November 15, 2018 — A high-level intellectual, a historian by training and ex-President of Campion College, the Jesuit university college affiliated with the University of Regina, John Meehan, SJ arrived a few months ago in Montreal, where he joined the Jesuit community at the Residence of the Holy Name of Jesus.
He shares with us his first impressions of his new city, the new Jesuit Province of Canada, and the role that the Society of Jesus can play in developing a ministry of reconciliation.
First of all, I want to say that this is not my first stay in Montreal. Over the course of the past years, I have had the opportunity to visit here four or five times a year. And I have been interested in Quebec current affairs for many years. Obviously, there is a world of difference between just visiting a city and living in it. I should say that I am very happy to be here in Montreal, all the more so in the context of the creation of the new Province, where we are invited to be attentive to unity within diversity.
A significant element of Ignatian spirituality is the invitation to find God in others. And to find God in all things, even in the streets of our big cities. What role might the Society of Jesus and the Church of the Gesù play in this process?
Every region of Canada has, in fact, its own specific features. In Regina, for example, my ministry focussed primarily on post-secondary education (Campion College), but also on reconciliation with the indigenous peoples. In Saskatchewan, indigenous concerns are a significant part of the social discourse, perhaps for demographic reasons (where the indigenous peoples make up 16% of the population of the province).
Are these concerns less present in the social discourse of Quebec? Probably not. I think of the importance of the Oka crisis, and also the “Paix des Braves” in recent Quebec news. Over and above the social discourse and projects, clearly, there is a strong indigenous presence - particularly the Inuit - in the urban setting, in Montreal. I have seen this often while walking the downtown streets between the Gesù and Cabot Square. This strong presence of homeless indigenous people troubles me and grabs my attention. What presence could we have among these men and women?
A significant element of Ignatian spirituality is the invitation to find God in others. And to find God in all things, even in the streets of our big cities. Ignatian spirituality and the directives of the Jesuit general congregations invite us as well to commit ourselves to the service of the poor and to the process of reconciliation. What role might the Society of Jesus and the Church of the Gesù play in this process? How might we provide this presence among the indigenous peoples? Could we mobilize our collaborators in such a process, as well as the students of Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf and Loyola High School?
Since my arrival in Montreal, I have had the opportunity to meet and to visit several organizations engaged in such a presence among the homeless and the indigenous: Open Doors, First Peoples House and the Café de la Maison Ronde, for example. We have to look at how to develop a ministry among the indigenous. Could we propose certain activities to promote awareness of indigenous realities – the Blanket Exercise or sharing circles, for example – at Maison Bellarmine, at the Gesù or even at the Newman Centre of McGill University?
In English Canada, some regions think that the Church is “dead” in Quebec. I don’t believe that for an instant. In many ways, the Church and Quebec society are ahead of the rest of the country on some essential questions. I think of the debates happening here over secularism, religious symbols, immigration, and religious pluralism. You don’t see any of that elsewhere in Canada, at least not yet. This is a particular aspect of Quebec that we can learn from. In this regard, the Centre justice et foi and the magazine Relations are leading an interesting reflection. Could we not be inspired by this to create spaces of encounter and intercultural and interreligious dialogue in downtown Montreal?
The bond between the Quebecois and the institutional Church may have been broken, but I doubt that this is irreversible. Beyond the scandals there are strong underlying bonds, significant pastoral relationships, and above all, above all a presence in the world. It is first a question of relevance.
Quebec is still grappling with the legacy of the Quiet Revolution, that pushed many Quebecois to keep their distance or to be wary of the institutional Church. But not to the point of eclipsing the existential questions, the search for meaning, and spiritual exploration. Last week, I took part in a spiritual retreat at the Abbey of Saint-Benoît-du-Lac. On my way back to Montreal, I visited the Salon de la mort. You certainly saw there a quite commercial element and some artistic offerings of questionable taste (in one of which the artist painted the works using the ashes of a deceased person). I however, was impressed by the richness and spiritual depth of the various speakers, whether it was about palliative care or the mystery of death. Obviously, the process of dying remains a fundamental existential question. And the Quebecois are no exception. Who accompanies them in this spiritual search? How might the Society of Jesus accompany this search for the meaning of the Quebecois? How might we contribute to the reflection on the aging of the population, palliative care, and euthanasia?
In these matters, as in many others, the Society of Jesus could be a presence. The bond between the Quebecois and the institutional Church may have been broken, but I doubt that this is irreversible. Beyond the scandals, there are strong underlying bonds, significant pastoral relationships, and above all, above all a presence in the world. It is first a question of relevance. Think about the work of Pops (Emmett Johns) and Bon Dieu dans la rue. People didn’t get hung up on the fact that Pops was a man of the Church; the important thing was his prophetic presence among the street youth, the excluded, the tortured souls.
I really like the image used by Pope Francis to speak about the Church, which he portrays as a field hospital bandaging the injuries of a wounded humanity, maintaining a presence on what he called the fringes; namely, all those places where the Church is not present or has ceased to be present. That’s where the future is for the Jesuit presence in Montreal, I think. How can we accompany the spiritual search of the Quebecois and of Montrealers today? I haven’t finished my discernment on this matter. So I am trying to listen to the promptings of the Spirit.
I sense a lot of hope and enthusiasm out there connected with this new Province. The Quebec Jesuits are mostly enthusiastic about it. The arrival of 12 new Jesuits in Montreal, five of them novices, has infused new spiritual energy. Of course, you can’t ignore the challenges that this brings. Having said that, I believe that the Society of Jesus could contribute to what Pope Francis has called the spirituality of encounter. How might we initiate a productive dialogue with indigenous peoples, immigrants or Muslims, for example?
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