This month, members of the four NW European Provinces met in Nijmegen despite wintry weather. Snow and ice prevented Liam O’Connell, John Humphreys and Alan McGuckian from leaving Dublin. Barney McGuckian’s flight was one of the few to make it into Amsterdam that Thursday. The meeting place was a former monastery of the ancient Windesheim order which grew out of the Devotio Moderna. Alas, modern devotion has cooled, and the sisters, with decreasing numbers, sold their premises to Radboud University of Nijmegen (pictured here) a few years ago for one guilder. The historic old building is now used by this flourishing Catholic institution as a conference centre. Read Barney’s report on this historic conference.
On reaching the small nearby railway station of Ravenstein around midday, three of us, Tom, our Provincial, Michael Smith, superior of St Aloysius, Glasgow and I discovered that we had been travelling on the same train unbeknownst to one another. Michael Holman, British Provincial, Chris Dykhoff and Hugh Duffy the other non-mainland Europeans got there by Eurostar via Brussels later in the day.
The purpose of the meeting was to reflect on our mission and on our community life- the lights and shadows of our own experience and where our communities and provinces are in terms of both themes. After being warmly welcomed by Jan Bentvelzen, the Dutch Provincial, we settled into our routine, a combination of prayer in common, Mass each day led by someone from a different province, time for personal reflection, sharing in small groups and plenary sessions. Altogether we were almost twenty participants including the four Provincials, Tom, Michael, Jan, whose English benefitted from a stint in Hatch Hall in the late 1960s and Alfons Swinnen, Flanders, who was more comfortable speaking French so I was assigned to his small group. Discussions were based mainly on two documents; a talk given in 2009 by a former French Provincial on “Our Mission in Europe today” and some unofficial suggestions about community life that had been aired during discussions at GC 35. In his talk Fr Francois Xavier Dumortier, now Rector of the Gregorian University, described the situation in which we find ourselves today in Western Europe as “unprecedented”. The dominant culture or cultures are becoming increasingly foreign to the fundamentals of Christian faith; we are diminishing in resources at every level of the Society and the Church at a time when we need them most; we are facing major socio-political problems and a world where Christianity is becoming more and more marginalized. At GC 35, instead of producing a decree on community life, the Congregation asked Fr General to consider producing a set of “Guidelines for Community Life”. The Congregation Fathers made about 40 suggestions outlining (a) a vision of Jesuit community (b) some principles of community life based on experience around the whole Society, e.g. building good community is the responsibility of all, not just the superior (c) good practice e.g. periodic evaluation of the quality of our community life (d) defining the role of the superior e.g. the kind of man who can begin to build his community “where it is at”.
The first talk, given jointly by Michael Holman and Tom Layden, was on the North-West Europe project. The basis of Michael’s talk was his almost six years as British Provincial and that of Tom’s his period as Delegate for Interprovincial Collaboration and Planning for our four provinces which came to an abrupt end when he was appointed Irish Provincial in July 2010. This talk made me aware for the first time of the “Birmingham Group”. After a meeting of the four provincials a couple of years ago at the common Novitiate in Birmingham, it was decided to seek ways of mutual cooperation in our apostolate. Given that the novitiate was up and running and already had a history, it was an auspicious place to start. In the light of this success were not other joint ventures worth considering? One of the practical fruits of this collaboration is the new Four Province Catalogue. Kevin O’Rourke who has now replaced Tom as Delegate is trying to push things forward in four areas: promoting partnership with others, both religious and lay, in our Mission, thus avoiding unnecessary duplication; getting the most out of our media and communications networks; further developing our Mission work abroad (which already includes cooperation with France); considering new apostolic initiatives.
LOOKING OUT, NOT IN
The Provincials have made the choice to focus on the needs of NW Europe rather than being overly preoccupied with internal Jesuit structures. The three priorities identified here are (1) placing ourselves at the service of faith in announcing Jesus Christ and his liberating message (2) reaching out to young people and (3) making the message credible by the witness of our lives –“it matters how we live community in a world of individualism, offering our services to the poorest and in NW Europe many are poor, economically, spiritually and socially”. The mood of the meeting was that we should be open to more change and to availing of surprising new opportunities for evangelisation now emerging, confident of the backing of the Holy Spirit for these initiatives.
It was only when back in Dublin that I adverted to the fact that our discussions on community life had taken place not far from the birth-place in Brabant of St John Berchmanns. Regarding his well-known maxim mea maxima mortificatio vita communis, Joe Veale once reminded me that vita communis means “common life”, not community life! I am still trying to tease out the implications in practice of that distinction. After extended discussion of the “highs and lows” of community life in our four provinces we discovered that we face the same challenges everywhere. One participant considered that our entrenched individualism did not make for good community living. The mood of the meeting, however, was that we could and ought to do much better. We should all commit ourselves to “creating a safe, confidential environment that facilitates personal sharing”.
On the final morning in our small groups we were asked if any image came to mind after our days together. Personally it brought back happy memories of my first days in the novitiate. I was once again among about 20 men that I had never met before yet who seemed to share the same hope as myself. We were all open to involving ourselves in the great project initiated centuries earlier by Ignatius, which is as relevant to contemporary concerns as it was in the Europe of the 16th century.
Before the final Mass on Saturday morning, we had a plenary session entitled “Looking to the Future”. Jan Peters, the Honorary Vice-President of the International Federation of Catholic Universities was invited in to chair this session. A quick glance after his name in the new catalogue will indicate how eminently qualified he was to chair this or any other discussion about the future of Europe. One suggestion was that we discern some area of need in NW Europe that we could address in a way that would involve all four provinces. This might take the form of something completely new or perhaps a development of something already being done in one of our provinces but in which the other three might get involved.
As I was leaving Ravenstein earlier than the others to catch the Amsterdam train, I only half listened to Michael Smith’s cheery parting shot. “You may be making the mistake of thinking that things cannot get worse”. I actually was. A friendly young Dutchman opposite me in the carriage was checking plane times on his lap-top. When he heard that I planned to fly with Aer Lingus at 5 15 p.m. he grinned and said “Cancelled”. There was more to come. As the train stopped in Utrecht, he told me that it was going no further and that all trains to Amsterdam had been cancelled. Among the stranded thousands, I texted Alan and asked him to check the new catalogue for a Jesuit telephone number in Utrecht. In less than 15 minutes Peter Kopen, a Jesuit Psychosynthetic Therapist with a practice a few hundred yards from the Train Station was standing in front of me with an offer of a bed in the attic of the house where he lived. After a meal in his apartment with his friend Johann Christopher, the verger in the nearby Dutch Reformed Church, a few phone-calls and a guarantee of a seat on the Dublin plane the next day, I was ready for a good night’s sleep. The New Deal was kicking in already.