I had recently arrived in Gallarate. My head and heart were still tied to the teens of the EYM (Eucharistic Youth Movement) of Genoa, to whom I had only recently waved goodbye after a summer camp of community service in Naples. I could have been at the summer camp for young adults in Selva di Valgardena, in Trentino, in the midst of lush and beautiful mountains, typically organised around mid-August. I had attended this camp a few years before entering the novitiate. I couldn’t wait to go back there. And instead, for different exigencies which arose on the journey, here I was, in the periphery between Milan and Varese.
The idea was that I should help out in our infirmary for elderly Jesuits. In practice I found myself, in addition to the service in the infirmary, plucking hens; watering the garden; gathering prunes and hazelnuts in the garden; sweeping leaves away from in front of our Shrine of the Sacred Heart, in preparation for the feast of Our Mother, the Assumption of Mary. I was tired, disheartened, confused. Quite a leap from being with young university students in the mountains, from working on themselves so as to love and serve more God, in a charming place, to having one’s poor legs assaulted by mosquitoes in the garden, just as flowers are by bees.
Returned indoors, I open my email inbox. There’s good news: a new novice has been admitted to the novitiate. There will be others joining him in the new year that is about to begin. It’s time to rejoice at the good news and I notice that in reply to this email there is a link, sent by one of my second-year novice companions, now a scholastic, fresh from first vows by the time I am writing this and soon leaving to study philosophy in Rome. I am immediately struck by the theme, because it concerns the meeting at St. Peter’s held by Pope Francis with the European scholastics, of which I had already heard about. I open it, start reading and am immediately struck by a humourous remark on the cassock, now no longer worn by Jesuits (at least not by the Pope!), which puts me in a good mood. I continue and come across a really interesting comment: tending Jesuits is like tending a flock of toads: one here, one there … An image which makes you smile, beautiful, but which also seems very true.
At first glance, from the image evoked by the flock of toads, one might get the idea that every Jesuit goes off on his own, and it makes one smile very much to imagine it. And then the Pope immediately speaks of a great freedom in being a Jesuit. What joy! But that’s not all. Along with great freedom, we need great obedience to the pastor, “who must have the great gift of discernment in order to allow each of the “toads” to choose what he hears the Lord ask of him. This is the originality of the Society: unity with great diversity” (the full text can be found at the following link http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/speeches/2018/august/documents/papa-francesco_20180801_gesuiti-europei.html).
In the freedom of beloved children, forgiven by Our Lord Jesus, to discern what the Lord asks of each one and to be sent forth in the common mission of the Society: these are the themes launched by Pope Francis to the Jesuits in formation. Themes which we novices have also tried to live during this past year, novices from North-South-Central Italy, from Malta, from Romania, from Slovenia.
The Pope goes on, then, to quote the speeches of Paul VI and Father Arrupe to give other sources of inspiration to the young Jesuits. Finally, he encourages them to remember the key to the Jesuit vocation: “be anchored in the Lord”.
The end of my reading brings me back to reality, but with a different taste. These interventions by Pope Francis console me. They help to grasp various aspects of the life of the believer, in general, and, in particular, of the life of the Jesuit, when he speaks with his confreres.
It’s absolutely true what the Pope had said: Jesuits are like a flock of frogs. Together with my companions of the novitiate, in my small way, I was already experiencing it. Before Gallarate, I had already been: in Slovenia, Puglia for a return visit to family for a few days, Naples with the EYM; and still waiting for me were a course in Italian held in the novitiate for international scholastics as well as a course of spiritual exercises for families in Schilpario, in the mountains of Bergamo.
In all this wandering, we need to know how to find a dynamic equilibrium, even if it is not always so easy and immediate, as I said at the beginning of the article. This is why in the novitiate we do these summer experiments. Without having Jesus in one’s heart, this kind of life would be impossible. Staying with Jesus, the relationship with Jesus, growing in love and intimacy with Him: this was the task entrusted to me by the Master of novices during the Ignatian month of Spiritual Exercises. At the end of this summer I can reread my experience and verify how I met Jesus in my weaknesses and difficulties. And at the end of the two weeks, I no longer wanted to leave Gallarate.
In the infirmary and in the community there, in fact, I’ve had some beautiful encounters with my Jesuit confreres. Each one with many years of the Society behind him, his own uniqueness and beauty, each with his own history and his own diversity, with his own strengths and weaknesses, but as the Pope said, united in diversity in the common mission for the Kingdom of God in the Church.
Also very beautiful were the encounters with the Jesuits, dear to me, with whom I lived the experiences of the EYM and Schilpario. An article would need to be written just for them. But it does not seem to be the case, even though I remain grateful for the fun and depth their presence brought: without them, I don’t know how I would have made it.
Pope Francis I believe has once again hit the nail on the head. I believe his image of a flock of toads for the Jesuits is appropriate (and inspired I would add).
*The cover photo is a painting by Brother Venzo, a Jesuit, found inside the Sanctuary of the Sacred Heart at Gallarate