"So you work in a non-Catholic school for reasons of faith? That’s a very Jesuit thing to do!" This was the throwaway remark that changed the direction of my life and began my journey into the Society of Jesus.
I was born in Hexham, Northumberland and raised in a Catholic family in the north east of England. My faith, although always being a constant presence, never played a central role in my life until my early-to-mid-twenties. At this time, I found myself far away from home, teaching English in a secondary school in Dakar, Senegal.
With Senegal being a francophone country, I knew that to stand a chance of understanding what was going on at Mass, I would need my English Missal (a present from my grandparents for my First Holy Communion in 1996 which I hadn’t looked at much since). For the first time in my life, as I read scripture I felt God’s word truly speak to me and my circumstances, piercing through the confusion in my life with relevance. In particular, St Paul’s letters stood out as an invitation to ‘convert’ my way of being, offering meaning to areas of my life that were underwhelming or even empty.
As I followed these words, I found a gospel message which intrigued me in the way that it seemed to contradict all of the messages contemporary society told me would make me happy: give yourself away in service of others rather than putting yourself first, treat others as brothers and sisters rather than as competition or as a possession to be used, live a simpler, more modest life rather than wrapping yourself in possessions and comfort. This intrigue grew into wonder as, upon trying to ‘live-out’ these values, I found myself happier than ever, accompanied by a deep sense of joy and fulfilment that I had not experienced before. I now know to call this feeling ‘consolation’ and to put down this counter-cultural reasoning as the mystery of faith, the logic of the Cross.
My attempts to put Jesus Christ first, to live out my life closer to His example, led me to a young adult prayer group back home in Newcastle, where the above-quoted conversation took place. At the age of 26, this was the first time I had ever heard of the Jesuits. I went home to look-up what my friend’s compliment meant and discovered the story of St Ignatius of Loyola, his own conversion process and the inspiring life-stories of the Jesuit saints, his ‘companions of Jesus’, who shared and followed this desire to re-orientate their lives for the greater glory of God’s will and no longer for their own.
A year later I arrived at the novitiate, Manresa House, Birmingham. Over the next two years, when not taking part in the daily life and study cycle of the novitiate, I would undergo many experiences: I made the thirty-day prayer retreat, the Spiritual Exercises. I walked a 250-mile pilgrimage in Ignatius’ footsteps, begging for food and accommodation between Loyola and Manresa. I ran a prayer group and animated the weekly Mass in a local prison, as well as spending three months learning from the inspirational Irish Jesuit Peter McVerry SJ at his Dublin drop-in centre for men and women who are homeless. Overall, I describe this two-year period as a process of becoming more human. Amidst the experiences, I learned how to deepen my relationship with God in prayer, helping me to embrace the invitation to become more vulnerable and humble. The novitiate was even richer for going through the journey alongside six other novices in my year group, each experiencing his share of the necessary difficulties and liberating joys.
On 2nd September 2017, I made my first vows in the Society of Jesus, moving from being a ‘novice’ to becoming a ‘scholastic’. I am currently studying philosophy at Centre Sèvres, Paris, alongside fellow Jesuits in formation from around the world. Despite this unexpected yet exhilarating journey, I find the time to keep up some personal interests, mainly playing football, running, enjoying music, discovering Paris and, of course, allowing myself to be permanently disappointed by the latest result of Newcastle United. I also try to find the time to keep a blog (In Formation) in order to keep my friends and family up to date and to continue to share the experiences of Jesuit formation and the way in which I sense the Holy Spirit continuing to work in my life.
I was born and grew up in the South East of England. After leaving university, I joined the Jesuits at the age of 23 and it took me nine years of training to be ordained a priest in Brixton Hill in 1999, a moment which has always seemed like the turning-point of my life.
I have done a variety of different jobs since then: I worked as a curate in a vibrant parish, learning from more experienced priests and the People of God themselves what priesthood means. I spent some years working in an amazing school in Glasgow where I discovered the joys of ministering to young people. After completing my long Jesuit training, with a year in Latin America, I went on to do doctoral studies in Islamic thought and then to lecture at Heythrop College in the University of London. There I taught a variety of courses, specialising above all on the promotion of better relations between Christians and Muslims. One religion, you might think, is more than enough for most of us; trying to understand two is asking for trouble.
