First ideas of a new provincial

Damian Howard Sj
Damian Howard SJ

Fr Damian Howard SJ shares his vision of what the years ahead hold in store for the Jesuits in Britain.

It was back in May 2017 that I first heard that Fr General had appointed me to take over the running of the Jesuits in Britain from the start of September. The provincial of the Dominicans was very surprised when I told him that the Jesuits give incoming superiors advanced notice. “They just elected me at a chapter meeting and I had to take over there and then!” he complained to me. Dominicans are clearly made of tougher stuff than us…

What to do with all that time? Rather than just fret, I decided to talk to people, Jesuits and others, about the direction the province needs to take. Of course, to do that, you need to know the province well; it’s a large and complex animal and there are all sorts of exciting things taking place in it which most people never hear about. Not a few illusions fell by the way side as I discovered that some of my more creative ideas had already been had by others and implemented!

Still, I managed to put my finger on a few new goals and priorities. 

The clearest challenge we face in the province now is that of vocations. If the mission of the Jesuits in Britain and their many co-workers is to continue, we need to welcome a new generation of young men to share our life and mission. It’s true that we have more men in formation now than we have had for quite a few years; the first thing I did as provincial was to receive the vows of three fine novices in Birmingham. What an encouraging way to begin! But we still need to do more.

I have been impressed by the urgency of the refugee crisis and how many people in the province are already taking action to help. We have our own vibrant project in London, JRS UK, led by Sarah Teather. It is growing quite quickly so as better to serve the needs of the many asylum-seekers who find themselves both marginalised and the object of suspicion, even hatred. Two of our schools, Stonyhurst and Mount St Mary’s, are looking to sponsor Syrian families so as to resettle them locally. And some of our Jesuit communities have welcomed refugees into their homes, as you will read in this magazine. Everyone, it seems, agrees that this work, which Jesuits have been doing for so long, needs to be a priority into the foreseeable future.

As a string of devastating hurricanes wrought havoc in the Caribbean, my mind turned to the ecological crisis which we all know about but find it hard to respond to. Pope Francis led the way with his encyclical letter, Laudato si’ (2015) and Jesuits all over the world have responded by setting up new initiatives to help the Church to care for the planet which sustains our existence. The Holy Father calls for a “bold cultural revolution”. He realises that our way of life has to change radically and this can only happen over the long haul.

I think it’s time the Jesuits in Britain also put their weight behind his idea. I am looking to set up a new work (name to be decided) which will focus on helping young people to access the education and formation they need to become faithful and competent missionary disciples with a deep commitment to promoting ecological justice. The province is blessed with intellectual, spiritual, human and financial resources to make this happen. It will be a challenge for us but I have had so many people greet the idea with excitement and enthusiasm I feel sure we can meet it.

One of the calls of GC36, which took place a year ago in Rome, was for increased collaboration between Jesuits working in different sorts of apostolate. This is clearly an urgent need. These days, we can’t help people to live out their faith unless we understand the challenges they face in their families, at work, as citizens, as human beings. The world is changing fast around us: new media, new technology, unsettling developments in the world of politics… It’s getting harder to feel at home in the world we are preparing for our children. We need our experts and scholars, Jesuits and those who work with us, to pool their insights and help us to serve the mission of Jesus Christ more effectively in such a bewildering environment.

And that conversation needs to include the many men and women who give the Spiritual Exercises in one form or another. They spend hours of their lives listening to the many people who come to them to deepen their relationship with God. They know the stresses and strains of modern life and the spiritual resources which make it liveable.

I have also been struck about how much we all live our lives online, our consciousness constantly moulded by the articles we are urged to read and by the torrent of fleeting images that distract our attention. The province has itself been online for over a decade. Thinking Faith and Pray-as-you-go are well established “cyber-works” with a good reputation. We have also worked hard to make sure that our website reflects who we are and enables us to reach out to more people. But there is always more to do. In particular, I would like it if we had more capacity so that we could produce resources for our schools, parishes and chaplaincies.

None of these things will happen, of course, without God’s grace, so please spare a thought for me as I take up my new task and commend the whole province to the prayers of Our Lady.

This article first appeared in the winter 2017 edition of Jesuits and Friends which can be read in full online