Can the Church attract young people these days? And are young people still interested in finding their proper place in the Church? This article doesn’t pretend to affirm a particular thesis, more or less optimistic, by way of response; it wants merely to describe a space some young people have entered, and which they insist they cannot do without in their lives.
The Ignatian Youth Days organized at the outset of 2004 in Stara Wies, Poland, symbolize standing on the summit of a mountain you wanted to reach for a long time. The imagery of climbing a mountain works well: along the way you’re embroiled in many adventures, with difficult moments that are sometimes risky. It’s a journey that not many people decide to make, because of various fears or insecurity or simply from lack of will. But those who have the courage experience something of huge value: that this is a trek you can’t make by yourself, that it’s not an aimless journey. But does a young person today feel the need for something more than just not being alone and finding a way of living that gives meaning to life itself?
More than three years ago Polish Jesuits began to elaborate a formation program for young high school students (15-19 years old) which would look to several aspects of their development: self-knowledge, building friendships and acquaintanceships, creating and solidifying a relationship with God on both a personal and communitarian level, recognizing the challenges posed by the modern world and making a commitment to society’s life in proportion to one’s age and personal possibilities, becoming aware of the reality of the Church and preparing to take responsibility for its mission. The whole program is spread across four years and is based on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius Loyola and on Jesuit spirituality. Before long a good number of young people decided to make the program their own, naming it the MAGIS Community. By now six such communities have started, with some 300 people in them; others are in process of organizing. Every community lives its own life, with a definite structure common to all, a program to carry through in the course of a year, its own habits and specifics. The person principally responsible for a local community is its moderator, a Jesuit, helped by a team of animators chosen from among the young people. Besides the formation in the course of the year, the members participate in nine-day MAGIS retreats but these are also open to people with no relation to the community.
The objective of the Ignatian Youth Days is first of all to celebrate in a festive atmosphere the coming together of hundreds of young people (about 400 in all) who discover how much links them together. It’s seen as very important just to be together because this allows them to find themselves again in that world of theirs which is so often fragmented and dispersed. Angelika, who took part in the meeting last year, made this comment. “The Ignatian Youth Days are our celebration; a young people’s celebration. A celebration of people who live their lives day to day, have their problems and try to resolve them more or less well. So we’re not an elite, not extraterrestrials. Even though we’re different and come from different corners of Poland, a single desire unites us: through our meeting at Stara Wies we want to praise our Lord and Saviour just because of what we are, and thank him that man isn’t solitary or isolated but created to live in community.” For our part, we Jesuits are conscious that by profiting from our rich Ignatian spirituality we have much to give to these young people. And there is one other aspect we can’t forget: the witness of our Jesuit life. For all this time a young person can easily observe how some 30 Jesuits manage to collaborate with one another in the commitment demanded by the entire program.
The Days, and for that matter the whole formation program of the MAGIS Community, take in many aspects of a young person’s life – and so they foresee a time for prayer, the Eucharist, thematic conferences later discussed in groups, labs, active sports and concerts. The Jesuit nature of the program appears precisely in its being able to further what was so dear to Ignatius; finding God in all things. “Right!” agrees Ola. She’s from Danzig, 800 kilometers from Stara Wies. “There’s no way you can fail to be aware of God – at meals, at Mass, during concerts and conferences, God’s name comes up all the time. And it isn’t just on our lips, but in our hearts, because that’s where the love of God is born. I’m convinced that the Days have strengthened my faith immensely, and I know that what I needed was precisely this – to experience this great love.” Every session of the Ignatian Youth Days has a theme of its own. Last year this was “Friendship or Love,” exploring things an adolescent heart experiences as nostalgia, dreams, the desire for happiness or, at times, disillusionment, bitterness or pain. Participants could meet with the resource people who presented a given theme from different perspectives. First of all the biblical perspective was presented by Jesuit Scripture scholar Father Tomasz Kot. The next day a couple, Anna and Jerzy Talar, were invited to speak about friendship and love from their own experience, beginning from when they first met and following along the stages of friendship, falling in love, engagement and the decision to spend their lives together, right up to the moment of building a growing relationship of love in the course of more than ten years of marriage and a family. But, as happens in life, friendship and love is not always a bed of roses; on the next day the group took up different difficulties which may have to be confronted in experiencing a relationship with another person. The expert for this discussion was Joanne Szostak, director of a Correction Center for young women. She spoke from her personal experience of working with young people who had experienced the bitterness of friendship or love. After each presentation participants had time to discuss the themes in small groups and in a question-answer session with the presenters.
At noon each day the young people came together for the Eucharist in the basilica of Stara Wies. The liturgical setting, the musical group, and singing hearts made the atmosphere of prayer unique and unforgettable. One of the participants spoke of it this way: “The Days make it possible to meet God in our neighbour. In this way Mass becomes a really touching experience, when we all offer God our prayers our desires, our thanks. The Sign of Peace is amazing: people clap for happiness, shake tambourines, sing and dance in the church – in our house – praising Him who allowed them to be there and to be nourished by every minute lived with all the others.” The Masses were celebrated by the guests, by the moderators of the different communities, and also by young Jesuits ordained less than a month, who gave their first blessings to everyone there.
Afternoons were occupied with work in more than twenty lab-sessions on different topics. The sessions on dance, sport, and civil protection were especially popular, but so were some less active labs dealing with scripture, journalism, radio and art. The latter offered participants the chance to paint their very first icons under the direction of artist Zdzislaw Pekaski. During the Days the garden of the Jesuit residence was for some a playing field, for others a recording studio or an editing room, and for others simultaneously an art gallery or a place to practice methods of civil protection.The evenings were times for “fun”—“filled with unforgettable concerts and get-togethers. A time to enjoy yourself – a lot! Clearly, young people can have fun without artificial stimulants and we find ways in that fun to express our joy. But the evenings were also times of reflection, helped by the words of songs and by the get-togethers organized by Jesuit novices.” There are many dimensions to what the young people discover. For these Days they give up using cellphones, listening to Walkman and accessing the Internet: no one puts personal limits on friendship. Tomek describes the first moments this way: “… the animator proposed an idea which at first didn’t sit well with me: to put away my cellphone and not use it during the Days. But to tell the truth, it wasn’t something I needed after all!!! There were so many people that we didn’t feel the lack of these gadgets. We all had time for ourselves; you felt you were living your life in a completely different way. And nobody, really nobody, wanted to go back home – but we had to. We go back to our life, to our questions and problems with the ongoing memory of the Ignatian Youth Days and of the MAGIS which reminds us that, despite adversity you have to follow Christ every day and that you have to push yourself and forge ahead on the pilgrimage, to know yourself and God more deeply.”
The Ignatian Youth Days are the celebration of people who feel connected to the spirituality of St. Ignatius, of those who want to be, in our own day, witnesses to finding God in all things. The enthusiasm and joy of the young are the best proof that they have an enormous need to share happiness and support during the difficulties of everyday life. The Days have shown us Jesuits how important youth work is, and how delighted they are to live out of great desires, just like our founder Ignatius did.