Step inside the Hurtado Centre in Wapping (the JRS UK office) and you experience peace, a total loving acceptance. You are welcomed as a friend amongst friends from all over the world. The centre is always busy – refugee friends meet staff for destitution and legal assistance, pick up essential items from the JRS Shop, and take part in activities such as ESOL or acupuncture or community kitchen. Undergirding all this activity runs a spirit of joy, friendship and dedication.
To mark the feast day of St Ignatius (31st July), I’d like to trace this river of friendship to its source: to a 16th century Spanish soldier. Life changed for Ignatius, born in 1491 in Northern Spain, when he was wounded in the Battle of Pamplona and forced to accept a long convalescence. The only two books available in his months of solitude were the Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints. Ignatius was intrigued by the deep inner peace the reading of these books brought and contrasted it with the restless excitement he experienced when formerly reading tales of courtly love.
But there was no sudden reformation of Ignatius the soldier to Ignatius the Saint. Months of prayer and pilgrimages, years of study and education followed his physical healing and – perhaps what St Ignatius is most famous for – the Spiritual Exercises.
Because he offered his Spiritual Exercises to men and to women from different backgrounds, different countries, different walks of life, I see Ignatius first and foremost as a universal Friend.
“I call you friends”, said Jesus on the night before he died, “because I have made known to you everything I have learnt from my Father. Three days later, risen from the dead, Jesus went a step further: He “breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” His friends were filled with Jesus’ very self, with His Spirit of Love and Truth.
The Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius offers make known to his friends everything he learnt from the Holy Spirit. So we’re invited to build our lives on this rock of truth and love, and to be “people for others”.
For most people life is hard. The way ahead is not obvious. We have no “Sat-nav” equivalent to keep us from travelling in a wrong direction. Sometimes we even question the very purpose of our lives. Ignatius shares with us the rock-solid Foundation he had learnt through prayer:
“The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God our Lord and by so doing save his or her soul.” This light brings joy.
On that foundation, Ignatius introduces his friends and followers to the reality of the spiritual battleground against which all daily life is played, and to the workings of our own spirit. We are invited to respond to the call of Christ, to keep Him company as He daily continues to “set all afire with love.”
And so we discover the source of the friendship and joy that refreshes each one in the Hurtado Centre, Wapping. Ignatian Spirituality is rooted in community, and this informs the approach at JRS. We walk humbly alongside people who have had to flee, but we learn so much more than just that story – we learn about each others’ likes and dislikes, our hopes and dreams. The Hurtado Centre is a space of encounter, mutual relationship, and community. Everyone is greeted as a friend.
Here at JRS the word friendship evokes images and sounds of friends embracing and celebrating when they find out that someone’s children received scholarships to carry on studying at higher education; the familiar smiles on the faces when we greet each other as people arrive to the building; the shared anger and injustice when discussing the Home Office, and the laughter when someone scores an own goal followed by cheers of support and encouragement. These shared moments bring us closer together in friendship and stronger together in hope.
Thank you, St Ignatius, for this legacy of friendship.
Vianney Connolly is an Ursuline Sister who worked for many years with CAFOD in North Wales and now volunteers with JRS UK in London.