Despite her unsuccessful attempt to secure a position at the Centre justice et foi last year, Isabelle Lemelin had made quite an impression. Her impact was so significant that she was invited, a short time later, to apply for the position of director, a role that she has wholeheartedly embraced since mid-May 2023.
Why work in an Ignatian centre? Religious communities that put reflection and discernment at the heart of their manner of working are the ones that resonate the most with her. “I believe that the intellectual dimension is an essential component of the spiritual journey.” Moreover, an Ignatian centre encourages the empowerment of individuals: “To work with a religious organization that believes that Jesus is the saviour of humanity, that God is present in the world, is a call to action and empowerment for each and every one of us.” “I’m a believer who doubts,” she adds.
The centre, enriched by the remarkable work of personalities such as Élisabeth Garant, is a bridge-builder, as Jean-Claude Ravet has pointed out. Ms. Lemelin, with her multifaceted training and experience, sees the centre as a pivotal player in Quebec, an entity that serves not only as a platform for profound reflection but also as a conduit for Ignatian-inspired action that aims to shape a world that embodies justice for all.
A journey that combines theory, research and practice
For Isabelle Lemelin, like many others, adolescence was a period not only of exploration and growth, but also of questioning her faith. “So literature, theatre and other art forms that are linked to the spoken word became my main focus and meant that my adolescence was in some way more about resistance and defiant questioning, which led me to study anthropology, because anthropologists are often people who are on the margins.
“I believe that the intellectual dimension is an essential component of the spiritual journey.”
As Professor Raymond Massé used to say, “You’re always someone else’s Other.” Ms. Lemelin learned this in theory at Université Laval and in practice during her travels. “With Kurds from Turkey, I was the exotic one when I showed them the location of Chicoutimi on a map.” These experiences still nourish not only her way of seeing the world but also her way of working, she explains, even though she moved away from anthropology after her master’s degree and completed a certificate in religious studies. “I started to look more closely at Judaism and Islam, because my preferred cultural area was the Middle East. I went there a second time to prepare a doctorate, but the data collected was lost in the limbo of Canadian-Lebanese diplomacy.” So, back in Quebec, Ms. Lemelin worked for a while at McGill University’s Faculty of Law as a research assistant, while at the same time studying cultural organization management at the HEC. This work renewed her interest in research. After obtaining a scholarship, she went on to devote herself “to biblical wisdom literature under the supervision of the great Francophone exegete Jean-Jacques Lavoie” and completed a doctorate at UQÀM. She then continued to deepen her knowledge with four post-doctoral positions, including one in Morocco and another in Jerusalem.
Work at the Centre justice et foi
With her background as a researcher and her expertise in management, Ms. Lemelin became director of the Centre justice et foi in the spring of 2023.
Working in Quebec’s only Ignatian centre for social analysis is, in her view, like playing a mediating role. “The Centre justice et foi has always been unique, even at the time of its creation, when there was obviously much more uniformity in the social fabric of Quebec.” Quebec has clearly changed, but the work of reflection and action of the early days remains: “Obviously, there are similar things being done in universities. But creating links between this milieu and grassroots and religious contexts is unique to the Centre justice et foi.” So, as Ms. Lemelin explains with a smile, the centre plays a central role in Quebec.
“The Centre justice et foi has always been unique.”
This is the context that inspires her ideas for the centre’s future work. “It’s obvious that I’m bringing something new to the table, and I know it’s important that I question our usual practices, preconceived ideas and ways of doing things. Whether we like it or not, the centre is at a critical juncture, not just because there’s been a change in leadership, but because of major societal changes and questions about the future, particularly in view of the ageing of religious communities and the lack of new members. So we can’t help but wonder about the future, and also about what we might do with our intellectual heritage. I bring a different vision simply because I come from a different background, with different connections. But I’m also a rather ‘original,’ if not creative, person, which I think is necessary if I’m to do what the selection committee asked me to do, namely, create a Centre 2.0.” Having been trained to think, argue, live and interact with people from diverse backgrounds, Ms. Lemelin is thus ideally positioned to bridge the gap between different milieus in society, as well as within the centre itself. “What do you do when people have such different backgrounds and you still have to work together to get somewhere? You need time, patience, listening, respect and a common goal that’s bigger than yourself.”
Ms. Lemelin points out that the CJF represents “something of the soul of Quebec, literally.” How can we work together? This is as much a question for the centre itself as it is for the world in general. Today’s problems are far too complex to avoid confronting each other. We need to find ways to work together, especially in the face of complexity.
Celebrating 40 years, looking toward the future
The Centre justice et foi is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year. “That says a lot about the relevance of this research center, which has always done things, or almost always, with limited resources.” Starting out with an almost entirely Jesuit team in its early days, the Ignatian centre today includes a Jesuit research associate and Jesuits on the board of directors, but above all a team of laypeople who all contribute a great deal in terms of reflection. In fact, a number of activities designed to engage the head and the heart are scheduled throughout the year.
“One of the aims of the centre is certainly to engage in analysis, but it’s also to make the world a better place.”
With its new director at the helm, the Centre justice et foi continues to give tangible expression to Ignatian values in today’s world. “The beauty of this spiritual world is a powerful reminder of vulnerability. And for me, my strength is my vulnerability. One of the aims of the centre is certainly to engage in analysis, but it’s also to make the world a better place—more welcoming and more just—for everyone, which means listening to voices that are seldom heard and making sure that they are listened to. This is the essence of the Ignatian inspiration, mission and contribution of a centre like ours.”