The prospect of a virtual JESEDU conference aroused mixed emotions at first. I was disappointed that we would not be able to relive the Boston experience of being gathered as a ‘universal body’ reflecting in person on our ‘universal mission’. But as the keynote addresses for the different strands were forwarded to us for viewing I became excited by the quality of the various talks and started to look forward to hearing what others would have to say about them. My initial disappointment was replaced by a sense of anticipation and curiosity and the II Colloquium JESEDU-Global2021 did not disappoint. Maybe it was because of the nature of the virtual engagement and the extra effort required, that I found it to be a different but comparable experience to Boston. I certainly ‘came home’ with a lot of rich insights and a renewed sense of belonging to a vibrant global network.

The conference organizers used the language of ‘takeaways’, of inviting participants to share what had impressed or stayed with them from their various experiences. In this vein, I will briefly share some significant ‘takeaways’ of the conference for me:

The quality of the keynote talks was a clear highlight. They were rich in wisdom, clearly presented and, because of their relative brevity, always engaging.  It was clear that each speaker was expert in their field and passionate about their topic. This is always an excellent combination. This is material I know that I will return to and repeatedly draw from in the coming years. It is also material that I will happily share with others confident that the talks speak of what is best in Jesuit education in a fresh and insightful fashion.

The use of the Ignatian Conversation format in the Discernment Circles was very powerful.   This format is not new but it is being used more widely since Fr General’s exhortation to all in and associated with the Society should become more discerning in ‘our way of proceeding’. For many in my circle this was a new experience and a rewarding one.  Indeed, this manner of listening and sharing was as valuable as the quality of what was shared and it was ideally suited to the virtual medium.

It was clear that participants had come very well prepared. In fact, in many provinces groups had been established and the keynotes had been used to stimulate reflection and discussion in advance: the work of the conference had started long before the opening ceremony. This meant that when it came to the first round of sharing people had already distilled their reflections and were speaking ‘out of’ an experience rather than simply about the material. The quality of what was said was of a high order and stimulated a similarly rich response in the rounds that followed.

We had been invited by the organizers to discern which of the strands had most relevance for our own region and then for the network as a whole.  What surprised me was that the same priority seemed to emerge for all the regions – at least in my discernment circle.  Whilst many were at pains to stress that all four strands were important and interwoven with one another the strand that seemed to underpin the other three was not ‘faith’ (as I had expected) but ‘depth’.  There was heartfelt concern expressed about the superficial nature of the world the students are immersed in; at how they are bombarded with advertising, social media etc and forced to be children of the immediate. They are losing their centre, their voice, their unique song (ref Margaret Silf).

At the global level the strand that emerged most clearly was that of Educating for Global Citizenship. This was not surprising, I suppose, but what was heart-warming was the acknowledgement that we all need one another and that our problems require us to work together in solidarity. I recall somebody saying that the experience of the conference was a microcosm of how we (mankind) should listen to one another, find common ground and be a leaven for change in the world. The Jesuit network can be a model of how this can be done.

What was perhaps most reassuring of all was the demonstrable love that the participants had for their students and a quiet confidence that our schools can be powerful agencies for good. There is a real desire to prepare the students for the world ahead and an awareness that Ignatian spirituality has something truly valuable to offer both students and faculty. It can teach us to slow down and quieten, to listen and consider, to critique and then respond from our own depths with creativity.

Some standout images from the conference include:

Fr Hanvey’s ‘grand narrative’ and his adaptation of the Principle + Foundation to education – helping young people to see who ‘they are in God’s eyes and what their purpose and destiny is’.

Fr Joe Erun’s indictment of our current system which educates young people to be ‘earners and not learners’.

Margaret Silf’s image of the honey-sucker bird and its struggle to learn its own song.

The gallery view on my computer monitor of all those people in my discernment circle – the many and varied faces of the global network.

But the image that dominates, after all is said and done, is that of the students, both in the opening and closing ceremonies, in full song: Amare + Servire. That will stay with me.

In conclusion, I’d like to extend a word of admiration and thanks to all the organizers, speakers, hosts etc and, of course, to the Educate Magis Team – those who work quietly behind the scenes making the virtual become a real experience.