A Positive Difference

A religious sister friend has recently returned from a pilgrimage to sacred sites in eastern Europe. Among her most vivid impressions is the memory of a church in Gdansk, Poland. While the outside of the building had been fully restored and the church offered a full schedule of Masses and devotional activities to the crowds who attended, the inside was pretty much a shambles. Though clean and fully functioning, it was cluttered with building materials piled up against bare brick walls. There were makeshift electrical connections, and boards were carefully positioned to cover holes in the floor. Despite the disorder, the congregation didn’t seem to mind the situation. It had become used to “making do” and was resigned to the slow progress of rebuilding.

In many ways, that church and its congregation are symbolic of the Catholic Church in much of eastern Europe. During the last century it suffered the devastation of war, followed by systematic and efficient persecution. Religious leaders were killed and imprisoned, buildings were destroyed or confiscated. Spirits were crushed. Only after the fall of Communism in the last decade has it been possible for Catholics to regroup out in the open and rebuild.


For the Jesuits of eastern European countries, this new freedom has provided exciting challenges and opportunities.

In Lithuania, where the Jesuit presence goes back to 1569, the desire to nurture human dignity and mature faith has led to an emphasis on scholarship and excellence in Catholic education. In 1991, one year after the nation’s new independence, the education authorities invited the Jesuits to take back the state school next to their church in Kaunas. The Jesuit churches had been used variously as warehouses, a museum of atheism and a firing range. The task of refurbishing a Soviet-styled educational facility into a Christian school was daunting, and its accomplishment is regarded as the miracle of post-Soviet education in the country. A similar story began in Vilnius in 1995, where the Jesuits undertook to repair the broken structure of their pre-Soviet facilities. Now that school is fully functioning as the only Catholic high school in the capital. More than a million dollars was spent between 1991 and 1997 to begin this rebuilding work, thanks to the generosity of donors throughout the world.

The miracle project of the Polish Jesuits is the school in the Baltic port city of Gdynia. During the war, not only were buildings destroyed, but all the teachers were killed by the Nazis. Somehow the memory of past heroism lasted, and the alumni were so forceful in their request for a return of the Jesuits that in 1994 they returned and by 1997 were holding the first classes in a new building. It is very much an ongoing project, and the first headmaster joked that it is like an Internet Web site that is “still under construction.”

These rebuilding stories resemble accounts of the late 1940’s in Germany. The Jesuit Canisius College in Berlin was shut down by the Nazis in 1940, and its former buildings were destroyed in the Allied bombing. In 1947 a visionary Jesuit educator, Father Henry Klein, begged, borrowed and schemed in British-occupied Berlin and managed to get the title to a property on the edge of the Tiergarten, one of the city’s showpiece parks. With a generous personal gift from Pope Pius XII, whom he approached in person, he was able to pay for the site. With the help of alumni and students, he and the other Jesuits literally cleared away the rubble and started the rebuilding. Today Canisius College is again one of the most prestigious schools in Germany.

Jesuit educational projects in Slovenia and Croatia have also taken on a new life. In Zagreb, the Jesuit School of Philosophy is the only such Catholic institution in the Balkans. Founded in the last century, though its roots go back to 1699, the faculty was able to stay open during the Communist era, though its scope was limited. In those years it served as a place of reflection and research, where alternatives to the official Marxist ideology could be considered. It managed to be a partner in dialogue with state institutions, and that dialogue influenced the beginnings of a somewhat more flexible Marxist group called Praxis. Since the fall of Communism, it has been open to lay men and women and enrolls students from Ukraine, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina as well as from Croatia. A miracle in Zagreb has been the preservation of their 200,000-volume library through the chaos of the last 60 years.

But books and buildings alone do not make education; students and teachers are needed. Students abound. In Zagreb, for example, enrollment is expected to double in the next few years. In Lithuania, the acceptance ratio at the Jesuit schools is about one in six. But while religious orders in eastern Europe are experiencing a resurgence in vocations, it would be unwise to predict that the numbers are such that Jesuit teachers will again be available in the numbers once known. Therefore, it will be necessary to find new ways to extend the influence of Ignatian pedagogy. Many observers close to the scene agree that an important sign of life in the church can be seen in the various movements that have grown up. Whether based in the charismatic renewal, in devotional practices or in social service, these all have the common characteristic of being attractive to youth. They fill a need and satisfy a spiritual hunger. In no way anticlerical, they usually have priests or religious as moderators or even as members. They are often the seedbeds of vocations to the priesthood and religious life. And they are often the venue where a deepened sense of the spiritual and a firmer commitment to the church is fostered.

As crucial as institutional bases are to Jesuit education, new times demand new approaches. The most innovative approach might well be the International Jesuit Educational Leadership Project. Although this initiative is not limited to eastern Europe, it has already had a profound effect there in the inculcation of Ignatian pedagogical methods. Designed and led by Vincent J. Duminuco, S.J., of Fordham University in New York, the project has as its goal the formation and development of lay and Jesuit educational leaders in methods of reflection and communication in accord with an Ignatian way of proceeding, spirit and spirituality.

Teachers who are already capable in imparting knowledge and skills are invited to engage in reflection on values, including moral values, and to communicate these to others in their schools. While this may seem quite basic in an American context, it is revolutionary in those societies that have spent a half-century in a state-sponsored moral vacuum. In Poland, the animator of the project is Wojciech Zmudzinski, S.J. Based presently in Warsaw, he has, with the help of facilitators and translators from Poland and other countries, held sessions for nearly 10,000 teachers over the past three years. The project has caught the attention of local education authorities and even the Ministry of Education. The number of teachers who participated in the first three months of 2001 equaled the entire count for 1998. There are presently 48 trainers on his staff, and their most recent outreach has been to Ukraine.

But the activity in Poland is only a part of the I.J.E.L.P. identity. The first of the seminar training programs was held in Rome at the Pontifical Gregorian University. The current 24 interns come from Egypt, Malta, Slovenia, Lithuania, Poland, Croatia, Moldova, Russia and the United States.

In Poland, where the project has had an immense influence, the multiplier effect is already being felt, as more and more teachers and administrators become interested in the values reflection that is provided. And teachers are not the only ones involved. Already sessions have been provided for journalists, social workers and, at the request of Cardinal Glemp, for the catechists of the Archdiocese of Warsaw.

The reappearance of Jesuit education in eastern Europe has been measured and reasoned, very much adapted to the new century and changed circumstances. One testimony to its effect has come from a student at the Jesuit school in Vilnius. “Our school has nurtured in me a strong respect for dignity in every individual—my teachers, fellow students, parents, neighbors—everyone can make a difference. By excelling in all that we do, my classmates and I make a positive difference every day—here in Lithuania and everywhere.”

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