European Encounters of Jesuit Alumni: “Contemplating, acting and bonding”

When I was part of the organizing team of the VIII World Congress of Jesuit Alumni held in Medellin back in 2013, my father, who is not a Jesuit Alumnus, asked me something that has been on my mind ever since: “What is ‘that special thing’ that makes a guy from Hong Kong want to spend four days travelling to be in a place for less days than those travelled… What is it that you guys (the Jesuit Alumni) have that motivates that feeling of brotherhood that is almost surreal?… Is it business opportunities that open for you, is it a religious pilgrimage that brings you together… what is it?”

I have spent more than three years trying to figure out an answer that is so dual that it seems like stupid, but is the best way of describing that “Je ne sais quoi” which makes us one of the non-official largest networks in the world, that “thing” that makes us rather unique, sometimes misunderstood, sometimes envied, but most of the times appreciated and even admired: “The Ignatian Formation, the Ignatian Spirituality”

This September I had the opportunity of visualizing my father asking me once again the same question, as I was coordinating the logistics of the European Encounters of Jesuit Alumni, held in Rome, which was also the framework of an Extraordinary General Assembly of the World Union of Jesuit Alumni (WUJA). And, more than ever, I came to the conclusion that one thing is for me certain: if Ignacio de Loyola and his founding friends were to come again to spend time with us, they would feel proud to see that they managed to build a structure that it is one of the few which can jump over religious, geographical, ethnical, cultural, social, political or language boundaries. And that was made possible by their unique formation in values.

I felt the power of the Ignatian bond since my experience in the preparation of the Encounters, in which we held skype meetings of the organizing team, and it was so strange, that just after the first of these meetings, I felt like talking with life-long friends, despite the fact that I had only met some of them three years before, for some hours, and some others I had never spoken to in my life.

Once in Rome, the European Encounters of Jesuit Alumni were basically God proving my point several times, as, in every moment, every of its activities gave me the chance to experience this brotherhood once again.

On the first day, on Wednesday September 14th, the first contact between the new arrivers was fulfilled with spirituality, during the general papal audience, in which we could see ourselves as a drop in this ocean called catholicism. The participants to the Encounters could get the spiritual “vibe” that the Vatican offers, and shared their faith and spirituality with thousands of pilgrims and believers who gathered to watch and listen to the Holy Father on Saint Peter´s Square, in the frame of the year of Mercy. We were inspired by the message of Pope Francis, who said: “Even today we hear the Lord calling the discouraged, the poor and the little ones to Himself and telling them they can always rely on God” based on the Gospel by Mathew´s passage which quote Jesus´ words: “Come to me all who labor and are burdened, and I will give you rest.”

During the afternoon, some of the attendants had the opportunity of being guided through the Ignatian places (Chiesa del Gesù, Chiesa Sant’Ignazio and Camerette di Ignazio di Loyola, St Ignatius´ final living space) by no other than the WUJA president, Alain Deneef, who wished to share a bit of his time with the attendants of the Encounters, and share a passion of his, the Jesuit history. I felt the warmth when people began to gather and I received a hug from Mercedes Rey, one of the attendants, who I had met in Spain during the Spanish Federation Congress, and she said: “Hola Pipo (that’s how friends, including WUJA members call me) … qué alegría volverte a ver!!!” and I was not the only one receiving hugs and greetings.

This activity was also replicated on Thursday and Friday afternoons, with the aim to get in touch with our Ignatian roots and relive the spiritual and day to day experiences of the founding fathers of the Society of Jesus and counted with the presence as guides of members of “Pietre Vive”, an apostolic initiative of the Society of Jesus, which uses the architectural legacy, and the churches as platforms for evangelization of the youth worldwide. According to Maria Dellasega, an under 25 alumna from Germany: “This visit is great because it allows us to know where we come from… watching the relics of the Jesuit Founding Fathers.”

At dawn, we had the privilege of attending a mass celebrated in one of the Jesuit “hidden” treasures, the domestic chapel of the “Curia Generalizia” of the Society of Jesus, which was the perfect place from a spiritual perspective, because this is a place that congregates relics of the elder Generals of the Society of Jesus since its foundation.

