Living the Fifth Gospel Fruits of Ignatian Spirituality in Jordan

A Spirituality of Mission

Since the time of Ignatius, the Jesuits have been on mission. The legacies of Jesuit missionaries like Francis Xavier and Matteo Ricci inspire generation after generation of Jesuits to journey to the margins, to accompany the excluded and to work for a more just, peaceful world.

Today’s Jesuits are no different.

In Amman, Jordan, the Jesuit Center practices a tenacious hospitality, opening its doors to migrants and refugees, local Jordanians and international diplomats, Muslims and Christians alike. The Center is a place of encounter, where no one is excluded and all are challenged to see themselves as members of a shared community.

The Jesuit Center is located on Al-Razi Street in Jabal Hussein. The designation jabal, "hill" in Arabic, is a reminder that Amman is a city of hills, a city of ups and downs and countless stairs. Simply noting which hill you need to reach is often enough of landmark to find your way.

Where many have been forced to flee their homes, to watch family members suffer and die, the Jesuit Center creates a new home, a new family.

And all the while, the Jesuits accompany each individual who passes through their door on a spiritual journey that rarely ends in Jordan. From refugees seeking resettlement to transient parishioners working for international nonprofits, the Jesuits walk with each person for a while, ultimately entrusting the God of all people to call these many sojourners where they are meant to be.

Refugees in the Jesuit Center attend language classes

A unique spiritual experience: these Jesuits are living out one of St. Ignatius’ dreams for the Society of Jesus – to work in the Holy Land, to breathe the same air, to walk the same streets that Jesus of Nazareth and his contemporaries once did.

"If you're in the Holy Land and you begin to adapt to it," says Fr. Michael Linden, SJ, the superior of the Jesuit community in Jordan, "you begin to establish in your imagination and in your prayer life what some people call the fifth gospel."

On beholding the city, Ignatius was deeply affected, and the rest affirmed that they experienced a sort of heavenly joy. He always felt this same devotion whenever he visited the holy places. — The Autobiography of St. Ignatius

A Brief History of the Jesuits in Jordan

The seeds of the Jesuit mission in Jordan began in Iraq. In 1969 – amidst the aftermath of a coup and a new government – the North American Jesuits were expelled and forced to abandon the highly successful and influential Baghdad College. The Jesuits were distraught, and many sought ways to stay active in the region.

Images from Jesuits by the Tigris: Men for Others in Baghdad by Fr. Joseph F. MacDonnell, SJ; 1994

One of the Jesuits – Fr. Joseph Ryan, SJ – found his way to Amman, Jordan as director of the Pontifical Mission for Palestine. It was 1984. He helped begin a library – which still stands today – that served as a meeting place for the minority Catholic community. As in Iraq, this New England Jesuit found himself serving a growing English-speaking community.

But it wasn’t the English-speaking community one might expect. Jesuits from Fr. Ryan until today have been ministering to a large number of Filipinos, usually women, who travel to the Middle East to earn an income as domestic workers.

The Filipino Community

Elisa Estrada is a member of the lay Teresian Association, founded by St. Pedro Poveda in 1911. Members of the Association live and work in countless settings, promoting social transformation through education and culture, and the empowerment of women. The Association in Amman, under Elisa’s leadership, manages the Pontifical Mission Library – the very library that began under Fr. Ryan’s leadership.

Elisa Estrada proudly recalls the times she's encountered the popes.

“He supported us in building up this library for the locals,” Elisa recalls. “Fr. Ryan sowed the seeds. And now, other Jesuits that are coming, they are enjoying the seeds that have grown.”

The Filipino community is one such seed – and it has grown considerably. The Jesuits, responsible for the pastoral care of the English-speaking community in Jordan, have walked with this community as it has evolved.

“We invite Jesuits to give retreats, for confessions, for spiritual talks, for human development,” Elisa says. "For people who are working here, it gives them energy. It helps them to live their vocation as a Christian, as a Catholic.”

