The city of Sao Salvador da Bahia in North East Brazil, the first capital of Brazil was the landing point for the first Jesuits in 1549, led by Fr. Manuel da Nobrega.
In July 2013, twelve days before the start of the World Youth Day week in Rio de Janeiro, Sao Salvador da Bahia welcomed over two thousand young people from fifty countries. The youth participated in the Ignatian pre-WYD program, MAGIS Brasil, which was prepared by the Brazilian Jesuits in collaboration with other congregations of Ignatian charism and lay collaborators.
Since the late 1990s, Jesuits and other Ignatian religious have been developing innovative programs which ran in parallel with the Papal World Youth Days in various major cities, offering young people spaces for prayer, service and companionship. Prior initiatives have included Loyola XXI in Paris in 1997, Horizon 2000 in Rome in the Jubilee Year, ANIA in 2002 at Toronto; and then MAGIS in Köln in 2005, Sydney in 2008 and Madrid in 2011; all participating alongside the official World Youth Day programs.
I was blessed to be one of the over two thousand pilgrims, gathered at the Jesuit high school, Colegio Antonio Vieira, first being a three-day opening gathering in Sao Salvador, where all pilgrims were received, welcomed and introduced to the program. The second part was a one-week missionary experience divided into five categories: Pilgrimage, Ecology, Spirituality, Art, Socio-Cultural Insertion and Social initiatives. Each category had someone, Brazilians or non-Brazilians as an inspiration, people who have testified their life stories to life and evangelical service. For example, the American missionary Sister Dorothy Stang was the inspiration for the ecology experiences and is remembered for accompanying the life and struggle of the field workers and indigenous communities in Brazil, with determination and solidarity, especially in the Trans-Amazon region. There were about 70 experiences all over Brazil, with twenty to thirty young people from at least three nationalities, and a team of people accompanying them.
The third part of the program was the gathering in Rio de Janeiro, in preparation for the start of the official World Youth Day week. The gathering provided a wonderful opportunity for pilgrims to share their experiences from the missionary week, and to get ready for the main WYD events that included the official opening Mass and the welcome ceremony for Pope Francis.
The MAGIS 2013 opening gathering in Sao Salvador, was blessed with the presence of Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Besides presiding over the opening Mass, Fr. Nicolas also had the opportunity to meet with young representatives of the fifty delegations.
Speaking in Spanish, Fr. Nicolas made some opening remarks, observing that the world is in the middle of an economic, political and cultural crisis. “What worries me is that there seems to be no alternative system, despite all the information and intelligence available in the world”. He went on to draw from the experience of St. Ignatius, suggesting that in order for young people to make a difference in transforming the world “you have to transform people first”. However, the challenge of transforming the world, according to Fr. Nicolas, is best met by allowing God to transform our hearts, after which we can be able to change what is outside. He encouraged the young people to use gatherings such as the World Youth Days, to widen their horizon to see more and open their hearts, while recognizing that Christ works in the heart of every person, irrespective of social class.
“As Ignatian people, we have to be open. We can work and live together, to discover what God wants for humanity; in our parishes, schools, homes and so on”, he added, pointing out that God wants and calls young people to be part of the mission of the Church, which is also His mission.
Fr. Nicolas’ opening remarks were followed by an interactive question and answer session fielded from the audience. The concerns raised by the participants painted was like a collage of the diversity of the universal Church.
Two pilgrims, Evelyn from Zambia and Pedro from the Amazonian region of Peru, posed to Fr. General that even though they have a deep desire to serve the poor in their communities, they found it difficult because they have limited possibilities themselves. In his response, while appreciating the challenges raised by Evelyn and Pedro, Fr. Nicolas advised that “the best way to help the poor is to be interested in them. The first thing is to listen to them…accompany them with your heart…then we can start helping them”.
Emmanuel from Venezuela and Francisco from Ecuador were concerned about the problems associated with international aid, observing that in some instances, communities were further impoverished by those purporting to offer support. Fr. Nicolas urged caution and discernment in determining when to receive international aid, especially when they have strings attached to them.
Tom from Australia asked Fr. General how the traditions of the Church could be maintained, in the face of decreasing Church membership. Fr. Nicolas pointed to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, pointing out that there is great potential and possibilities in them than what has been explored so far. He went on to add that Pope Francis, a Jesuit formed in the Ignatian tradition, is already helping us (the Church) to go deep into the Gospel, using simple language.
A final question came from Katarzyna, a pilgrim from Poland, about the role of the Church in transforming political systems. In his response, Fr. General observed that a great contribution could be made in the formation of young people at universities, as a way of transforming society. “The university should not only be an academic giant, but should also focus on solving people’s problems, by connecting professional studies with pastoral work”, said Fr.Nicolas, bringing to a close the question and answer session, after about 90 minutes.
However, there was still time for the participants to shake hands with Fr. Nicolas, with some presenting him with souvenirs from their countries and to take some photos.
It was clear from the meeting that the Society of Jesus is committed to the wonderful ministry of accompanying young adults, helping them to take life decisions and empowering them to discover how to be tools for good in God’s hands. I am sure St. Ignatius must be pleased, considering all of his first companions in Paris: Francis Xavier, Peter Faber, Simon Rodriguez, Alfonso Salmeron, Nicolas Bobadilla and Diego Lainez; were all young adults, with Ignatius as the guide, accompanying them in spiritual conversations, but also building on their personality, talents and history, something that the Magis program continues to do, all for the greater glory of God.