Discerning together at the province meeting
The Jesuits in Britain held their annual Province Meeting this week. The meeting of all Jesuits in the British Province got underway on Tuesday evening at the Christian Conference Trust centre in Swanwick, Derbyshire.
150 delegates include Jesuits of the British province and Jesuit observers from the provinces of the North West European Assistancy, and speakers from the United States and Rome.
Twenty two lay co-workers also attended including, for the first time, several head teachers of Jesuit schools and colleges. After input from the guest speakers in the morning sessions, delegates had time for personal reflection, and then guided sharing and further reflection in small groups followed by a further plenary sharing. This is a new methodology for discernment which was introduced as a process during the recent General Congregation in Rome (GC36). Fr Provincial Dermot Preston explained the thinking:
"We as Jesuits are practised at individual discernment; but we are less good at group discernment – listening attentively to each other and distilling a range of responses and opinions. So we all pray and reflect for half an hour on what we have heard from our Speaker. Then we come together in small groups for three cycles of listening and thinking. First cycle is the sharing of feelings, experiences and thoughts provoked by the talk. The second round is to make observations on what others have just shared. The third round is for each person to attempt to bring together, as if you were “the one giving the Exercises” (i.e. a spiritual director), and the group were “the one doing the Spiritual Exercises” (i.e. receiving spiritual direction), the essence of all the thoughts and themes and influences, and intuit where that is leading. Then discussion can start."
Thursday’s speaker was Fr Michael Garanzini SJ, Chancellor of Loyola University Chicago and Fr General’s delegate for higher education. He first shared his experience of listening to Pope Francis at the recent General Congregation. He described how, after his talk, the pope spent over an hour answering questions from Jesuits, and "I noticed that his Holiness never answered direct questions which began “Holy Father, what should we do about..? or what should be the strategy for…?” In his talk the pope explained that we ourselves as Jesuits have the tools of discernment. If you use the discernment correctly you will be thinking with the Church and for the Church and will be able to determine what is the best route to take. The Holy Father exhorted us to help the Church identify where to go and what to do.”
Fr Garanzini described how, since GC34 and GC35, the Jesuit university sector had noticed that social justice is a popular message with faculties and lay colleagues. “They like working at Jesuit institutions because they have a social justice mission”. He suggested that academics in all types of institutions have a crucial role to play, not just in researching, publishing and advocating for social justice, but also in providing the safe and trusted space where bridges can be built between perpetrators of injustice and their victims.
“We won’t solve the issues just by attacking and accusing. We need to bring conflicted parties to the table to be part of the solution….Reconciliation is a necessary refinement to the social justice agenda. So a Jesuit University should be the one place where all sides can come together.”
Fr Garanzini then turned his focus to Heythrop College and the future of the intellectual apostolate in Britain, the future of which is under discussion. “This is not an in-house project” he observed, “ it must involve those we work with, they are fellow decision makers not just stakeholders in the impact of the decision. We must rethink all our higher education in terms of reconciliation. There has never been a more obvious need for this than now. There are issues in your country or your city demanding attention, things that cause political parties to divide and give rise to reactionary movements. These are the issues we must ask of God “what do you want us to do now?””
He pointed out that in many places across the world secular governments are withdrawing support from theologates and seminaries: "This is not unique to the UK or even Europe. Furthermore, scholarship itself has changed. It is no longer a solitary pursuit. Now it is more collaborative, and has to result in practical projects, to secure funding. The Society of Jesus has always cultivated experts in all fields including humanities and sciences, not just theology and philosophy. This is our special charism."
The group reflections which followed the talk fed back in plenary with an emphasis on the need for bridge-building, collaboration, compassion, and freedom to move forward.