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By Becky Sindelar 

Fr. Henk Van Meijel, SJ, has a unique vocation story: He’s a father who raised his three children before he became a Jesuit “Father” later in life. In this interview, he shares his unique journey to the Jesuit priesthood and the powerful conversions he’s witnessed through Ignatian spiritual accompaniment. Fr. Henk highlights how Jesuit spirituality encourages us to live in the present moment and walk alongside one another on our diverse spiritual paths. 

You joined the Jesuits later in life. Can you share a bit about your journey? 

I was a mechanic, I owned a repair business, and I raised three children. I was always active in the Church, and as my kids grew up, I became more active. I got involved in Church ministry, and slowly the business became less important. A friend of mine, and a good customer, said to me at one point, “It can’t go on like this.” What he meant was not that I wasn’t doing my work, but that I had lost interest in the business. Money meant nothing to me anymore. 

So, changes were happening. And as I was praying the rosary one day, I heard a voice that told me to go look up the Jesuits. So, I went to my computer and did just that. A few weeks later, I talked to the associate pastor in our parish, and he said, “To be quite honest, Henk, you sound like a Jesuit.” I didn’t know what that meant, but things fell into place from that point on. 

Can you share some of the graces you receive from your ministry? 

It’s the really deep conversions. Meeting people where they are and working with that. Once, a child who had died in a fire 15 years earlier appeared to his mother on a weekend retreat. She had been making her living on the streets of Toronto while her house burned down with her child inside. After all these years, the child came to console his mother.  

One women who was struggling with alcohol addiction came to make a weekend retreat, and something happened — something she couldn’t explain. Her desire for drinking simply vanished. And now she does a lot of work for the Church.  

These are the things that keep me going. It’s not the finances or the meetings. It’s the same for the staff here. We are all energized by the conversions we see. 

We are all energized by the conversions we see. 

Fr. Van Meijel and his team work together to accompany people from all backgrounds.

What does your role as director at Manresa entail, and which parts energize you the most? 

To put it simply: whatever goes wrong is my fault! In many ways, I’m really an administrator these days. Besides being director of Manresa, I’m also currently the acting executive director of Rene Goupil House, our Jesuit infirmary. Plus, I’m the acting local superior of the Jesuit community. There’s a fair bit of business to attend to: bills have to be paid, and people have to get hired. But if that were the extent of my work, I would have run away screaming long ago. I handle a lot of money, but that doesn’t interest me. What gives me energy are the little and big conversions I witness here. 

Although Manresa specializes in preached retreats, we also offer other types, such as 12-step retreats, mainly Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon retreats. People have an opportunity to meet with a spiritual director and share their struggles. Every weekend things happen, and it’s always amazing to learn about these experiences — sometimes big, big conversions, but usually small conversions. And I’m a witness to that. 

What are some of the graces of Ignatian spiritual accompaniment? 

First of all, discernment. People bring with them what they need to discern — it could be how to respond to a difficult marriage, it could be a career change or problems with in-laws, and usually what’s most helpful to them is the experience of Ignatian discernment and being accompanied. This includes listening and clarifying and maybe making some suggestions or asking questions, but it all basically comes down to the Examen (a five-step prayer of reflection described by St. Ignatius). It’s about living today, not getting stuck in what happened yesterday or in what might happen in the future. 

Our task is to make people more aware in order to live in the present moment, in the now. And Ignatian spirituality is very effective in this regard. 

Our task is to make people more aware in order to live in the present moment, in the now. And Ignatian spirituality is very effective in this regard. 

Who attends retreats at Manresa? 

Anyone can. There are Muslims, Hindus, and people from all faith traditions who come to Manresa. People from different Protestant denominations come as well. All are welcome. Ignatian spirituality is universal. 

On Sunday mornings, we have a sharing circle. People from the Islamic tradition have said, “Wow, it all spoke to me!” It relates to how much we have in common with one another.  

 

One of the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus is journeying with youth. Is it hard to get young people to come on retreats? Are there some retreat programs that they seem to respond to better than others? 

Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Jesuits, meets with Fr. Van Meijel

It is a challenging group. Once a year we have a weekend retreat for young professionals that is led by Fr. John O’Brien, SJ. We also have a fair number of high school groups who come during the week. 

People often start to come more frequently as they approach midlife, when they have a midlife crisis so to speak, but young adults also come, even some in their early 20s. There is a great hunger. 

At midlife, questions come up: Is this all there is to life? I’ve been working. I’ve made money. And now what? That’s usually when people who are in their 40s and early 50s start to come to retreats. And they continue to come. We even welcome people who are 90! 

Ignatian spirituality is about meeting people where they are and allowing the Spirit to work. 

 Ignatian spirituality is about meeting people where they are and allowing the Spirit to work. 

 

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