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Jesuits prepared to be an online ‘friend’

By 
  • April 23, 2020

Canada’s Jesuits are standing by, waiting for your call. A new “Talk to a Friend” service hopes to break through the social isolation of people dutifully staying at home to stop the spread of COVID-19.

“It was the idea that at all times and in every place (we should) use the opportunity to help people mature in their faith,” explained Jesuit Fr. Gilles Mongeau.

By e-mailing talktoafriend@jesuits.ca anybody can be paired up with either a Jesuit or someone else with experience in Ignatian principles of discernment and spiritual conversation.

It’s not a hotline for people in distress, just an opportunity for anybody who feels the need for conversation in the context of faith, Mongeau said.

While it may appeal at first to Catholics, there’s nothing about the Talk to a Friend service that restricts it to just Catholics.

“There are a lot of people out there who aren’t Christian, who aren’t Catholic, who don’t necessarily want a liturgy,” Mongeau said. “Pastors are reaching out to their flocks. That’s all great. But there’s a lot of people who aren’t connected in that way. How do we help them?”

The service is free and confidential.

“Ignatian people know how to listen. Ignatian people know how to help people understand their own experience,” said Mongeau.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the Jesuits, but before the Jesuits formed in 1540 he pioneered a number of techniques for understanding spiritual experience. Together, this collection of techniques became the Spiritual Exercises. Today Jesuits, Sisters of St. Joseph and a large community of lay people have been trained in these Ignatian techniques.

The Jesuits have also designed a liturgy for small-group faith sharing based on Scripture, not as an alternative to online Masses, but as a way to address other spiritual needs.

Both projects are “deeply Ignatian,” Mongeau told The Catholic Register.

For its participatory, online, small-group experience, the Jesuits have launched a structured liturgy. Whether participants use Google Hangouts, Microsoft Teams, Zoom or any other conferencing software, what matters is that they follow the rules laid down in the guide at jesuits.ca

After spending the last three years blending the Jesuits in English Canada, Quebec and Haiti into one giant province of their religious order, Canadian Jesuits have learned a thing or two about how to spiritually bond online, said Mongeau. Recognizing that millions of people are now isolated and missing the ordinary opportunities for community, Jesuits asked themselves, “What’s our experience of spiritual conversation online? How did that build the body up to be a real community? And how do we translate that into a real liturgy that knows how to use the medium?” Mongeau said.

“What we’ve done is create a kind of base community approach,” said Mongeau, referring to a form of Christian community building pioneered among poor people in Brazil and Peru in the 1970s.

Like the base communities of Latin America, these COVID-era online base communities are not a replacement for the Eucharist or a parish. Mongeau hopes the communities that form online now will continue when churches reopen.

“If they continue, how do we help them connect their experience to the Eucharist? Because we are Catholic. Base communities are meant to be in relationship to a common Eucharist,” he said.

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