‘The Jezsu is more than a school…’ A few years ago a group of 11th graders were asked by their math teacher to define what the school meant to them. It was the first thing a girl jotted down on a piece of paper and handed it to the teacher. Since then we not only use this sentence as a semi-official slogan, but also try to live up to it.
The Fényi Gyula Jesuit High School is the only Jesuit school in Hungary. The Jesuits used to run two excellent high schools in the country before WW2, those were taken over by the Communist regime, and became ordinary state-run schools, while the Jesuits were suppressed and or escaped to the west. Upon returning to a new democratic Hungary they did not take the old establishments back, but embarked on a brand new project in Miskolc, a comparatively underdeveloped part of the country, with a rather dilapidated industrial past and lots of unemployment. Here they created a model Jesuit school with the mission of leading children and their families closer to Jesus, challenging them to grow up to whom God dreamed of them to be and to become committed men and women for others.
The 25 year-old-school has grown to be an innovative workshop of education and formation built on the traditions of Ignatian pedagogy and spirituality with 877 students, 80 teachers and 50 supporting staff.
Our vision is that our students, by the time they graduate, not only achieve academic competence to enter higher education, but also explore their physical, artistic, spiritual potential. They learn to discover their own inner realities by group and individual retreats, spiritual guidance and growing in self-awareness. They become parts of a community in the school and gain insight into Hungarian, European and global communities by visiting historical sites of Hungary, meeting students in other schools throughout Europe, and other continents and making pilgrimages to holy places of the Catholic Church. Just like most Jesuit high schools…
But what do you do when all gatherings are limited or forbidden, and we are not supposed to meet personally, when borders are closed, and travel is discouraged or impossible? The first school lockdown in March, 2020 taught us to appreciate what we had, and explore what we can do to build up our students and our community without risking the spread of Covid-19.
The school chaplaincy, trying to be innovative, created and broadcast online retreats, online church services, and when it was again allowed to come to school, they started organizing shorter retreats instead of the wonderful big ones we were used to.
Instead of a long climb to the school’s eco-house on a remote mountain top, where only the birds and the wind accompany the retreatants, groups of students walk down a little lane across the school arboretum towards a further corner of the campus, where they can hide among the trees and bushes.
The retreats start in the morning and end in the afternoon. P. Elek SJ, school chaplain explains, ‘The students miss the sleepover feeling, the bonfire under the stars, but they can still enjoy the silence and the birdsong. There is fun, play and conversations in small groups facilitated by peer leaders, sitting around wrapped in blankets, sipping hot tea and talking quietly. There are lone walks in the park. The chaplaincy team tailored the program of the retreat to get the most out of the situation. We encourage students to find what they are grateful for, and what they can learn about themselves in the new situation. It happens that an entire class may be quarantined, but we don’t leave anyone behind, and find a new retreat date so that each and every student can meet God, themselves and each other.’
‘I really needed this time of quiet,’ says BB, a 9th grader. It was the first time the 14 year-old boy ever took part in a retreat like that. ‘I have not been able to pray much recently. I was too busy and my relationship with Jesus has become.. you know… less intense. It was a magical opportunity to walk alone and try to be with God again. We also got closer with my classmates. Wearing the mask, not seeing each other’s faces, and practising social distancing – you are not supposed to play and be just normal – it altered our interaction somehow …We do not really have the same feeling of closeness. I think we have to be flexible and learn to reach the same depth in our conversations, but it is definitely not easy. ‘
Kristóf, another 9th grader agrees. ‘It was a very new and really good opportunity for me. I have learnt some things about myself… I realized I can get deeper in my thoughts when there is no noise. It was my first such experience. I am looking forward to the next retreat.’