But that day, the true revelation of the Ignatian values was made, when after having been ditched out of the already pre-paid restaurant that we had booked for the Welcoming Dinner, as the logistics coordinator of the event, I was expecting to be “verbally impaled” by more than one-hundred hungry people… but to my utmost pleasant surprise, the only words the organizers received were those of comprehension, solidarity and sympathy… We were overwhelmed by the mercy expressed by the people. I will never forget the phrase of Stephen Gatt, from Malta: “It does not matter where or what we eat, as long as we can share with our friends.”

Sentiments like these were present during the entire event; the attendants to the European Encounters had the chance of sharing with top of the line speakers on the topic of “Global Migration and Refugee Crisis”, who were selected with the aim of offering a multi-dimensional approach of the refugee crisis, touching the complexity of the phenomenon from their various perspectives, from the need of a welcoming attitude by recipient societies, to the inter-religious interactions and our role as Jesuit Alumni facing this problem, which touches all of us.

The root causes and challenges of global migration: Mauro Garofalo, Community of St. Egidio, Head of International Relations, focused on the lack of effective political actions taken from the European countries to prevent the root causes of migration in refugee-generating countries and to increase the guaranteeing of their minimal rights of the migrants both in passage and destination countries.

Acting as Christians: What does the Church tell us?: Fr Josep Buades Fuster sj, Director of Jesuit Service for Migrants – Spain, made emphasis on the call that the Catholic church does to its members to welcome and accompany refugees and to advocate for the enforcement of actions to preserve and guarantee their basic needs and rights.

The two ways for Europe to die: Alain Deneef, president of the Wolrd Union of Jesuit Alumni, but speaking here ad board member of JRS Belgium, shared with the audience his reflexions about the two perils that threaten Europe.

The first is the disorderly arrival of hords of migrants, dislocating the European order, but largely caused by the inconsequence of Europe to tackle the crises that it contributes to trigger or aggravate : economic, political, demographic and climatic.

The second is to lose its values by cutting itself off from the external world and by renouncing to its values which made what it is. He pleaded for a common action of the Europeans to jugulate theses crises on the outside and to convince the Europeans on the inside to clinch by their values, by listening to them, by accompanying their fears, by explaining the stakes, by being firm on the application of the principles decided together.

Integration of Refugees and Migrants in Europe Panel:

Integration and Hospitality: Chiara Peri, Advocacy Officer of Centro Astalli presented a perspective of the situation, from the Institutions who are working on two actions: Welcoming and Integrating migrants, and expressed in a testimonial way, the present actions and future challenges that these institutions face from political, economic and social points of view.

A Trauma – Informed Approach to Integration: Jill Drzewiecki, Mercy in Motion Campaign Development Coordinator at JRS international, presented a more intimate focus on the refugee problem, as she presented the situation of individuals and the implications of the migration process on mental health, and the traumas generated in each stage of their journey, from their displacement, to the journey, and the integration process on the host society.

Islam and the Integration of Refugees and Migrants in Italy: IlhamAllah Chiara Ferrero, Secretary General of the Italian Islamic Religious Community (COREIS) the work that is being made at an interreligious level in order to relate religious principles of migrants and democratic issues in the context of a secular hosting society.

The Jesuit Response: The Jesuit Refugee Service: Father Tom Smolich sj, International Director of JRS International, presented the role that the JRS plays and the mission that it has been developing since its creation under the mandate of Pedro Arrupe sj in 1980. He also enforced the message that the sole action of the JRS and similar institutions in mitigating the refugee problem is not enough, and there is the imperative need of a more commitment by both states, and civil society in general.

The conference room was also the place for a co-exhibition of two artistic expressions which aimed, each one with its peculiar style, to raise awareness of the situation of the vulnerable communities.

The Argentinian Federation of Jesuit Alumni, in alliance with the Argentinian embassy to the Holy See, made a cultural contribution to the European Encounters, through a photographic exhibition of the Jesuits´ work in the Argentinian region of “Boqueron”, considered to be the last standing Jesuit mission in the world.

