The new Center for Ignatian Spirituality will help preserve Fairfield’s Jesuit mission

The new Center for Ignatian Spirituality will help preserve Fairfield’s Jesuit mission

Over 200 invited guests were on hand at the Kelley Theatre on Nov. 23 as Fairfield University launched a new center — The Center for Ignatian Spirituality of Fairfield University.

The mission of the center is to train spiritual directors and supervisors in the Jesuit tradition, to serve the campus community and the Diocese of Bridgeport. It will become the home of a program for the development of spiritual directors that Fairfield currently sponsors in North Carolina.

Joining University President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J., in announcing the launch of the center were the Most Rev. Frank J. Caggiano, Bishop of the Diocese of Bridgeport, and the Rev. John Cecero, S.J., the Jesuit Provincial of the newly formed Northeast Province of the Society of Jesus, the Rev. Paul Holland, S.J., rector of the Fairfield Jesuit Community, and the Rev. James Bowler, S.J., director of Ignatian Spirituality Programs at the University, among others.

In his remarks to the audience, Fr. von Arx emphasized that the launch of the center was in step with a larger movement within the Society of Jesus — the recognition that the future of the Ignatian charism will rely increasingly on lay companions.

“I would suggest that the foundation of this Center for Ignatian Spirituality is a truly inspired recreation of our institution here in Fairfield County, dedicated to meet the needs of today’s world, and to do so with our lay collaborators with an unparalleled mutuality of trust and dedication to mission,” Fr. von Arx said. (See Fr. von Arx’s address at right).

Bishop Caggiano in his remarks said that he was “absolutely delighted” and grateful for the “great graces that will come from this center.” He said all of us have a “deep, abiding hunger” for God, that we are all looking for a spiritual path — and to be part of a community with a unity of purpose. “I can foresee this center will help feed your hunger and mine to see the face of God, to discern the path we must walk and do it together as brothers and sisters.”

The move to found the center comes at a moment of dramatic transition in the Society of Jesus — as the number of actual Jesuits continues to decline. In response, last year the Jesuits merged the New England and New York provinces into one Northeast Province. Worldwide, there are 17,000 Jesuits, down from a high of over 60,000 in the 1960s.

“We founded this center to promote Jesuit spirituality and keep the presence alive,” said Fr. Bowler, who will direct the center. “The Jesuits just aren’t there, so how to establish an institution to keep our spirituality alive on campus — that was the challenge.”

The idea was born in conversations between Fr. Bowler and President von Arx, as well as Deacon Patrick Toole  who serves in the Diocese of Bridgeport. Deacon Toole is the chair of the center’s Advisory Board.

“The center would not be a reality without the vision and support of Fr. von Arx,” Fr. Bowler continued, “It really comes from his desire to see that it happen.”
Among the programs that the center will offer are a 10-week directed Ignatian prayer experience, and the full Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius — a five-month program of daily prayer and spiritual direction. The center will also train directors and supervisors, as well as offer communal spiritual experiences for parishes and other groups.

Currently, there is a pilot program in which Fr. Paul Holland, S.J., the rector of the Fairfield community, is leading a seminar in Ignatian spirituality for the parishioners of St. Mary’s in Ridgefield, Conn.

Said Fr. Bowler: “So many people today think that they don’t get enough out of Church, but if you sit down and ask people about God and their experience of God, then a whole world opens up to them. That’s what spiritual direction in the Ignatian direction is designed to do — and in that way, it leads people to the heart of the Church.”

ON THE FOUNDATION OF THE CENTER FOR IGNATIAN SPIRITUALITY

by President Jeffrey P. von Arx, S.J.

In April of 2010, I was fortunate enough to be among several hundred Jesuit educators in Mexico City to hear the Superior General of our Society, Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, put forth his vision for the future of Jesuit education and ministry.

Very much to the foreground of his reflections was a clear-eyed acknowledgment that the Society of Jesus was in the midst of one of the greatest challenges it has ever faced — the decline in the number of Jesuits, and the certainty that the mission of the Society would have to be carried forward, increasingly, by the priesthood of the laity.

This challenge — and a variety of models and approaches to address it — has been at the forefront of the Society’s efforts for decades. However, we have now entered a moment when the transition is fully upon us. The election of Pope Francis and the characteristic of his papacy — his emphasis on the laity and his decentering of the traditional clerical institutions is surely more evidence that this is the direction that we are heading.

The Church of the future will be a Church that will depend on a dedicated and committed laity — informed by the traditions and institutions of the past — but increasingly encouraged to lead the Church into the future, to set the priorities, and to find new expressions to meet the spiritual aspirations of a rapidly changing world.

We are certainly very aware of this at Fairfield.

In Mexico, Fr. Nicolas raised this issue and offered a truly hopeful prognosis. He said: “I can honestly say that this is one of the sources of my hope in the service of the Society and the Church. If we Jesuits were alone, we might look to the future with a heavy heart. But with the professionalism, commitment and depth that we have in our lay collaborators, we can continue dreaming, beginning new enterprises and [moving] forward together….”

And then he went on to say that the way we must address the future is very much in the same spirit that Ignatius and his companions — all lay people to begin with — addressed the future almost 500 years ago — with the same energy, the same creativity and freedom, and ask the same question that Ignatius and his companions asked in their age, specifically: “What are the needs of the Church and our world, where are we needed most, and where and how can we serve best?

“I am inviting all Jesuits,” he continued, “to re-create the Society of Jesus, because I think every generation has to re-create the faith, they have to recreate the journey, they have to recreate the institutions. This is not only a good desire. If we lose the ability to recreate, we have lost the spirit.”

I would suggest that the foundation of this Center for Ignatian Spirituality is a truly inspired recreation of our institution here in Fairfield County, dedicated to meet the needs of today’s world, and to do so with our lay collaborators with an unparalleled mutuality of trust and dedication to mission.

The purpose of this center is to ensure that the unique charism of the Society of Jesus is preserved and indeed will have the structure that it needs to thrive and grow into the coming century — serving the Diocese of Bridgeport, and the Fairfield University and Fairfield College Preparatory school community.

The mission of the center is to develop and support spiritual directors in the uniquely Ignatian tradition — guided by the Spiritual Exercises and the history of Jesuit spirituality.

It is our hope that through the center, one-on-one spiritual direction, as well as Ignatian spiritual direction and communal discernment opportunities for communities will be renewed and available to members of the Diocese of Bridgeport — including priests, deacons and lay ministers, as well as faculty staff and administrators at the University and Fairfield Prep.

It is worth being reminded that Ignatius himself was a layperson through the deepest period of his conversion and in the earliest stages of his ministry. Indeed, one could make the argument that under the circumstances of his period, becoming a religious for Ignatius was more a matter of practical than spiritual necessity.

Be that as it may, Ignatius’ experience as we know was one of a profound one-on-one relationship with God. He came to believe that God was in fact educating him, personally, “from above,” leading him purposefully step-by-step, from the life of a soldier, to that of a pilgrim, a student, a missionary, an administrator and on and on throughout his life.

It was this experience of God’s immediate guiding presence in the life of each one of us that Ignatius wanted everyone to appreciate — he believed it was true for everyone, and that through a guided spiritual direction — everyone could be brought to this appreciation, and through this, to a deeper discernment of what each one of us is called to do in our lives.

It is this rich, indeed critical, experience that is the essence of the Spiritual Exercises, and it is this experience that is the overarching, animating principle of Jesuit education.

With this new Center for Ignatian Spirituality, it is our hope that this Ignatian spiritual tradition will continue to thrive and indeed to grow.  If history is any guide, we can be confident that this will be so.