By Élisabeth Garant
December 6, 2019 – Since the beginning of his papacy, Pope Francis has repeatedly come back to the importance of processes and discernment in beginning a shift towards change and the transformation of the Church. In doing so, he has contributed to the impetus that the Society of Jesus needed to go back and update the treasures of our spirituality in order to strengthen our apostolic body and the ways in which we respond to the most pressing needs in our world. The Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) for the next decade are the expression of this profound dynamism and the awareness of the importance of these processes. Providing important signposts, the UAPs will help us to discern together the roadmap we can follow at all levels, in all sectors and in all the institutions of the Society.
The Congress held for the 50th anniversary of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat was a stimulating demonstration of how a process of discernment can reform the Society’s engagement through its apostolates in the spirit of the UAPs. For all participants, it was five days dedicated entirely to an important spiritual journey. Though not exhaustive, the few elements that I will cover in this article can either confirm or inspire the processes that we should live out in our Province and institutions in the coming months and years.
Sustaining the process through diverse approaches
Finding the right balance between the different dimensions of our approach was vital to the success of our process of discernment in view of our mission: memory (remembering where we have been), interiority (sustaining the source of our engagement), relationship (giving particular care to sharing and the encounters which sustain our apostolic body, as well as the fundamental relationships with the marginalized, young people and the Earth) and, finally, intelligence (giving enough time to a “radical” analysis of the roots of an issue and not just its symptoms.) It was the bringing together of these dimensions that added to the richness of our discernment.
Acknowledging and celebrating our Heritage
In preparation for our participation in the Congress we were invited, along with the other provinces and conferences, to revisit the last fifty years of our social engagement and highlight the important challenges to its success. At many points during the Congress, this path and this reflection from the bottom-up and from the past were shared with us in many different ways: summaries, videos, conferences, a collection recalling the memory of the Jesuit martyrs, as well as in the moments of prayer, celebration and spiritual conversation on the first day. This step in acknowledging the past was important to the process, helping to better orient us towards the future.
From “making” to “being” the change
In the UAPs, we were invited to make many changes, but the most fundamental was to ask ourselves how our lives could be even more meaningful. Addressing us during an audience, the Pope reminded us that the Formula issued by the Society in 1550 was more the confirmation of a lifestyle than a declaration of intent. It was towards this fundamental shift that the approach of the Congress attempted to contribute.
All the Resource Persons were invited to give presentations that were to be less of an account of what they had been doing, and more of testimonies of the lives touched humanly and spiritually through contact with the poor, young people or the fragility of our environment. The periods of inwardness or personal prayer were also guided by the broad, daring and enriching shifts and reflections in order to encourage this transition. The spiritual conversation groups also allowed us to acknowledge the resonance the words shared in the plenary had in the lives and the engagement of the participants, as well as in the Society.
Collaboration, networking and synodality
The organizing committee also ensured that all the activities, conferences and content did as much as possible to reflect the diversity of regions and forms of engagement across the world, as well as the presence of men and women united for the mission. This allowed us to better grasp the contemporary appearance of the apostolic body of the Society of Jesus, which expresses itself through collaboration, and reflect upon the questions and possibilities that this reality poses in regards to the formation, the ways of moving forward and the methods of governance at all levels and in all institutions of the Society.
Certain speeches also allowed us to better appreciate the power of the experience of networking and how this can make our undertakings more pertinent and powerful. But this also made us more conscious that the mission is overtaking us, even though we were invited to move forward with a multitude of people of different convictions in order to carry it out.
The reflections on collaboration and networking also echoed the invitation to synodality—coming out of the experience of the Amazon Synod— as a way of deepening communion and allowing a more inclusive participation. They also encouraged us to question the ways in which we still exclude others in our own spaces, our resistance to a wider inclusion, and what we lose by excluding others.
Creating new narratives together
The mixed committee (Jesuits and non-Jesuits, men and women) who gathered the results of our exchanges throughout the course of the week, presented the fruits of our discernment to us on the final day as five elements of context and five principal processes to follow. The final process identified by the committee was the importance of creating new narratives in order to better acknowledge or accompany the shifts we have been called to undertake.
It seemed to me that one of the significant examples of this change in narratives was the transformation of our way of talking about God during the Congress. For one, the experience of the faith of the martyrs, which was important to the celebration of fifty years of social engagement, was brought up to date with a magnificent closing prayer, which offered a new narrative. Then, the final period of celebration led by the Congress of Africa allowed us to be touched and carried by another image of God… a God of dance, joy and hope. Here there was a fundamental calling for the participants, the social apostolates and the entire Society of Jesus to embody this new narrative.
Does the social apostolate exist to solve problems? Yes, but above all to promote processes and to encourage hope. Processes that help people and communities to grow, that lead to awareness of their rights, to deploy their skills and to create their own future. (Pope Francis, November 3rd)