Sr Gemma Simmonds CJ
Sr Gemma Simmonds CJ

Gemma Simmonds CJ

I am Gemma Simmonds, a sister of the Congregation of Jesus, founded by Mary Ward in 1609 to live religious life on the Jesuit model.  We were called ‘Jesuitesses’ at the time, and it wasn’t meant as a compliment, but that’s another story (which I tell in more detail in a chapter on ‘Women Jesuits?’ in Thomas Worcester, ed., The Cambridge Companion to the Jesuits).  I’m a senior lecturer in pastoral theology at Heythrop College in the University of London, founded in Liège in 1614, around the same time that my congregation were founding houses in the same place.  No one would have imagined at the time that women would ever collaborate with the Jesuits as academic colleagues, but thankfully times & attitudes have moved on since then.

I began life at Heythrop as a student, went on to be the college chaplain & eventually came back on the teaching staff.   I teach Ignatian spirituality and also am director of the Religious Life Institute.  I’m a volunteer prison chaplain (which keeps me grounded in social reality) and a regular contributor to BBC & other radio programmes.  I collaborate with the Jesuits as a teacher, a spiritual director, a specialist in religious life and within the media.  I’ve taught many Jesuit scholastics who come through the college to study theology, and a real joy has been meeting up with them later on as priests as I travel around different parts of the world.  Recently I had dinner with a number of past students while travelling in South Africa, & was able to hear of all the fascinating ministries in which they are currently involved.

One of the most satisfying things I’ve done with the Jesuits has been my involvement in Jesuit Media Initiatives.  I hugely admire this project and all the expertise that goes into it.  The fantastic growth & spread of Pray As You Go is one of the things of which I’ve been most proud, even though I’ve only written a small amount for it and my main involvement was at decision-making level, to enable it to happen and get off the ground.  It’s hugely important to me to help people access the great treasure that is the Ignatian spiritual tradition, and to see the professionalism with which those who put PAYG together and maintain it have worked.

For a number of years I’ve directed retreats and taught on courses in Ignatian spirituality at the Jesuit retreat centre in St. Beuno’s.  I’ve also travelled around the UK as part of teams giving Weeks of Guided Prayer in very different contexts.  A few years ago I gave a first-time Ignatian retreat to officers in the Salvation Army in Canada and recently taught on a training course for Ignatian spiritual directors in Sweden.  Most of those on the course were Pentecostal or Lutheran pastors.  I love the way in which the Spiritual Exercises are so versatile, and such an excellent opportunity for spiritual growth across the various religious and cultural boundaries.