European pastoral work in Brussels
The European unification process is a fascinating enterprise. To accompany it is in line with the Jesuits' tradition of performing their services where decisions are taken which affect the lives of many people. But the pastoral worker's old habit of frequenting princely courts should not be revived in Brussels, the new capital of Europe; so, as we would say today, "No lobbying during the celebration of the Eucharist."
Although the Society of Jesus is in close contact with the European decision-making authorities, we do not depend on them. In recent times we have rarely heard the criticism, not always levelled in jest, that "the Jesuits in Brussels also belong to the Eurocrats." On the one hand, we follow the process of European unification through our Europe office (OCIPE) and the European headquarters of the Refugee Service (JRS); on the other, we are pastorally active in Brussels’s international community. The European Union (Parliament, Commission, Council) employs about 25,000 people. In addition there are the employees of NATO, the diplomatic corps and multinational firms, many of whom live with their families in Brussels. We have contacts on different levels with a small part of this "international population."
This article describes some of the pastoral activities in which the Society is involved: the European Catholic Foyer, the Chapel of the Resurrection and Catholic religious instruction in the European schools. None of these activities are carried out without the cooperation of non-Jesuits. Their commitment and the stimulus they provide have often been and still are the source of apostolic initiatives, as the example of the European Catholic Foyer shows.
When more and more European officials settled in Brussels from 1962 on, many sought a religious home - Italian- and French-speaking officials in particular were looking for pastoral services. Together with a handful of Jesuits they founded, at the request of Cardinal Suenens, the "Catholic European Foyer." It is true that Jesuits have always directed its pastoral work, but the Foyer is an association of laymen and women who run it independently. The goal was and still is to provide the men and women working for European unification with a spiritual home and a centre for reflection on their professional commitment. For all of them the Foyer is intended to be a "centre for meetings, reflection, training, action and celebration." The Foyer is located in the vicinity of the European Union's head offices. This determines its pastoral vocation.
Italian, French, Polish and Spanish are the Foyer's main languages, used for religious services, discussion groups on theological, political and biblical subjects, and artistic and social events. An international pastoral council, on which all language groups and sections of the Foyer are represented, advises on the services offered and their co-ordination. The multilingual newsletter "Communitas" is sent monthly to roughly 1 000 households. Adults who teach part-time in the European schools prepare pupils in their mother tongue to receive the sacraments. Children from all language groups are confirmed together, but their knowledge of other languages is too limited for this to be possible when they take their first communion. Scouts and guides and a variety of other out-of-school activities bring together the Europeans of tomorrow: group weekends and summer camps are important, where they experience the difficulties and opportunities of living together with different cultures. All language groups come together at international events like the monthly international celebration of the Eucharist. In discussion groups, on for example the European Convention, which is designing a constitution for Europe, Christian principles for European integration are worked out. In one of the Commission's buildings lectures give Christians an opportunity to form an opinion on current topics. These lectures are organised with OCIPE and the "Conference of European Churches", a Europe-wide ecumenical organisation bringing together 123 Orthodox, Anglican, Old Catholic and Protestant churches. Social activities, such as fund-raising events for a diocese in Bolivia (Corocoro), and ecumenical activities with the Chapel of the Resurrection, open up wider horizons. Various festivities throughout the year and the common approach ensure the cohesion of all the Foyer's communities.
The Foyer plays a part in co-ordinating the "immigrant communities" in the diocese - it is often necessary to counteract the impression that "the Europeans" are wealthy immigrants who have no problems. It is unfortunately true that EU officials hardly mix at all with their compatriots who came to Belgium as "guest workers" from Italy, Spain, Portugal or Poland. Disparities of income, language skills and mobility seem too great to overcome. The Foyer also works for closer integration through contacts with the Latin American communities in Brussels.
Two challenges face the Foyer: to bring together the different groups in the Foyer itself and to prevent the emergence of a "European ghetto."
The Ignatian spirituality always seeks to start from what surrounds us: from the world, society and its structures. This approach is very well attuned to European circles. We have to take a close look at reality and initiate changes where they are needed. In this way the world will correspond better to God's plans for it. And all those who frequent the Foyer prize this way of approaching the world, European unification and faith.
The Foyer is Europe in miniature. What is possible or difficult here will be possible or difficult everywhere. For more than 40 years the goal and task of the Foyer has been and still is to support those who take important decisions, often stressful and conflictual, and their families. The so-called European schools, the first of which dates back to the arrival of the European Institutions in Brussels in 1958, are open to the children of European officials, NATO staff and members of the diplomatic corps. Classes are given in the different official languages of the European Union. At present there are three schools with a total of some 7 500 pupils attending classes in eleven language sections. After the next enlargement of the EU there will be eight new language sections and roughly 1 000 additional pupils. The Society of Jesus was given responsibility by Cardinal Suenens for religious instruction in the European schools (religious classes are virtually compulsory for Catholic pupils). For many years now only a few Jesuits have been teaching themselves; a lay collaborator is appointed and she co‑ordinates the activities of about 45 religious teachers, who currently come from ten different countries. Pupils are prepared for the sacraments at the Foyer, as this service is not available in the schools.
The spirituality of St Ignatius of Loyola can also help here: how can I order my professional life in such a way that I can live my faith? Young people regularly ask themselves this question when they are being prepared for confirmation. In the Ignatian view they are "multipliers": in the European schools we are teaching young people who in later life will have decision‑making responsibilities in Europe and the wider world.
Our most recent pastoral project is a Chapel, located in the heart of the area occupied by the Commission, Parliament and Council buildings. The church bells are a reminder, in the middle of a concrete and administrative desert where laws and norms are produced, that Europe as a project reaches out far and wide.
The Chapel - for many years trees grew out of its decaying roof - is now once more a house of God. Thanks to the initiative of European officials and members of the Order, what was a ruin has come to life again. The Chapel is now once again serving its original purpose: a place of worship, calm and meditation in the midst of the often rough reality of the struggle for a united Europe. The Chapel is certainly a Catholic initiative, but "ecumenical openness" is laid down in its statutes. It is chiefly used by European officials from the surrounding offices, but it is even less of a parish church than the Foyer.
The Jesuits' European work is not unique in Brussels; many other Orders have international houses here, notably the Dominicans, the Franciscans and various women's congregations. Increasing numbers of orders are recognizing the importance of having a presence at European level - less because of lobbying than because of the manifold possibilities for apostolic work in the European environment. These activities would in many cases be inconceivable without the often inspiring and challenging cooperation of men and women who do not belong to any religious order. They are increasingly interconnected. The churches, together with other non-governmental organisations, are making ever more determined efforts to ensure their views are heard by the European authorities.
Our international Jesuit community "Saint Benedict" currently comprises nine Jesuits from eight countries. We are all working in the "European" field: some of us are directly involved in lobbying - Brussels lends itself to this - for example in the refugee service; others are following the process of unification in the Europe Office; and others again are engaged in pastoral work or in the European structure of the Order. A “European Provincial” superintends the Jesuits who are working directly "for Europe." His correct title is "President of the European Conference of Provincials." This conference embraces 32 provinces and regions.
Our whole approach is based on the conviction that the spirituality of St Ignatius is good for men and women who are active here in politics and administration: to discover God in all things and to bring the world nearer to his plan. Brussels is an appropriate place for this, because far-reaching decisions are taken here which affect the lives of Europeans and others further afield. The European project for the continent is very close to a Christian design for society, and there are enough men and women of goodwill who commit themselves to it. To support them in their endeavours is the central task of our pastoral work with the international community here.
Wolfgang Felber / translation: Jeffrey Russell