And as no Jesuit does only one thing, I have also given a lot of spiritual direction, helped out on the editorial board of our on-line journal, Thinking Faith, offered days of reflection in our centre (The Hurtado Centre) in East London, and worked in many parishes as an ordinary supply priest. Life has always been full and varied and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
No life worth living is without its trials and I can’t pretend that my Jesuit journey has been an altogether smooth ride; I could only have avoided the discomfort of growing by not growing up! But there is something about making the journey with one’s fellow Jesuits and our many friends and co-workers, people who are honest, grounded in a relationship with God, generous and eager to serve others, interesting and, not infrequently fun, that makes me insanely grateful to God for choosing me in the way He has.
And today I find myself serving as Provincial for all the Jesuits in Britain. This is definitely not something I envisaged happening when I joined! It’s a huge responsibility and it comes at a time when leadership in the Church and, indeed, the world, is in crisis. But I find more and more that if I just keep coming back to Christ every day, in the Mass and in my prayer, in some deep sense it doesn’t matter what job I have been assigned to. He is always there and with the prayers of so many good people, I never feel alone.
The Jesuits I first encountered in books worked in seemingly neglected fields of the Church’s life. From the twentieth century, they were the French Jesuit palaeontologist, Teilhard de Chardin who also reflected on how his scientific understanding was woven into his faith and his experience of God; Cardinal Augustin Bea, who helped Pope John XXIII develop the Church’s ecumenical dialogue to renew our friendship with Christians separated from the Catholic Church; Rutilio Grande, martyred by the rich families and the military in San Salvador because he was an advocate for the rights of the poor among whom he ministered the sacraments and who was instrumental in the conversion of Archbishop Oscar Romero. Before them in the 17th and 18th century, the Jesuits in the Paraguay Reductions protected the indigenous Guarani from the greed and tyranny of the Spanish and Portuguese Colonists. They all showed me that our witness to our faith must be engaged with the needs of the world because God himself had done that when He became human among us. They also showed that one cannot live or witness to Christ on one’s own – it is only possible in communion with others. My Jesuit life shows me that likewise, I can try to live the Gospel only in community and with the support of my brother Jesuits and I can minister as a priest only through the prayers and work of many lay people who also work in the Lord’s vineyard.
The first live Jesuits I met, outside the captivity of books or films, were Chaplains to the University of Manchester. They spoke about God not as “an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person” Jesus Christ, as Pope Benedict would put it twenty years later. They spoke about God as a friend they knew intimately. I learned from them a way of praying which introduced me directly to that deep personal encounter with the Lord, not just telling me that I ought to pray. Although one Jesuit is very different from another (we say that where there are three Jesuits, there will be four or five opinions), and Jesuits more readily identify ourselves as “redeemed sinners” than as plaster saints, all the Jesuits I know have a deep trust that God is at work in the lives of all, usually in hidden and unexpected ways, revealing God’s sense of humour.
When I first heard of St Ignatius of Loyola, at the end of Sunday evening Mass in Manchester’s Holy Name Church, what inspired me was that despite the manifest and admitted vanity of Inigo de Loyola, God had been able to straighten out not just his leg, but his whole person so that Ignatius lived “for the Greater Glory of God and the salvation of the world”: presumably God could do the same for me. My life has turned almost a full circle and I hope that I can hand on something of that deep personal encounter with the Lord’s mercy and friendship.
I am immensely grateful that God did not leave me to follow my superficial desires, which were fairly good and normal, and instead drew me against my superficial desires to serve him and follow him in the Society of Jesus. It reflects my experience of Jesuit obedience through which I have found deep joy in missions which I would not have chosen for myself.
Hello! I’m Emma, the Producer of Pray As You Go. I record and put together the daily reflections and extra resources on our website, podcast and app. I have just completed a full liturgical year here at Jesuits in Britain and I have been hugely blessed with a role that gives me the opportunity to use my experience, passion, and faith to help people meet with God all over the world.
Before starting at Pray As You Go in June 2015, I was busy getting my MSc in Social Anthropology from the London School of Economics, and before that, a BA in Theology from Heythrop College. Whilst all that might sound a little academic-heavy, a lot of my background is also in music. I have worked as a freelance session singer and songwriter for various composers, DJs and charities which has formed a love of a wider variety of music in me. Getting to compose a song for a children’s choir in Uganda with Jubilee Campaign has certainly been a highlight! My experience as a worship leader in Anglican churches from a young age has helped me recognise the important role that music has in drawing closer to God.
Over the past year, working for Jesuits in Britain has been an amazing experience. The Jesuits themselves, and the team they build around them, are all highly creative and full of ideas, which makes it a great environment to grow the ministry of Pray As You Go.
I began working with the Jesuits in Britain in the summer of 2008, six months after the launch of the province’s online journal, Thinking Faith, of which I am now Editor. I had followed the growth of the journal since its beginning, having met the founding editorial group while they were still in the planning stages, and I was delighted when I discovered that they were looking for a new member of the team.
