Jesuit Mission Band Redivivus
Several years ago (I’ll keep this vague) I was at a meeting of a group of young Jesuits (I’ll keep that vague, too) who were called upon by their superiors (again, vague) to do some important discernment. The question that was put before us was: What might be some new ventures that the Jesuits, specifically young Jesuits, might do for the church, for the People of God? Where might the Spirit calling us? We spent the better part of a weekend engaging in what is called a “communal discernment,” a combination of discussion, prayer and decision-making. It took us quite some time, and we were very serious about our task.
In the end, we came up with something surprising: resurrecting the old Jesuit practice of the “mission band,” those traveling groups of Jesuits who used to go from parish to parish in days of yore, preaching the Word. In fact, we suggested that these new mission bands could minister specifically to young adults, teaching them the insights of Ignatian spirituality. By the end of the weekend, we young SJs were delighted to have arrived at something that seemed innovative (few Jesuits were doing this regularly, as far as we knew), true to our history (as I mentioned), practical (particularly since it didn’t require too many Jesuits) and of great use to the People of God. Everyone was excited about the prospect and some of us even volunteered--at least among ourselves--to participate in the venture if it was accepted by the higher-ups.
But the response from some of our superiors (again, I’ll keep this vague) was rather less than enthusiastic. “Mission bands?” one Jesuit practically shouted when I told him what we had discerned. Then he burst into laughter. It was seen as a hopelessly antiquated idea. Who would want something like that? In any event, after our weekend-long retreat, the idea went nowhere. I remember being frustrated that what seemed to be the work of the Spirit was being thwarted.
Well, guess what? Apparently the Spirit blows where it will. Because, in a different form, the mission band is back. And it’s a great success. Last weekend I participated in a retreat sponsored by the Apostleship of Prayer’s “Hearts on Fire”, a new Jesuit venture run by Phil Hurley, S.J., which reaches out to young adult Catholics across the country. The initial rollout was last year, with the mission band traveling mainly to cities in the Midwest, and this year the team of young (and youngish) Jesuits is hitting the following cities: Washington, DC., Philadelphia, Charlotte, Baltimore and Richmond.
A few months back Fr. Hurley invited me to participate in their visit to Philadelphia’s Old St. Joseph’s Parish, the oldest Catholic parish in the city. Thanks to their energetic use of new media (Facebook, Twitter and email of course) and old media (ads in parish bulletins) over 60 young adults (and I mean real young adults—people in their 20s and 30s, not in their 50s and 60s) gathered together for what was about the most enjoyable weekend I can imagine. The weekend before, 100 showed up for their gig in D.C.
The weekend’s schedule is easy to describe, but I don’t want to spoil any surprises for any young adults who might go. But in brief, it’s a well-thought-out combination of talks on Ignatian spirituality (the Exercises, the examen, Ignatian contemplation, discernment, desolation and consolation, etc), faith sharing, Mass, Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, confession, and breaking bread. (As an added benefit to me, I got to brush up on my Benediction skills.)
In addition to Phil Hurley, this year's team consists of Mario Cisneros, SJ, a PhD student Boston College; Rob van Alstyne, SJ, Sam Sawyer, SJ, and Sean Powers, SJ, Jesuit scholastics all; who were assisted that weekend by Jim Hederman, SJ, the vocations promoter for the East Coast.
The guys might be embarrassed if I praised them individually so let me just say this: One of my Jesuit brothers, with a great singing voice, strummed his guitar during a low-key late-night “coffee house,” and earlier in the day helped us understand discernment of spirits with the image of a rushing current. Another offered the memorable (and heretofore new, at least to me) metaphor of a disastrously spilled cup of coffee as a way of grasping the effects of sin. (He spilled it in front of several Jesuit provincials and…well, go to the talk to hear the rest.) Another made the best use I’ve ever seen (anywhere) of “new media” in a spirituality talk when he turned to, of all things, GoogleEarth and Youtube to illustrate two key meditations from the Spiritual Exercises. Another offered a touching, and instantly classic, explanation of the Sacred Heart that he heard from a fourth-grader one day. And another helped me more fully appreciate imagination in prayer when he noted that Jesus himself used imagination by, in essence, asking people to imagine things as he spun out his parables. There were a lot of “Wow” moments for me. And, as several young adults told me, for them as well.
My advice to young adults in those cities is simply: Go.
At the end of a busy day, I gave a talk on St. Ignatius Loyola to the young adults and the parish at large. (It was great to be in Philly, too, where everyone understand my accent.) We had fun talking about the ways in which Ignatius's life intersects our own lives. Anyway, during a discussion on the importance of friendship in the spiritual life, I read from one of the letters of St. Francis Xavier. In this famous letter he described how he cut out the signatures of his Jesuit friends, from their letters, and carried them with him “as a treasure.” All of a sudden I got choked up. I was thinking about how happy I was to be working alongside my brother Jesuits; how God calls talented, inspired and inspiring men to religious life; how delighted I was that so many young adults were invited into a deeper relationship with God that weekend; how grateful I was over the success of this exciting new apostolate; and, most of all, how amazing it was that the Spirit simply cannot be contained.
James Martin, SJ