In a wide-ranging interview at the recent Province Assembly, Jesuit Provincial Tom Layden spoke at length about how the Society in Ireland is preparing for the changing conditions of coming years.
“We have to adjust to a different age profile,” he remarked in his conversation with communications director, Pat Coyle. “The issue for us is: How can we maintain a presence in various parts of the country and at the same time be realistic?” He took the western seaboard as an example.
“It seems to me that, going into the future, we wouldn’t be able to sustain two separate communities, one in Galway and one in Limerick. But we could have one community for that part of the country, with some Jesuits living in Limerick, some living in Galway, and then gathering together for Eucharist, for a meeting, for sharing, and for a meal, once every week, once every ten days.”
This approach, Tom said, was in keeping with the continuous encouragement he has received from Father General Adolfo Nicolás to “be creative in our way of thinking”. It is a question of seeing “how we can maintain a presence in a place where we have a tradition – a rich tradition in Limerick and in Galway, in education, in pastoral ministry, in the work of the Spiritual Exercises, and in all kinds of other works.”
“We want to keep those links with local people in so far as we can,” he added. “But also we need to have Jesuit communities that are viable, and one needs a certain number for a community to really work.”
The same approach – striving to keep up valuable traditions while being realistic about what is feasible – would hold for Northern Ireland, Tom noted, where it would be difficult to sustain two separate communities, one in Belfast and the other in Portadown.
On the subject of inter-provincial collaboration, Fr Tom stressed that this would be a critical feature of Jesuit life in the years ahead.
“Our future isn’t just going to be us working among ourselves, by ourselves. Our future is going to be with the brethren in Flanders, Netherlands and Britain… We can’t go it alone in any of these provinces. We all face the same reality – dwindling numbers, ageing – so we need each other. We have to move towards the future in a prepared and planned way. We need to do it in a discerned fashion.”
That process of discernment has already been evident in various collaborative activities. In the summer of 2015 some Jesuits from each of these north-western provinces of Europe came together, first in Heverlee, Belgium, then in Clongowes, Ireland, to share their experience of their various ministries and to reflect on the apostolic priorities of the Society in coming decades. More recently there have also been regular meetings of an interprovincial communications commission, informal meetings of Jesuits from the four provinces working in the intellectual apostolate, and occasional ‘joint-consults’, meetings of the provincials and their chosen advisors.
On being asked about the difficulties which would have to be overcome as Jesuits of the four Provinces learned to work together, Fr Tom stressed that the matter should be viewed positively and with optimism.
“I recall the first Jesuits – the different personalities, the different languages, the different cultures, the different senses of national identity, and yet they were one in the Lord. They were one in that common desire to help souls, to be ministers of Word and sacrament, to be present among people.”
And what, more than anything else, gave Jesuits that sense of being “one in the Lord” was the tradition of prayer which they have inherited from St Ignatius.
“St Ignatius has given us a common language, that when we pray about a passage in scripture, when we pray about our own experience, we talk about consolation, we talk about desolation, we talk about movements of the spirit, we talk about being led by God and being touched by grace. (…) Ignatius has given us something that really works. It works among us even when we’re different – maybe it works among us more powerfully when we’re different.”
This is not to say that there are not issues – fears, prejudices, anxieties – that must be overcome. These have to be faced squarely and realistically.
“We have to speak our truth, the other provinces have to speak their truth, but behind the words we have to hear the call of the Lord to be like those first companions of Ignatius, to transcend and move beyond our differences of nation and of culture, to respect the differences, but to realise that the common mission is more important.