The Ignatian Spirituality Centre in Montreal is bringing prayer to everyone who needs it. Photo courtesy Ignatian Spirituality Centre

Jesuits bring spiritual life to margins and beyond

  • July 20, 2022

Prayer is not a privilege set aside for ladies and gentlemen of leisure, not a secret code revealed begrudgingly to an enlightened elite. Prayer is part of being human. The Jesuits, products of the 16th-century humanist revolution, are working to make sure it stays that way at their new retreat centre in Montreal.

Canada’s Jesuit Fathers have laid claim to a rare, prime piece of real estate on the western tip of Montreal Island as a base of operations to teach prayer and deepen the prayer lives of all sorts of people — addicts, the unchurched, young people, old folks, homeless people, people angry at the Catholic Church. In fact, they’ll take just about anybody at the Ignatian Spirituality Centre of Montreal.

More than two generations since the Quiet Revolution, the Jesuits are encountering Quebeckers who “have no experience of organized Catholic tradition,” said Jesuit Fr. Kevin Kelly. “But they have a deep desire. For us, that’s where we’re meeting people.”

The Jesuits’ new digs nestled next to Anse-a-l’Orme Nature Park, overlooking Lac de Deux Montagnes where the Ottawa and St. Lawrence Rivers meet, is not the first place or the first time Jesuits have offered retreats, spiritual direction and training in Montreal. The Jesuits acquired the former Hermitage St. Croix from the Holy Cross Sisters when the priestly order realized that pretty soon giant condo towers were going to be looking down on their old retreat centre, Villa St. Martin.

The new location allows the Jesuits to combine the francophone Villa St. Martin with the anglophone Ignatian Spirituality Centre of Montreal. The ISCM specializes in training people in spiritual accompaniment — the art of listening and encouraging spiritual conversations. The combination revitalizes the very Jesuit mission of introducing people to the spiritual life.

Kelly, a former Merk & Co. pharmaceuticals marketing executive, casts the Ignatian  tradition of sharing the spiritual life in line with the Celtic concept of a soul friend, or anam cara.

Training people for spiritual accompaniment is really training them in friendship in the context of a relationship with God.

“It’s not a guru. It’s not somebody who is going to solve your problems or necessarily give you advice,” Kelly said. “It’s really somebody who is going to be listening with you and allow you to explain what your experience is in your relationship with God — in prayer, but also in your regular activities.”

If this brings up an image of well-heeled cradle Catholics with the time and inclination to babble on about spirituality, think again. Think about homeless addicts camped out in public parks, lining up at the drop-in for free coffee. Think about alcoholics trying to crawl back toward the light on the ladder of the 12-step Alcoholics Anonymous system. The Ignatian Spirituality Centre and Villa St. Martin are there for them.

“These people are on the streets. They’re using drugs and alcohol to medicate, to numb a trauma in their lives. Yes, they’re in recovery. Yes, they need the 12 steps. But the healing of this experience, the facing of trauma — only God can do that,” said Kelly.

The program with recovering homeless is called the Ignatian Spirituality Project. It’s built on the experience of Jesuits giving retreats to the homeless in Chicago and for the last seven years in Toronto. The Montreal Jesuits and their collaborators drive out to pick up retreatants wherever they are and bring them to the retreat house.

“Every big city needs this,” Kelly said. “It’s a really big vision of what our retreat centre is going to be about — really supporting not just those who can afford a retreat. We make the retreats available to anybody. We can subsidize them and we really want to make this experience available to everybody.”

The 12-step work with alcoholics goes back as far as the 1950s, when Jesuits began offering AA retreats under the inspiration of Fr. Leo Massé.

“We run retreats that are very much on those first three steps — the idea of finding God in your life, turning your life over to God and then admitting you are powerless over your addiction,” said Kelly.

The new location also has Kelly and his team thinking about serving people well beyond Montreal, people attracted to an experience of a beautiful natural environment.

“It’s spectacular,” said Kelly. “We’re already getting calls from individuals in the United States, in Europe, asking to come and experience here. It’s a really unique setting. It’s surrounded by a park.”

With a staff deeply rooted in Ignatian spirituality, the ability to operate in either English or French and its quiet, natural setting on the edge of a major international city, Kelly knows the Ignatian Spirituality Centre is destined for greater things.

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