The Jesuit Refugee Service provided also a heart-touching view on the specific issue of displacement, through the exhibit of the paintings made by Eritrean Refugees in the framework of their “Artist in Motion” program, in which they use art as a way of catharsis and expression of their feelings, and a narrative platform of their experiences as refugees. One of the participants, Monika Smalinskaite, from Lithuania, expressed it well: “I was very moved by those paintings of refugees, they left me biggest impression; still today I have many thoughts about how they feel.”

To know more about the Artists in Motion JRS program, click here.

But this would have only been a group of speeches and presentations without the interaction between these activities with the experiential options that were offered to enforce the received message during the morning sessions through a real life application of the same.

One of these activities was the discussion group, in which some of the attendants could share their impressions and points of view through a dialogue, which counted with the presence of Pep Buades SJ, one of the speakers, and delivered very interesting conclusions, which can all be summarized in the calling that the Church makes to us as Christians, to take a welcoming, accompanying and protecting position towards the people affected by the migration crisis, through their transit and integration processes in our communities. Even more, as Jesuit Alumni, we have the responsibility of projecting the education and the privileges received to give our best effort towards the solution of this crisis, knowing that even the small actions in our daily lives can start making a change.

According to Revathy Rugini, one of the discussion group members, coming from India, “it is a great opportunity to share our points of views and opinions with our companions from different countries, this shows us that we are the same and have a common task in each one of our countries…”

To read the full Report and Conclusions of the Discussion Groups Click Here.

Another of the activities, which had the purpose of complementing the academic part of the Encounters, was the sharing of time with refugees. The attendants to this activity had the chance of meeting and sharing typical Syrian treats with a group of refugees at Centro Astalli, the local center of the JRS in Rome, in an experience that, as Mercedes Puyuelo, Spanish Alumna, describes it: “Moves your emotions and affections, because these are realities which we see as distant, but once we are face to face with them, move us.”

One last experiential option was a tour through “Rome in the Eyes of the Refugees”, in which the group who took this option, could get to see the other side of the “Eternal City”, that which is not shown in tourist brochures, that side of the city which for many becomes invisible among their daily tasks and rushes, and that is common for many European and host nation cities around the world: the reality of the refugees and migrants inhabiting the streets. One of the facts that gave this activity an extra sentimental bonus was that it was guided by Issaka Maiga, a Malian refugee, working for Centro Astalli, who also interacted and shared his experience and thoughts with the participants. “I could notice that the group was very touched an interested… I hope this doesn´t stop there and they go back to their countries at least more aware of these realities and using this experience to help in any way they can to change them.”

Integration and bonding were also important objectives of the European Encounters, and one of the activities by which we achieved this goal was the Festive Dinner, which consisted on a soirée at the renowned restaurant “Alfredo alla Scroffa”, a gastronomic landmark of the “Eternal City”, known worldwide for being the birthplace of the “Fettuccini Alfredo”, which was the epicenter of an evening filled with laughter, multicultural exchange and brotherhood. Some of us were familiar to each other, others were newcomers, as the Japanese delegation from Sophia University, which for the first time sent representatives to an international Jesuit Alumni gathering, Tomoyuki Kogure, and Keiji Mogi. At one point in the evening, the space once filled by sound of people speaking and chatting became the improvised stage of a group of improvised “mariachis” composed by a group of Spanish and the President of the Latin-American Confederation, Andrés Ballerino, who performed as a choir for the lead singer Gabriel Calderon, president of the Mexican Federation, who tuned: “Cielito Lindo” a traditional song among Spanish speakers. One of the guests at the dinner, Georges Dedjibo, from Tchad, expressed that: “It is great as Alumni to have this kind of moments of conviviality and at the same time to speak about our common values, our taste for the easy life and our comfort zone in the world, and if, why not, it would be possible to open everyone’s mind to enjoy his own life outside this comfort zone.”

Monika Smalinskaite also added: “The main thing that I liked in this meeting was the people: so diverse, from different countries, but also, from the same family.”

There is no better way to end a unique and life-changing event, than to spend a Saturday morning visiting the Holy Father inside the Vatican.

