Studying theology at 8,675 feet

POST BY PHarrison

Philip Harrison SJ, far right
Philip Harrison SJ, far right

Perched high in the Colombian Andes, the city of Bogotá basks in strong sunlight and is battered by rain in equal measure. It is home to one of three centres for theological formation in Latin America that train young Jesuits preparing for life as a priest or a brother. In this crucial stage of formation, the aim is to cultivate a thorough understanding of our Catholic faith, in such a way that it can give meaning and hope to those we will meet in the many situations in which Jesuits live and work.

The context of our mission here in Colombia is one of great social inequality and a violent conflict that for fifty years has disfigured the natural beauty of the country and the tenderness of its people. The Society of Jesus is dedicated to the work of discovering the new configurations of justice and reconciliation which will make peace possible. In the last year, the peace agreement between the government and the main guerrilla force has offered a glimmer of hope for the future. Studying theology here at this decisive point in history has been an opportunity to accompany ordinary people as they struggle to understand the implications of the Gospel in the new Colombia which is rising to her feet.

The academic study of theology takes place in the Pontifical Xaverian University, which was founded in 1930 but traces its roots back to the establishment of papal faculties in Colombia in 1623. The theological training includes the study of systematic theology, pastoral theology and sacred scripture, and above all the development of new forms of pastoral action and reflection in the wake of the Theology of Liberation. The Faculty of Theology welcomes students from four continents, each bringing a unique cultural perspective to the table.

The city of Bogotá has one of the greatest gaps between rich and poor of any city in the world. 10,000 displaced people arrive here every year fleeing the violence, so it offers vast opportunities for social reflection, spirituality and pastoral work in parishes, schools and universities. At Christmas, Easter and during the holidays, those in formation are sent on mission to communities throughout Colombia to accompany people affected by poverty and violence. These experiences ground our reflection in real life so that rather than a merely academic knowledge, we cultivate a felt knowledge of theology, understood from the perspective of those in greatest need.

It is during theology studies that the landscape of the whole of Jesuit formation comes into view. The novitiate grounds us in a spiritual way of life, philosophy in a way of thinking, regency in a way of acting, and theology in a profound knowledge of our faith. These layers of formation build a cohesive vision of the world which points us towards the horizon of a mission yet to be defined. While the shape of formation for each Jesuit is different, what unites us is a gradual process of integration. On one hand, this is the integration of each Jesuit into the Society, through the friendship that binds us together and the adoption of a shared way of proceeding. On the other hand, integration is an inward path that frees us to use our distinct gifts so that we may be united in word and action, living with a greater authenticity before God and before others in community and mission.

For those Jesuits called to be priests, the Arrupe Month is time of preparation for priesthood that consists in prayer and shared reflection about priestly ministry and the life that goes with it. Jesuits from the three formation centres in Latin America met in El Salvador to rediscover this special ministry in the Church and make a definitive vocational discernment. We visited sites connected with the martyrdom of Blessed Oscar Romero and the Salvadoran Martyrs, the witness of their lives and death setting a standard by which to live as a priest, loyal to the absolute requirement of justice in the service of faith, which is so close to the heart of the mission given to us by the Church.

The 36th General Congregation speaks of Jesuit communities as homes apt for the Kingdom of God. With the longest formation of any religious order, it is in community that we make sense of who we are becoming and are bound together as followers of Jesus. It is there in our daily lives together that we encounter the sign of our transformation, which prepares us to be evangelists in a world that badly needs to rediscover the values of the Gospel so that we may all be reconciled in the Kingdom of God.

Read about how Philip spent a Triduum like no other in a remote Colombian village:

This article first appeared in the 2017 Summer edition of Jesuits & Friends