The Jesuits run Russia’s only Catholic secondary school, where love is shown more in deeds than in words
Language often fails us. For instance, the school where I currently serve is located in the middle of Siberia. When I arrived here in September to take on leadership of Tomsk Catholic School, the only Catholic secondary school in Russia, I asked what seemed to be an obvious question given the local climate: “So, what’s our policy regarding snow days?” Quizzical looks. After further attempts to clarify what we do when it snows a lot or when temperatures drop to –40 degrees Celsius, I realized my words were not translating to a cultural reality. The reality is, there are no snow days in Siberia. Life just goes on.
“Preach the Gospel always; when necessary, use words.” This popular saying, often attributed to St. Francis of Assisi, consoles me in those moments when I cannot find the needed words. As a Jesuit, I have been blessed with various international experiences, many of which have required me to struggle to minister to people in languages foreign to me: Jamaican patois; Spanish for three years of my first studies in Bolivia and Chile; the great diversity of dialects and traditions gathered on any given Sunday doing Hispanic ministry in the United States. Maybe I should also count my years of high school teaching, as the minds of adolescents often seem like a far-away land.
Tomsk Catholic School in Siberia, run by the Jesuits, is the only Catholic secondary school in Russia.
Now I find myself with a new linguistic challenge: Russian. It is not an easy language to master, and I’m not getting any younger, but I have the confidence of knowing I’ve done this before and that the human brain really works wonders regarding language acquisition over time. I remind myself of the importance of nonverbal communication and also the old saying that people do not care how much you know until they know how much you care. High school students are particularly intuitive about whether you care about them or not. Therefore, my first and main task is to love those with whom God has placed me: students, parents, faculty and staff. That is the Gospel message.
All is new and opportunities abound. The local ordinary, Bishop Joseph Werth, S.J., of Novosibirsk, asked the Society of Jesus to assume responsibility for the parish and school of Tomsk in 2014. (The school educates students from kindergarten through 11th grade.) Given the recent transition, anything Ignatian is still relatively unknown in the school. Many of those concepts we take for granted in American Jesuit schools—the Spiritual Exercises, the Examen prayer, Kairos, community service, being men and women for and with others, finding God in all things—have not yet been woven into our school’s culture. Moreover, there are cultural obstacles. The word “Jesuit,” for example, has negative connotations in Russia, dating back to 19th-century disputes between Westernizers and Slavophiles. Furthermore, connecting with the global network of Jesuit schools is complicated by distance, expense and the fact that few of our teachers speak any language other than Russian. Where to begin?
My new motto has become, “Preach the Exercises always; when necessary, use words.” Until we build up a base of common Ignatian vocabulary and principles, we search for creative ways to help others experience the graces of the Spiritual Exercises through the language and religious imagination they currently possess.
My new motto has become, 'Preach the Exercises always; when necessary, use words.'
One easy entry that makes sense to all is cura personalis, care for the whole person. Ignatian humanism has tremendous potential to heal the deep wounds that 70 years of dehumanizing Communist atheism inflicted upon society here. The state was god and the center of Communist creation. Ignatian humanism, indeed all of Catholic social teaching, prioritizes instead the dignity of the human person, created in God’s image.
And so, on Day One I began the shocking new practice of standing at the front door each morning to greet everyone by name. For the entire first week, staff kept coming up to me with worried looks: “Is there something we can help you with?” I would say that I just like saying hello to people. By the end of the first month, my daily presence became a new norm and a chance to further humanize the institution.
Many of those concepts we take for granted in American Jesuit schools have not yet been woven into our school’s culture.
While morning prayer in the past consisted of reciting an Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be, I began shaking it up with Ignatian prayers and stories about Jesuit saints. Most important, I began giving Ignatian formation presentations at each quarterly faculty meeting, knowing that teachers can provide the multiplier effect. The real miracle of Jesuit education happens in the classroom through that student-teacher relationship.
Through all this, I trust that God’s grace and my enthusiasm for Ignatian spirituality will more than make up for those moments when words fail me. God always comes through when I ask for help. And so we continue to build up our mission team, knowing that Christ must be the principal and foundation of any efforts that will have meaningful, lasting success.
Discernment is ongoing as we navigate new terrain. Each step forward opens up new conditions of possibility. New companions on the journey appear in God’s time. My search continues for Russian speakers in our Jesuit schools who can share with our faculty and parents their experience of Ignatian education and how it has been a transformational experience for them. (Know anyone?). Gratitude fills my daily Examen prayer.
On these cold, dark, snowy days, as I watch our students trudging into the building all bundled up in their snowmobile suits, I laugh that the scene looks like a stream of little cosmonauts arriving from a frozen planet landscape to our international space station. And, yes, life goes on. Kids are kids. Smiles and laughing fill the air of the coat room as boots are clumsily pulled off, mittens drop, and the irrepressible goodness of God’s creation shines forth. Here we are, again contemplating the fourth week’s grace of divine love from the Spiritual Exercises: “Love is shown more in deeds than in words” (No. 230).
Jesuit School Spotlight is a monthly feature focusing on Jesuit middle and secondary schools from around the country—and sometimes beyond. It is underwritten in part by Jesuit high schools of the USA East Province of the Society of Jesus.