A former assistant Provincial of Slovakia felt like he was going to a sure death when he was asked to go to refugee camps in Iraq, a country largely dominated by the Islamic extremist group ISIS.
Peter Girasek SJ eventually made the decision to go when he asked himself, ‘If my family was from Iraq, would I hesitate to go there?’ He also opted to work with Muslim and Christian refugees in Lebanon, as part of his one year tertianship (final stage of Jesuit training) based in Dublin. Fr. Girasek found spiritual consolation more in being with the refugees rather than any work he did.
There are almost 2 million internally displaced people in Iraq as a result of ISIS domination. Fr. Girasek says, ‘Many of those people are sharing this experience of continuous fleeing’ from places like Mosul to Qaraqosh to Erbil. Erbil is considered ‘safe’ due to a US military base and the presence of ISIS 15km away. Peter challenges the listener when he says that the hopes of the Iraqi people rest primarily with us – that they are willing but not able. He suggests that our concern as Christians may stir us to ‘pray for these people and raise children to be aware that there are people who are needy.’
Upon reflection of his time in Lebanon, he also notes, ‘My presence there spoke to them more than the work I did.’ He was sick for half of his time due to water contamination and the flu. This experience led him to realise the importance of ‘giving yourself’ in solidarity with the people. Peter eventually taught English and peace education to children at the Fr. Frans van der Lugt Centre, named after a respected Jesuit priest who was murdered by extremists on 7th April 2014 in Homs, Syria. He recalls a very deep and moving experience when he saw kids from different faiths pray in silence for peace in their countries.
The 35-year-old firmly believes that the ability to learn is more important than something that is already perfect. Peter Girasek SJ claims that this is a key point of Jesuit spirituality, similar to how God related to Ignatius at the early stage of his conversion, ‘as a schoolmaster deals with a child.’
Pope Francis recommends us to ‘live in a certain discomfort’ so that we can reach out to refugees. The Slovakian priest strongly agrees with this wisdom, saying ‘it’s sensitivity of heart really.’ Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) is in touch with this sensitivity through their broad-minded outlook: there are Muslim and Christian staff members and many have also fled to save their lives. Fr. Girasek warns against the danger of black and white perceptions, such as branding all Muslims as extremists or all Christians as persecuted.
Peter’s vocation story began in high school where he felt moved to join the priesthood. He remembers an important conversation with his father, who advised him to join a religious order for the benefit of community and spirituality. Upon listening to him, Peter realised that this was something he desired but that he didn’t know how to articulate it. Later, a Jesuit visited his parish. They spoke with each other and then met up regularly in the city of Peter’s high school. He felt at home in the tradition of St. Ignatius and at 18-years-old, he entered the Society of Jesus. Since then, he has enjoyed the freedom and responsibility of Jesuit life and has relished the adventure ‘to find God in places where he’s not seen.’
When the Slovakian was appointed Socius (assistant) to the Provincial at 32-years-old, he was given a lot of responsibility for the care and guidance of his fellow Jesuits. He expresses humility by saying that he was ‘the spare one or the one who was available’ but also that he was willing to learn. He appreciates that he was missioned to do this post rather than as a result of his own agenda. His Provincial’s trust was very important and an awareness of God’s presence behind it all.
Here in Ireland, Peter saw God’s presence in a new way. He met a lot of people from the Slovak community, where he once more offered his presence and humanity. He learned that God is always far more generous with gifts and that he needs to ‘let go and accept the newness.’ Fr. Girasek will be specially remembered at the tertianship for his bee-keeping abilities and for the production of his home-made Jesuit honey.