The Filipino community is exactly that: a community. They eat together, they celebrate together and they pray together.

This sense of community is particularly important for a demographic that is plagued by loneliness. Young women travel to a foreign land to work in a stranger’s home in order to send money to a homeland they can’t readily return to – this is challenging work.

That’s why it’s so important that the library, under Elisa’s leadership and with the support of the Jesuits, provides a source of stability and hospitality.

Starting from our roots, let us sit around the common table, a place of conversation and of shared hopes. In this way our differences, which could seem like a banner or a wall, can become a bridge. — Pope Francis, Querida Amazonia

Parish Life

For the past three years, Fr. John Sheehan, SJ — a priest from the Jesuits' USA Northeast Province – has served as pastor of the English-language church, Sacred Heart Parish.

“It's a personal parish rather than territorial, which means I don't have a physical building,” he says.

Fr. John Sheehan, SJ, instructs the Confirmation class.

The transience of the parish mirrors that of the parishioners. “Three-year assignments, four-year assignments, NGOs, diplomats, other corporations. There are Jordanian residents here, too. But for 80% of the English-language parish, English is not the first language.”

It’s a unique parish dynamic, to say the least.

But the job of a parish – no matter its members or its location – is largely the same everywhere.

St Mary's in Sweifie, the church that hosts Sacred Heart Parish

“Of course, we will have retreats and other things to bring people closer to God by means of the Spiritual Exercises,” says German Jesuit and newly appointed pastor at Sacred Heart, Fr. Marc-Stephan Giese, SJ. “But we also want to sharpen the thoughts of the people in the parish.”

What does that mean? “We live in Jordan,” Fr. Marc explains. “There are many poor people, refugees and marginalized Jordanians. How can we as a highly migratory community of Catholics, of Christians, how can we do something for that?”

Accompanying Refugees

“Jordanians seem to have a capacity to absorb, to welcome,” reflects Fr. Linden. “It’s a resource, if you will, in human spirit and in cultural orientation that has become, in a modern way, marketable.”

Jordan shares a border with Syria and with Iraq; it was nearly unavoidable that the country would be thrust into the refugee crisis. Fortunately, the country’s (Jesuit-educated) king, Abdullah II, continues to welcome the stranger.

And the strangers – the refugees – come from vast and varied places: Iraq and Syria, yes; but also Sudan and Somalia, Yemen and more. Often young people fleeing violence and persecution, these refugees find their way to Jabal Hussein – the hill upon which the Jesuit Center sits.

What brings them to the Jesuit Center? Many are seeking an opportunity to continue their education, to learn or improve their English or just a community where they are welcomed and made to feel at home. And the Jesuits and their collaborators make sure that the refugees check their differences at the door.

Mr. Raed Awwad began as a receptionist more than 20 years ago and is now the Jesuit Center's director, focused on developing programming for refugees and local Jordanians alike. "This is the aim that we have learned from the Jesuits: how do we lead people to go deeper into themselves?" Reflecting on people's personal spirituality, Raed continues: "Sometimes people live outside the sea, outside the water. We try to lead them deeper into themselves. This is Ignatian spirituality."
The Jesuit Center offers varying levels of English and French classes to refugees and Jordanians alike. It's an opportunity to encounter different cultures, to bridge divides — and it's all free.
Dudu, himself a Sudanese businessman and refugee, is now teaching others English. He's been uprooted by conflict twice, losing multiple businesses in the process.
Solo, front left, is a Sudanese refugee who never wanted to learn dance. Now, after finding community through dance classes, he teaches them for others.

“We call ourselves here one big community, Jesuit Center community,” says one Sudanese refugee, Ahmed. “Our diversities always help us to share our stories. Most of us lost our family members, but these are our new family. We feel like brothers and sisters.”

But no matter how welcome these young people might feel at the Jesuit Center, nothing changes the fact that life as a refugee is hard – even in a country as hospitable as Jordan. Refugees aren’t permitted to work – at least, not legally – and they live in constant flux, waiting to see if they qualify for resettlement elsewhere.

