European Primary School Heads reflect at JECSE Conference.

In Loyola 80 colleagues, mainly Principals of Primary Schools, met this January for the JECSE Conference around the theme of ‘(How) can we talk about Jesus in the secularized and multi-convictional context of today?’

In its conferences for different audiences JECSE has been focusing on this question during some years now. The diversity of our European context is enriching but also challenging, and for some – both within and outside of our catholic tradition - the very mention of Jesus becomes an obstacle to dialogue, a reason to disengage. Yet the spiritual journey of Ignatius of Loyola shows us how the encounter with Jesus dramatically changed the course of his life. The still, life-giving dialogue with Jesus, engaging all the aspects of his person, opened Ignatius’ eyes (conscience) and heart (compassion) and mobilized his intelligence (competence) to act in a diversity of ways, always adapting to meet the needs of time and place (commitment). The aim of JECSE’s conferences over the last years has been to show how Jesus, far from being an obstacle to dialogue, can become the source and the means of an open, deep and fruitful dialogue in a multi-convictional context.

The Society of Jesus: what's in a name? 

One of the keynote speakers assisting the Primary Heads in their reflections was our well-known speaker Fr Adrian Porter sj, British Education Delegate. He talked about why the Jesuits didn't name their Society after its founder but after Jesus Himself: what is the spirit behind this, how is this connected to Ignatius’ own spiritual development and to the dynamics of his Spiritual Exercises? And how can we, in creative fidelity, build on this tradition in our own context?

Answering questions risen, Adrian emphasized how at the moment there is a real danger of religion being driven out of the public sphere, but how all philosophies deserve attention and how we should not be afraid to stand up for this. And how religious education often ends up teaching only abóut religion, while we should instead dig deep down into our shared human experience, because it is at this deep level that we meet each other in the universal human themes.

Nurture a sense of interiority in young children

Danièle Granry, our second keynote speaker, told us how, during the her years as Principal of the pre-school and primary Jesuit school ‘Le Caousou’ in Toulouse, she devised - together with  her pedagogical team - a program to nurture a sense of interiority in young children. A program stimulating their breathing, senses and emotions, and thus enabling that 'intimate understanding and relish of things' that Ignatius speaks of. And which – even in a time where religious role models have vanished and we have to translate the gospel from scratch - allows children to meet Jesus as ‘the man with the mission’, and to grow in knowledge of self, of others and of God.

Her story is also one of personal commitment as a Principal, to create a loving community together with all colleagues in the school, and on behalf of this to really dedicate time and attention to all children. Interiority, she explained, is the cement that holds everything together, building an atmosphere in the school that can help open up to many things in life.

A symbolic object

During the conference inspiring morning prayers helped us to deepen the awareness of our mission in our European schools. As celebrating Mass in the Conversion Chapel, and spending some meditative time in this and other special places in Loyola, helped participants discover the spiritual meaning of the venue. Bernard Peeters sj invited us to express our experiences through a symbolic object we then offered on the altar during Mass.

During one of the evenings Enric Puiggrós sj and Oscar Santos, presented MUNDOSI Producciones, a group linked to the Society of Jesus that wants, through the use of everyday language, to communicate the values and experiences of Ignatian spirituality in dialogue with society and especially young people. They prepared an engaging musical performance for us, as a testimony of songs that can be live giving for young people.


Besides there was a rich and much appreciated presentation of workshops, so participants could learn about valuable programs and share best practices. Our keynote speakers generously made double contributions as Danièle Granry offered a lively, creative approach on the same conference theme of talking about Jesus.

And Adrian Porter presented the Examen, a key tool in the spirituality of St Ignatius for becoming aware of one’s experience and the way in which God is present in our lives. He explained how the practice of attentiveness that it encourages leads to the art of discernment, another core aspect of Ignatian spirituality. Participants looked at how the Examen can be used individually and in schools, and how it can become more than a review of the day.

During a wonderful workshop on Godly play, by Spanish teachers and official Godly-play-narrators Itziar Barrenetxea and Miguel Martínez Bruneti, we could experience for ourselves the deepening effect of this means of spiritual direction and discovery based on the principles of the Montessori method and Christian worship, aiming to present the stories of the Bible in an imaginative way. The Godly Play approach helps children explore their faith through these narratives and through giving a free and personal response to them.

Spanish teachers and pastoral coordinators Antonio José Gordillo Romero and María López Castellanos introduced participants with great enthusiasm to the Spanish ‘Lineas de Fuerza’ program, giving ‘guidelines’ (with a pastoral team of teachers and Jesuits working in EDUCSI, the commission for the Education apostolate of the Spanish Province) for presenting an annual Ignatian motto to all the schools in the network in Spain and Portugal. Around this pastoral motto they create all kinds of activities for both primary and secondary education, and a lot of materials to make this motto alive: posters, videos, songs, celebrations, tutorials, prayers and materials for different campaigns like Ignatian weeks, Peace day and Solidarity weeks.

Since the schools in the Southern Belgium Province adopted and further developed a similar program, Bernard Peeters sj presented this variation during the conference as well.

Transformation Model to become a real 21st century school

One of the workshops was repeated during a very interesting visit participants could make on the last day of the conference, to the Jesuit school in San Sebastián. Amaia Arzamendi, former Principal of this school and now Education Delegate for the Spanish North Zone, and Regina Ariceta, Project Manager, presented their Transformation Model to become a real 21st century school. They explained the strategy developed ‘to dream the Jesuit school of the future’ and to turn those dreams into reality. They showed the transformation of the pedagogical project in terms of curriculum and organization of the schedule and the new organization of the teams of teachers.

Participants making the school visit were warmly welcomed by current Headmaster Jon Arruti, and they could see the wonderful transformation of the learning spaces in the primary school - and even the visionary rearranging of the canteen - with their own eyes. Most admirable is the way in which the management team is step by step building this project together with all their colleagues, honoring the process and learning on the way; a truly innovative work of ‘co-creative leadership’!

Likewise, another group of European Primary School leaders was welcomed at the school in Durango by Principal Eva Rodriguez. It was a great opportunity to get to know their educative program. After a brief explanation of the main projects that support our common mission in this school, participants visited the Nursery school, Kindergarten and Primary school classrooms and they had the chance to share the morning with teachers and students.

My sincere gratitude goes to all colleagues who contributed to this conference and to our precious learning community.