The Spiritual Exercises and the Church in China
Kwai-ling came to my course on Spiritual Conversation in 2005. She was then the novice mistress of her congregation, and my venture into Ignatian formation in China was fairly new. I was conducting the one-week course three times a year, each time with 25 students. How time flies! Now she is the director of a retreat centre capable of accommodating more than 70 retreatants, assisted by a team of more than 10 spiritual directors. And we have become collaborators in the ministry. Ten years have seen about 1,000 Religious, priests and lay people formed through this course. And by great common effort, more and more Catholics have experienced the Ignatian eight-day retreats, and not a small number have gone through the 30-day retreat too.
Since 1979, the Church in China has been enjoying greater freedom and contact with the universal Church, and Religious and priests are able to receive formation overseas. However, although there is great benefit in learning new things, it is important to be able to discern what is best for our own faith journey. We know that Ignatian formation, especially the Spiritual Exercises, is an effective process for guiding a person through a personal appropriation of his or her faith and inner journey. Now many of our participants know this too. They have found it helpful, even necessary to living their Religious and priestly vocations faithfully in the midst of the demands and challenges of Religious life today. Indeed, maturity and genuine religious experience are crucial and fundamental to doing so.
When Ignatius and his companions founded the Society of Jesus in 1540, they had no plan to enter the arena of formal education. Similarly when my team and others started to give Ignatian retreats and formation in mainland China, we were simply happy that the Religious and priests received them with spiritual fruits and joy. We had no vision of them one day giving the Spiritual Exercises themselves. Training spiritual directors was not our intent. We did not see the potential there nor did we dare to dream about it. Fortunately God had a different thought.
Five years ago my superior invited me to begin a kind of spiritual directors’ training programme. I was somewhat reluctant and felt inadequate to begin even after a year of mutual bargaining and consideration. Thank God we finally followed this prompting from the Holy Spirit and began the programme in 2012. It was a three-year programme of three months of learning together each year. We offered it to 28 of the students in the Spiritual Conversation course. Kwai-ling was one of them. We tried to provide them with some basic understanding of people, mental health, philosophy of life, prayer, etc before making the long retreat together and learning its dynamics afterwards.
As the programme progressed, we saw something amazing begin to emerge. Through the frequent and intensive encounters in those three years – in retreats, praying together, small group sharing, writing journals and papers, reading, practice of spiritual direction and mutual evaluation – many of them became more mature and integrated.
Giving the Spiritual Exercises is labour intensive. Each day we usually see six persons at most, but in China we are often asked to guide eight people instead. The harvest is plenty but labourers are few. We realised we had to train local spiritual directors and retreat givers.
After three years, we chose 12 from among the 28 to begin giving retreats under supervision in the retreat houses or through Skype conversation. Last year saw this smaller group giving the long retreat under supervision twice. The other graduates are giving shorter retreats under our supervision by Skype from time to time.
Cura Personalis is fundamental in this formation and ministry. However, we cannot ignore the importance of environment in making a good silent retreat. Besides the preparation and organisation, good food, comfortable bedrooms and natural beauty are necessary for Ignatian contemplation. But many religious houses in China do not provide this. In this area too we have witnessed the providence of the Lord. The last few years have seen the establishment of a few lovely retreat centres in China. We cannot but admire the dedication and conviction of the Religious who spent so much energy setting up these centres, some of them even at the expense of their health.
In Kwai-ling’s retreat centre, the programmes encourage Religious members from both the official church and underground church to participate together so that they can meet and share in the learning process. This is a concrete way to establish communication and gradual communion on both sides, although there is still tension between them from time to time, especially in liturgy and celebrating the Eucharist together. But Kwai-ling and her team never lose heart. They strongly believe the Ignatian formation they went through can help everyone have a personal experience with the Lord and that this will gradually bring us through the desert into the promised land of communion.
Fr Stephen Tong SJ
Director of the St Francis Xavier Spirituality Centre in Hong Kong and Chairman of the Chinese Province Ignatian Spirituality Commission