European Jesuits in formation in Lebanon

European Jesuits in Lebanon with the Maronite patriarch
European Jesuits in Lebanon with the Maronite patriarch

Twenty-five young Jesuits from eighteen countries have begun a three-week long meeting in the Middle East.

Mostly from Europe, they also include a Jesuit from Tanzania and another from Vietnam. Peter O'Sullivan is representing the British Province.

A key theme of the meeting is the refugee crisis in the Middle East. This is felt acutely in a relatively small country such as Lebanon, with 4 million Lebanese hosting 2 million refugees from Syria. The group has visited a series of refugee camps close to the Syrian border. Reflecting on these encounters Peter says, ‘We met many people who, with small grants given to them by non-governmental organizations (NGOs), were able to make a small living from technical skill, such as sewing or being an electrician.

The people had a dignity that was undiminished.’

Adding to the complexity, not all the refugees are from Syria. The group visited the Shatila refugee camp, a site of a massacre in the Lebanese Civil War, which still has more than 42,000 mainly Palestinian refugees living in an area of less than one square kilometre. Instead of living in tents, the families live in very cramped high blocks of flats.

In the midst of this, there is some great work being done. Visiting a school run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) in Beirut, Peter explains. ‘When it started, JRS planned to have enough classes for 300 boys and girls. However, 800 turned up. This meant that they had to teach 400 in the morning and 400 in the evening. The school is for all faiths. Next to the school is a social centre that gives psychosocial support to the parents of the children.’

To help them reflect on these intense experiences, most evenings the group listens to talks from various Jesuits or university lecturers on the political, social and religious history of the region. As we can see in the photograph, the group met the Maronite Patriarch of Antioch, who talked to them about how the Lebanese and refugees are changing each other’s lives. Afterwards, visiting Sidon, a historic city where Jesus preached, they made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Our Lady of Mantara (also known as Our Lady of Awaiting). The tradition is that Mary waited for Jesus in a nearby cave until he left Sidon. Such rich experiences will eventually lead into an 8-day retreat in the Bekka Valley.