After passing an almost airport-like security system located at the right-side pillars of Saint Peter´s Square (the so-called Portone di Bronzo), the group of 173 gathered in an anxiety-filled moment, waiting to be summoned inside. All the present were dressed to occasion, men in their dark suits and ties, some of them in the traditional clothing of their countries, and women in their elegant, still modest dresses… some wearing the old-fashioned and traditional veil over their hair to demonstrate their devotion to God and his representative on earth incarnated in the Holy Father. It was an expectation similar to the one many of us experienced as children, waiting for the Christmas presents… we were all waiting for this spiritual and life-changing gift that life had in store for us.

A Swiss Guard member arrived and led us through an imposing staircase located inside the Prefettura della Casa Pontificia, and then through a corridor which was linked to a chapel full of stained glass and to a couple of rooms that could easily be museums on their own due to the artistic details in their furniture, tapestry and decorations. The group walked in silence and finally arrived to the audience hall (the so-called Sala del Consistorio), a space full of chairs which were taken one by one by the attendants still in silence.

After about half an hour of personal reflection, the awaited moment arrived: Pope Francis appeared and you could feel the happiness in the air… and the energy in the room, indescribable with words. We were having the unique opportunity to meet and greet Pope Francis in person! This was our chance to offer the work done during the week, which we did through an address made by the European Confederation President, Enrique Rebes, and the presentation of a symbolic gift, a painting of an Eritrean refugee (Mefin, an Eritrean refugee in an Ethiopian camp, made this painting in memory of his brother who took the perilous journey to Europe after fleeing forced military recruitment in the framework of the ‘Artists in Motion’ initiative led by the JRS), by the President of the WUJA, Alain Deneef, and Issaka Maiga, a Malian refugee, collaborating at Centro Astalli, and our guide during the tour of Rome in the eyes of the refugees.

The participants could also receive the words of the Holy Father in a personalized speech which was more of a call to “Contemplate and Act” facing the refugee: “I urge you to draw on the joys and successes that your Jesuit education has given you by supporting the education of refugees throughout the world…Together with the Jesuit Refugee Service, put your Mercy in Motion and help transform this educational reality. In doing so, you will build a stronger Europe and a brighter future for refugees.”

To read the full address of Pope Francis to the European Encounter Participants Click Here.

But that was not all; each of the 173 people had the chance of sharing a personal moment with the Holy Father, in which some greeted him and asked him for blessing for them and their families, or their country, others offering him small gifts, pictures of their loved ones and souvenirs from their regions and countries.

One could believe that being such a busy person, the Pope would be trying to shake hands rapidly and move the line in other to leave the room in a hurry… but on the contrary!!! It was amazing to see this person, who has to attend world changing affairs, exchanging words, listening and looking at every one of us as if during the thirty seconds that we each shared with him were the most important to him, bowing to level his eyes with some of the shorter people, laughing… What a proof of humility and charisma!

After having greeted Pope Francis, each person received a souvenir rosary blessed by him and took his or her seat again. It was strange to see the faces of the people which before greeting the Pope revealed in general a mix of excitement and fear; now after the greeting, some of them showed joy through tears, others were in pure contemplation, or just with smiles from ear to ear.

Once the Pope left the room, we all rejoiced and commented what had just happened, in a moment similar to a Monday morning after your favorite team has won a sport match… Only positive adjectives were exchanged in every phrase and comment, and the activity finished with the chanting of the Ignatian song which has become an anthem for the Jesuit Alumni, and which resumes our mission as Ignatians: “En Todo Amar y Servir”.

What better way to give a description of this life-changing event, than to use the words of one of the participants, Mercedes Puyuelo: “There are various aspects which make it important to attend these type of events; one of them is because they put you in contact with other Alumni, whom you end up having a very friendly relationship with and who give you knowledge of their experiences. Another aspect is the topic of the Encounters: We learn and get to know other realities, as well as meet other people very, very, committed with the “frontier”, these people are compassionate, and very, very, generous with their time and know-how. We also had the chance of knowing about organizations, institutions and NGO that are not known in our own communities.

The objective of these Encounters is for us to become each time better people, more committed, compassionate and, above all “In all Loving and Serving.”


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