Ugandan Charles Jaryekonga SJ spent two years of his Jesuit formation as a regent in Belvedere College SJ from August 2016 to May 2018. In this second of a series of blog posts, he describes his diverse experiences in the school including retreat and liturgical celebrations, new staff induction and staff formation, and faith and service activities.
Retreats and liturgical celebrations
Participating in student retreats remain one of the most important experience I had in Belvedere College. The school is unique in terms of faith formation and offering retreat opportunities for every student in every year, such an enormous venture that is not found in many schools around the world. The context in which the students find themselves does not easily allow for free expression of faith, mostly due to peer pressure, and the retreats offer the students the space to freely explore and express their faith. I am immensely proud of the retreat programs and the way they are structured from the Elements (first year) to the Rhetoric (sixth year) retreats. For me, the retreats were occasions of encouragement and of encouraging the lads that it is still possible and normal to live one’s faith. Reading and reflecting on the retreat evaluations often fills me with joy, particularly because the retreats helped the students to explore their faith and to interact with others about their faith journey. This helped them to develop respect for each other’s faith background and to understand why people have faith in God.
The liturgical celebrations in the school, just like the retreats, were moments of consolation and occasions that gave me life. I always experience strong joy whenever I attend mass in the school; I think primarily because of the people who come for mass regardless of the number. I am particularly impressed by the boys who come for the weekly Friday masses. For me, they are great witnesses to faith and a great example. That also includes the teachers and sometimes parents. I am always light-hearted whenever we have one of those “Jesuit liturgies” as Fr. Paddy likes to call them. I cannot take for granted the work put in behind the scenes to ensure that the masses do take place. This includes both the regular masses and special masses we have all year round in the school. I am grateful to the pastoral team for enabling this to happen in the school.
New staff induction and staff formation
The New Staff Induction and Staff Formation programmes organized by the Irish Jesuit Province and supported by various works of the Society provided me with moments of great consolation. We had two or three induction programmes within the school and one outside school followed this where I had the opportunity to encounter new staff members from other Jesuit schools within the province. These were all moments of familarising with what it means to be a Jesuit school for a staff member.
The trips to Manresa in Spain in April 2017 and Loyola in March 2018 provided the epitome of the staff formation experience for me. This is because, as a Jesuit, there is a personal significance of these two places in association with the life of St. Ignatius. To have the opportunity to relate the spirituality I try to follow with the actual places were everything started is immeasurable. It helps in giving context to the stories and can help provide more insight into the life of St. Ignatius and what shaped his worldview. I would have loved to see the River Cardoner in its ancient splendour, if there was anything like it, to give Ignatius such an immense insight into the Holy Trinity rather than what I saw. Being in Loyola and visiting the Xavier Castle provided another moment of great consolation. I particularly admire Francis Xavier’s enthusiasm and his willingness to move on with life despite its challenges. This would be true of Ignatius and the early companions, a great treasure for us Jesuits of time in a world which is increasingly becoming very comfortable in many parts.
I had two difficult experiences which are related to the trips in Manresa and Loyola. Firstly, my maternal grandmother, who was also the only grandparent left, and the one I know best, died while I was in Manresa. That sad reality became for me an occasion of prayer and opportunity to spend more time in the cave where St. Ignatius faced some of his most trying moments as he discovered God’s will for him. The “mean” R. Cardoner made more sense for me as a calming experience and letting the reality sink in. After that, I had the composure to call my mum and to sympathise with the family.
The second incident happened a day before I left for Loyola. My younger brother sent me a text that one of our uncles has died. He has been very instrumental in keeping the family together and for many of us whose parents and families lived far from what we called home, going to that place we called home (village) meant going to his home. Normally, we would go to grandparents if they were alive. However, since both my paternal grandparents died when I was still a young boy, he played the role of gathering us together as children of the same family. I had to decide whether to go to Loyola or go home for the funeral. The decision to go to Loyola is something I am very proud of because the experience there was overwhelmingly powerful.
