As mentioned in my previous post, I have recently spent eight weeks in the company of Jesuits, both on retreat and on pilgrimage. In many ways – and perhaps not too surprisingly – it has been a bit of a revelation. Hearing familiar stories from “the other side” can be quite an eye-opening and mind-broadening experience. How so?
Coming from an English Protestant background, I was aware of the historic Protestant view of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits), dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. This view saw Jesuits as being the Pope’s shock troops, dedicated to undermining the Protestant Reformation in England and Wales and seeking to return its population to the true fold of the (Roman) Catholic church. In an age which saw any Catholic as a threat to national cohesion (there were penal laws against Catholics), Jesuits were seen as the worst threat. Many of the priests who sought shelter in the homes of landed Catholic families (many of which had priestholes to hide them from the authorities) were Jesuits, born to English Catholic families and educated on the Continent before returning to minister in secret.
The thing is, that while many Protestants were martyred in England under the reign of Mary, so, later under Elizabeth, James and the Commonwealth, were many Catholics. On one day during my retreat we commemorated the “Welsh Martyrs”, Welsh Jesuits who had suffered being hung, drawn and quartered for their faith and ministry. We were reminded that meeting as we did several centuries earlier would have been a huge risk for all concerned (and what would have been the position of an Anglican priest caught in this company, I wondered?). I found that hearing the story from “the other side” was disquieting and very challenging. How much baggage do we actually carry from the communities that form us? What are the negatives we unconsciously absorb and project onto others?
The Jesuit priests I met during my eight weeks were all very humble, spiritual men. They all seemed to have a real desire to follow the path of Jesus and to be concerned with practical care of the most vulnerable in society and with issues of social justice. The same is true of their female religious counterparts, and of other, non-Jesuit, priests and religious I met. I feel privileged to have been able to spend time with them and look forward to continuing my ecumenical connection with them.