon in Brussels gave us a totally different experience as we were welcomed by Fr Marc Lindeijer SJ to the headquarters of the Bollandists. This, I hope I explain correctly, is a historic centre of study that critically examines the life of Saints, verifying the veracity of their saintliness. After questioning Fr Marc about the aspects of his work, we had a nice dinner with the Jesuit community below. I was fortunate to have dinner with Fr Robert, the ‘head Bollandist’, who told me a few fascinating things about his work. The thing that stands out was how he very simply described a saint as ‘someone who is totally open to the will of God in their life’. This radical availability is a great lesson for us novices, as well as any Jesuits and all Christians, to leave with; hopefully we’ll all be able to translate into our own lives.
Antwerp was ‘up next’ the following day and involved visits to two more research centres: the Ruusbroec Society and UCSIA. The highlight here for me was soaking up the beautiful city itself, spending time in the Cathedral of our Lady and admiring the world-famous ‘Taking of Christ’ painting by Peter Paul Rubens.
Our final destination was Amsterdam, the busy Dutch capital. Here we were welcomed by Fr Nikolaas Sintobin SJ who guided us through a Youtube meditation and spoke to us about his ministry as an internet pastor, introducing many thousands of people to Ignatian Spirituality online. Then we were given a guided tour of the famous Krijtberg church by the rector Fr Bart Beckers SJ and enjoyed Mass there celebrated by Fr Gregory Brenninkmeijer SJ, a former Socius at our international novitiate. Finally we spoke with Fr. Ward Biemans SJ who explained his work with the CLC (Christian Life Community) and his work as a spiritual director at the Dutch national seminary.
Just typing up this narrative account of our visit reminds me what an amazing variety of Jesuit ministries we have been introduced to in a brief period of time. While I really enjoyed visiting new places and hearing about Jesuit works in the Low Countries, what was most special for me was the various quality conversations I managed to have with the many Jesuits I met along the way. Their warmth, intelligence and inspiring example resonated with me and affirmed my sense of vocation in the Society of Jesus. It was also a great cultural introduction to two countries rich in Catholic heritage that I previously knew little about. Overall I think this visit was useful for novices across the Four Provinces as it broadened our vision of the Society outside the boundaries of our own birthplaces and opened us to the prospect of deeper collaboration across our Provinces in future. A final line of gratitude to all who were involved in the organization of a great trip: Thank you!
LAUS DEO SEMPER