To be a delegate for formation is to be in charge of the formation of our scholastics, but also to be formed ourselves. And this is exactly what we had the occasion to do during these days.
That’s what the European delegates for formation had in mind during their annual meeting in Taanayel, Lebanon, from the 2nd till 6th of April, 2017.
Organization of Jesuit Formation
First we talked about how Jesuit formation is organized across the Provinces, and how it should be organized, both structurally and in terms of content. A survey on the quality of our formation centers was discussed. We discussed how to advise our Provincials about the English speaking formation after the closure of Heythrop. We also touched the question on how to integrate Child Protection into our programs.
We as delegates were in Lebanon – at some 15 kms of the Syrian border to be exact -, and therefore we could not but address the burning issues which are right at the borders of Europe: the place of Islam in our societies and the tragedy of the refugees. We felt we were a little bit at the frontiers of which Paul VI spoke at GC32. Two days were spent on these subjects, during which we received a realistic yet hopeful idea of the challenges Europe is facing.
What image do we have of Islam?
On Monday 3rd, for example, the results were presented of a survey the delegates conducted amongst scholastics: what image do they have of Islam? It was expected to be critical but there was also the desire to look, in an Ignatian way, for the (many) good elements in what Islam and Muslim culture can offer.
In the afternoon we went to visit Saint Joseph’s University in Beirut, – indeed, the only Jesuit University in an environment dominated by the Muslim culture. There the rector, prof. Salim Daccache SJ, talked about the historical role of the University in Lebanon.
Afterwards, we had an interesting encounter with the Provincial of the Near East Province (PRO), Danny Younes. Appropriately he called his Province – running from Morocco to Turkey, mind you – ‘a Province for the Arab world’. Many possibilities are offered for scholastics to spend a time of service - some months or regency or longer still - in the Near and Middle East, also for those who do not master the Arab language.
The next day, April 4th, we met M. Mahmoud Youness (Lebanon), who gave us a brief overview of the history of Islam theology. For centuries the central question for Muslim theologians was how to relate human responsibility and freedom to divine transcendence. It did remind us of traditional debates in Christian theology about nature and grace, or on the place of good merits and justification through faith. Later that day Fr. Salah Boujaoudé SJ (PRO) gave us a realistic insight in political Islam and the ideological sources of terrorism and Muslim extremism (Muslim brotherhood, Salafists, Shiites, Jihadists, etc.).
Despair and pessimism - Light and hope
Especially the latter could have given rise to despair and a deep pessimism on our side. However, in the afternoon, we also discovered rays of light and hope. Mr. Melhem Khalaf (Lebanon) told the story of association which organizes interreligious youth camps, an initiative which was started at the height of the Lebanese civil war of 1975-1991. Another source of hope were the retreats ‘Points of Light’, inspired by the Spiritual Exercises. It proved that spirituality can play a positive role in interreligious dialogue. These retreats are open to Muslims and Christians, and the texts which are used for the retreat, are drawn from several traditions, including the Qur’an.
The most impressive moment for many of us was the visit of a camp for Syrian refugees. We could see how they accommodated themselves in difficult circumstances after 6 years of conflict. JRS helps to set up small schools and formation centers. After all this time many tents have made way for small wooden houses, with a little gas stove. Live goes on as good or bad as it can. It is more survival than life, so it seems. Most refugees depend on chance seasonal work for their livelihood. One cannot but wonder what all those lives could have been, what the future of the children will be.
Indeed our time in Lebanon was to form Ours and to be formed ourselves. Many thanks to Nader Michel (PRO), to Alessandro Manaresi, delegate for European formation and to the steering group for formation in Europe.