In the 1980s, in the wake of so much disturbance and upheaval, two small communities were founded in the north, one in the flashpoint town of Portadown, one in Belfast. The Centre for Faith and Justice had been established and the Jesuit profile was altering as some strong voices emerged among us – Peter McVerry’s in particular – influencing all of us and advocating more or less radical social change in Ireland.
Our falling numbers reflected a wider vocations problem in the Irish church. Religious orders, including our own, were asked to help – Gardiner St and Galway became parishes and we assumed responsibility for one of the parishes in Ballymun. Apart from ‘earthing’ us more securely in local communities, this contributed to a growing involvement in the diocesan church and much greater closeness to diocesan clergy. The contribution of Jesuits to priestly formation in Belfast and Maynooth and in the communications office of the Dublin diocese – the latter at a time when the abuse scandals were beginning to engulf the Church – was eloquent testimony to how far trust had grown.
Today, as our numbers continue to fall and as more houses close (Rathfarnham a few decades ago, along with some of the temporary addresses assumed in the era of ‘small communities’, and, more recently, Belvedere, the Crescent, John Austin House) and despite the grave problems facing Church and country alike, morale among us remains surprisingly high. ‘Irish Intellectuals’, along with ‘Dutch Humourists’ and ‘Italian War-Heroes’, used to be mockingly described as either so many palpable oxymorons or else as three of the smallest volumes in the world. But, in recent decades, many Irish Jesuits have made significant contributions to the cultural and intellectual life of the country in written form. Micheál Mac Gréil’s continually updated sociological surveys, Michael Paul Gallagher’s sophisticated work on faith and culture, and Gerry O’Hanlon’s suggestive recent work all spring to mind. but it is probably invidious to name names as there are now so many admirable candidates for mention.
While acknowledging the possibility of some degree of denial on our part, in addition to the influence of the interior workings of the Holy Spirit in so many, who remain faithful despite the difficulties, a more hopeful consideration, two external factors might be pointed to as part-explanation for our generally good spirits: the development of European consciousness in the province and the expansion of lay-partnership.
Irish Jesuits have played significant roles in the European structures of the Society (as well as the JRS in Europe and world- wide) and young Jesuits from European provinces, as well as from further afield, have come in numbers to study or do tertianship here and, more recently, to work in our schools and other ministries. The very sizeable development of lay partnership, emerging long since in the schools, is one of the most striking features of the province today. It confers many benefits – educating us about ourselves and about still much-neglected lay perspectives in our Church, extending our reach, ensuring the future.