“For all of the refugees, 100%, this is a way station,” says Fr. Rob McChesney, SJ, the mission integration officer for the local Jesuit Refugee Service office. “They don’t want to stay in Jordan; they want to get to the West.”

Even the most hope-filled story has a bitter edge. Mandela and Aisha, for example, Sudanese and Somali respectively, met in Fr. Rob’s English-language class. They developed a friendship – and eventually something more. In January 2020, they were married. Their wedding was a huge celebration, attended by refugees from across Amman.

Mandela and Aisha

“For your wedding, sometimes you don't see yourself,” Mandela says, thoughtfully. “You see the people, you know people are happy, dancing, singing.”

“I felt happy because I saw that each person we invited came to the wedding,” Aisha adds.

It was a joyful start to a married life. But these young people are big dreamers, talented, with aspirations for their future. Aisha wants to be a social worker, to give back to the community. Mandela is worried about his home country, and wants to pass on his culture.

That means having kids.

“The first thing we thought about was having children,” Aisha says. “But it’s really difficult.” Aisha and Mandela want to start a family, but they’re worried they won’t be able to provide even the most basic necessities.

“We’ll try to work, like to work on ourselves, studying, and at the same time look for resettlement.” Aisha shrugs. “That’s our only chance, I guess.”

How can we fail to think of all those young people affected by movements of migration? — Pope Francis, Christus vivit

Signs of the Times

The Jesuit commitment to continue walking with refugees, to accompany young people like Mandela and Aisha remains – stronger and more determined than ever. But the particular Jesuits doing the work come and go.

Fr. Rob McChesney, SJ, with Comboni Missionary Sister Lourdes Garcia, a Mexican native studying Arabic in Jordan.

What was a ministry of the USA Northeast Province of the Jesuits has now changed hands; the Near East Province – which includes other Middle Eastern countries and is based in Beirut – has assumed leadership in Jordan. That means new Jesuits, and renewed commitment to the local culture. What was once an English-only ministry is expanding to include opportunities in Arabic, like retreats and spiritual direction.

This is what discernment looks like in real-time, a fruit of Ignatian spirituality lived out in a particular time and place. An openness to a God who surprises, who invites, and who walks with those who have been forgotten.

St. Charbel Makhlouf, monk and beloved Lebanese saint, adorns the walkway of St Mary's in Sweifie, the church that hosts Sacred Heart Parish. His presence at a parish with Jesuit influence represents the signs of the times, a blending of local expressions and global identity within the Catholic faith.

Our Response

A preferential option for local culture and language. The empowerment of leaders — lay and ordained — that are products of that culture, that speak that language. A spiritual accompaniment of young people that recognizes and affirms where they are — and where God is calling them to be. The Jesuits in Jordan are already grappling with the message of Pope Francis's recent Apostolic Exhortation, Querida Amazonia.

"Here in the Arab countries, the first language is Arabic. But the language is not alone. It is accompanied by culture, by civilization. It is not enough to know Arabic; it is important to be encultured in the Arab society, to know the culture and to be well integrated." — Most Rev. William H. Shomali, Auxiliary Bishop and Patriarchal Vicar for Jordan

But these Jesuits are just one community, in one place, in the global human family of God. The challenge of Querida Amazonia is for each of us: How can we make room for the lived experiences of others in our lives, in our communities, in our world so as to better serve God's dream for humanity?

[The Church] requires the stable presence of mature and lay leaders endowed with authority and familiar with the languages, cultures, spiritual experience and communal way of life in the different places, but also open to the multiplicity of gifts that the Holy Spirit bestows on every one. ... This requires the Church to be open to the Spirit’s boldness, to trust in, and concretely to permit, the growth of a specific ecclesial culture that is distinctively lay.

— Pope Francis, Querida Amazonia

Created By
Eric Clayton


Eric Clayton