The Jesuits of Canada and their colleagues desire that our apostolic way of proceeding be inspired by the Ignatian approach to spiritual accompaniment. This is expressed in our apostolic planning document Pilgrims Together. As explained in the first article of this series, values such as humility, listening, mutuality in encounter, hospitality, and engagement in an intentional and purposeful process are to be lived out beyond the typical context of individual spiritual accompaniment.
In this article, Fr. Len Altilia, SJ, Provincial assistant for secondary and presecondary education, explains how Jesuits and colleagues journeying with youth are embodying this way of being.
Journeying with youth
Can this spiritual accompaniment model be offered to younger people? Yes, but the way to proceed depends on their age (high school, university, young professionals), says Father Altilia. At the heart of Ignatian pedagogy, as in spiritual accompaniment, is experience, reflection, and action, he explains. Their personal experience allows young people to clarify certain values and questions. Then, reflection on these personal experiences is an important next step. Ignatian pedagogy forms young people so that they have the capacity to reflect on their experiences. All this must finally lead to the ability to feel empowered to make decisions that are consistent with their experience and reflection.
“For younger children and teenagers, we offer an introduction to the spiritual life: we need to give them the tools to recognize their spiritual experience in a very simple way.” At Saint Paul’s High School in Winnipeg, for example, one of the options for the religion course is an introduction to the Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life. “This course gives students the vocabulary to explain their inner experience and a structure in which they can spend time in silent prayer. It’s not complicated, but it’s a valid experience of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius,” continues Father Altilia. The experience is different, more profound, for young university students. “The focus for them is on how to be attentive to the inner movement that is leading them towards their vocational path after their studies.”
Ignatian pedagogy forms young people so that they have the capacity to reflect on their experiences. All this must finally lead to the ability to feel empowered to make decisions that are consistent with their experience and reflection.
The adaptation of the Ignatian approach to spiritual accompaniment, where Jesuits and colleagues really listen to the ones who are accompanied, can be seen for example at the level of the Education of Youth apostolic sector. Indeed, the Education of Youth Commission agreed to undertake a process, now in its third year, that gives young people a voice in the reflection on the implementation of the Universal Apostolic Preferences in the various institutions that comprise the Commission (8 schools, two camps, CJI Youth Outreach, and Mer et Monde). This is the Commission’s response to the 3rd UAP, Accompanying youth in the creation of a hope-filled future. “We have called it The Youth Forum,” says Fr. Altilia.
“The members of the Commission participate in these online sessions, primarily as listeners, to learn from the young people what their concerns and hopes are, and how they are engaging with the UAPs.”
How does it work in practice? “Within each institution, youth interact with the adult leaders to reflect on the implications of the UAPs in their institution and to formulate concrete strategies to integrate the UAPs more effectively into the life of the institution. Twice a year, representatives of these groups meet on-line to share with their peers the fruits of their reflections and planning. The members of the Commission participate in these online sessions, primarily as listeners, to learn from the young people what their concerns and hopes are, and how they are engaging with the UAPs.
In addition to the obvious value of promoting a deeper reflection on the UAPs among the youth in our institutions, there is a further hope for this project; namely, that this group of young people could eventually become a focus group that could participate in apostolic planning in the Province, adding the perspective of the young to the process.”
Being transformed in relationship
Listening to the youth inspired by the Ignatian approach to spiritual accompaniment is also transforming our way of being in the apostolate.
As Fr. Altilia says: “Under the rubric of practising what I preach, i.e., reflecting on my experience of engaging students, faculty, and board members in the process of spiritual reflection leading to action, I find myself growing in an appreciation of the role of a spiritual leader in the apostolate. It goes beyond the traditional understanding of an administrator and moves into the realm of an apostolic leader.
There has also been a shift in my understanding of the work, moving from an institution to an apostolate. I’ve developed a much stronger focus on the spiritual dimensions of guiding an apostolate in service of the mission of Christ. I’ve always known that in theory, but the experience of interacting with students, teachers, and board members in spiritual conversation and apostolic discernment has turned theory into practice in ways that have clearly been blessed by grace.”
“I’ve developed a much stronger focus on the spiritual dimensions of guiding an apostolate in service of the mission of Christ.”
While serving as president of Saint Paul’s High School, Father Altilia had a very consoling experience. Two graduating students, after experiencing the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice (a social justice activity), came into his office and asked him, “Father, can we create a non-profit organization?” “For what purpose?” the Jesuit asked. They explained that after their experiences, they had wanted to do something for the poor and began to distribute second-hand winter clothing to homeless people on the streets. “They were surprised by the intensity of people’s reactions, their gratitude, and that’s when they decided to expand their activities and become better organized. They wanted to create a non-profit organization, called Bundle Up Winnipeg, to systematize the support given to homeless people.” The youth then felt empowered to organize a clothing drive at the school and twice filled a truck with the clothes that they had collected and donated them to organizations serving homeless people. This organization continues its work today.
“It is an extraordinary, wonderful example of the fruits of a spiritual formation based on reflection that leads to action,” concludes Father Altilia.