The Church played a big part in my upbringing; I was educated in Catholic schools, both of my parents are Catholic teachers, and we were very involved with our local parish. I went on to study Theology and Philosophy at the University of Nottingham and work in Communications for the Diocese of Westminster, so a huge attraction of the role at Thinking Faith was that it allowed me to bring my faith, interests and experience together.
But there was more to it than that; I felt a deep attraction to the Ignatian vision that informs Thinking Faith and all Jesuit works – that of ‘finding God in all things’, to use an oft-quoted expression. Having read articles on the journal about finance, politics, astronomy, and film and television, as well as the spirituality, scripture and ethics that I would have expected, I knew that this was a unique and much-needed project in which I wanted to play a part.
I have since discovered that these subjects are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the variety of disciplines in which the Jesuits are involved! I had had some contact with the Society previously, but one of the great joys of my job has been to learn about and meet Jesuits past and present, respectively. I am increasingly fascinated by Jesuit history, which I am thankful to have been given so much time, opportunity and encouragement to explore, and I am also continually impressed and inspired by the breadth and depth of Jesuit ministry in the present day. The commitment to the service and promotion of the gospel that I have encountered in my Jesuit friends from all over the world, whether they work in schools or parishes, with refugees or online, is a constant reminder that I am privileged to play even a small part in furthering the mission of the Society.
I began work as the Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) UK from January 2016. This new phase of my life is in some ways the culmination of a lengthy period of reorientation in which Ignatian Spirituality has been a guiding aid.
I joined JRS UK following a short contract with the Rome office of JRS International – work which has taken me all over the world, including the Middle East, East Africa, and the Western Balkans, visiting projects in the field and meeting refugees, staff, and volunteers. Prior to that, I served for 12 years as a Member of Parliament in inner London, including for a while as a Government Minister. My constituency was poor and had very high levels of need, including large numbers of refugees and asylum seekers. My first constituency advice surgery as a young MP brought me face-to-face with a long line of people without immigration status who had been waiting in uncertainty and destitution for many years. As they began to share with me their personal stories, I caught glimpses of the journeys they had made and learnt that the most painful and testing times often began when they thought they had arrived where they were going and would be safe – here in the UK. I don't think I have ever forgotten that night. It made a profound impact on my own sense of vocation to work to improve the system for those who are seeking sanctuary.
Politics exposed me to many areas of public policy and to people from all backgrounds and walks of life. I was the Children’s Minister from 2010-2012, where I had responsibility for special educational needs, child poverty, early years and family policy. Human rights issues were a thread of other work: I ran a campaign to get a constituent released from Guantanamo Bay and also later served on a select committee on human rights. But across the whole of my parliamentary career, I kept returning to issues of migration and housing and specifically to work for refugees. When in Government, I led the negotiations to stop the detention of children in the immigration system and set up a new way to work with families whose applications to remain in the UK had been turned down. In my final two and half years in Parliament, I chaired a group focusing on support for refugees and led two cross-party inquiries – one on asylum support rates (financial support) and the other on the use of immigration detention.
My faith has always been a core part of who I am. Like many others, I have had periods when I have drifted away and then returned. Ironically, it was the dawning sense of responsibility the night I was elected that drew me back to the Catholic Church after one such period of being away. Each subsequent dilemma of public life seemed to call me deeper then as I sought to understand how to respond. But although politics drew me back to faith, faith gradually drew me away from politics. I made the decision to change direction and to leave Parliament while doing the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius in a month long silent retreat in the summer of 2013 – an experience which was deeply formative on many levels. I left the retreat with no idea about what would come next but trusting the certain sense I had been given in prayer that I was being invited to walk away now and do something else. Still unsure of what my long term future would hold, but drawn to working with JRS in some capacity, two years later I took a short term contract with the International (Rome) office of JRS. It felt like a slightly crazy risk for all sorts of reasons; certainly I couldn’t see where it would lead. But it has been fantastic preparation for my new role at JRS UK.
I have been to places I would never otherwise have visited and I have seen projects where Jesuits are really living and working at the edges of the world. The work has given me a solid grounding in the wider organisation of JRS and allowed me to see with my own eyes the countries and conditions many refugees journey from. But most importantly of all, it also confirmed my sense that working with refugees and working with JRS is really how I want to serve God. I feel incredibly blessed to have the opportunity now to work for JRS UK and to bring the leadership skills I have gained elsewhere to an organisation that I admire and care about deeply. I dare say that there will be many challenges ahead, but I have a sense that I am where I am called to be next, and that gives me some joy.