Apart from staff formation trips, I also had the opportunity of encountering the footsteps of St. Ignatius and his early companions in Paris. I was particularly overwhelmed when a group of us “young Jesuits” had mass in the chapel of our lady of Montmartre where St. Ignatius and his first companions made their first vows as a group of men interested in serving the Lord. I also had the opportunity of spending a week in Taizé. It was an extraordinary experience in the way life can be very simple and yet full of joy and fulfilment. A place where the young and the old gather together almost continuously throughout the year in search of God and the service of community life. Its something of an early Church experience, innocent and simple.
Faith and service activities
Any regent in Belvedere College is as privileged as the “kids” in the school. Belvedere offers a range of service activities which are informed by faith. The trip to Lourdes provided such a gigantic experience of the service of faith. Lourdes, like Taizé, encompasses a true sense of a religious community as a family where everybody looks after everyone else. That is for me a miracle and the evidence that God is very active in our world reaching out to all of us through each other as co-servants of one another. Lourdes was a positive religious experience for me and one that will carry me on my faith journey especially when there is a call to reach out to someone or to call out to someone to reach out to me.
I had the privilege of twice taking part in the annual sleepout event. These were also the only occasions of my life here in Ireland where I had to be out over an entire two nights during the sleepout. I remain immensely proud of the students who generously take on the challenge of doing the sleepout and that was my motivation every time I participated in the sleepout. I certainly had a greater desire for participating in the sleepout because of my limited involvement in the school’s St. Vincent De Paul society and the Wednesday soup runs where we encounter people in greater need of someone to reach out to them. I know every single human being needs someone to reach out to them.
I also had the honour of taking part in the Block Pull walk from Dublin to Galway. The greatest lesson I learnt on the Block Pull, like other service programs, was the resilience of young men determined to make a difference in someone’s life. I was literally limping from Dublin to Galway. For me, the trophy is seeing young people realising that there is no challenge too difficult to overcome if there is will power, taking the first step and trusting.
The Camino was yet another chance to accompany the boys and to help them in any way to realise that the service of faith ought to do justice and that our work of justice is informed by faith. One of our preparatory prayers was to say the prayer of St. Ignatius as a precursor to the tough day ahead. I barely got going the first two days, but as during the Block Pull, my greatest motivation remained the lads, helped by the teachers with us from whom one only sees the desire to go forward and move on with it. The Camino was also a spiritual journey for me. I had personal intentions to pray for as well as to pray for the boys in our care. Personally, I learned to depend on God more. When we think we have reached our limits, a whole new horizon opens, provided we keep trusting, believing, and trying hard. God, at times, works in this inexplicable way. I deeply enjoyed my experience on the Camino and I am grateful to Mr. Colin MacCarthy, Mr. Joe McGabhann, Ms. Ciara Flynn, and Mr. Robert Altman.
I was also blessed to accompany the boys in the Belvedere English Language Lessons (BELL) for refugees, and asylum seekers, and migrant workers. This for me was the fulfilment of my desires to work with refugees even though not in the way I envisioned. Prior to being asked to come for regency, I had asked to work with and among refugees. Moreover, I never really wanted to work in schools because I never thought of myself as capable of doing so. In fact, I am happy that I was proved wrong and I hope the school managed to squeeze out some of the talents I have for the better. As I speak now, I will be willing and to favourably consider working in a school in the future if duty calls even though my desires may lie somewhere else.
I also had the opportunity to test my administrative skills. Despite the lack of due diligence, I discovered I have the capability which only has to be nurtured. Rob [Mr. Robert Altman] would know what I am talking about. Because of that, I am grateful to Mr. Padraig Swan for providing me with the opportunity to test my administrative skills. I clearly think Mr. Swan has a way of getting the best in people which is a great help for a regent who, in some way, is an apprentice. I am also grateful to Gerry J Foley for carrying me under his wings to experience what it means to be in a first-year class. I did have BELL classes with different TY groups, but I swiftly realised that the first years and the forth years are different worlds. I am sure I did not do very well discipline wise, but I had a positive experience with the lads in class. If there was anything I could do different, it would be to have more time in class than I did because I realised it is possible.
In the next blog post, Charles will describe his experience of cultural immersion where he learned to acquire a new identity.