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Amid the serene landscape of Northern Ontario, a group of Jesuits are forging a new path. Their journey, led by the principles of discernment, is marked by an open-ended question, “What is the future of the Society of Jesus in northern Ontario?” There’s no clear answer yet, but as Jesuit Superior John McCarthy puts it, “We may be few, but we dream big.” This is their unfolding story, a living embodiment of the Jesuit mission in an evolving world. In this article we delve into their process, their hopes, and their aspirations as they navigate this exciting period of change and possibility.

According to Father Gilles Mongeau, SJ, socius of the Jesuits of Canada, their example is a highlight of the journey of discernment of the Jesuits of Canada, of incarnating Pilgrims Together, the apostolic identity of the Jesuits in the country.

“We desire to deepen our relationships with the Indigenous community in new ways,” says McCarthy. In the photo, Catholic-Anishinabe leader Rosella Kinoshameg leads a purification ritual during the Mass for the Feast of St. Ignatius in 2022

“There is a process of communal discernment that is taking place in northern Ontario, in what is now called Great Lakes North community. The process began with the question: Should we become one body, one single community for this region, with one superior? The answer that emerged: Yes. This discernment process generated a second question: If it’s true that we are one apostolic body for northern Ontario, what does this mean for the apostolate? And so they held a second series of meetings, making good use of the province’s Service for Discernment in Common. It’s a sign that the province is moving forward in this process of listening to the Spirit… It is not really an institutional solution, but one that recognizes the fragility, vulnerability, and limitations of the context. Instead of asking the provincial to resolve matters, the Jesuits are engaging in a process of discernment, listening to the Spirit and, in the midst of this concrete situation, finding solutions to present to the provincial. They are re-founding the Society’s apostolic presence in this part of Canada, creating exciting opportunities for collaboration, networking, and increasing awareness of the presence of the Society of Jesus,” says Mongeau.

John McCarthy, Jesuit superior of the Great Lakes North community, reflects on this process of renewal for a region within a new Jesuit province. Discernment helps the community because it brings a clearer focus to the mission in this region, while providing the tools and the sense of hope that are necessary to move forward. “We may be few, but we dream big,” he says.

What is the process of discernment for Jesuits in northern Ontario?

Previously, there were three Jesuit communities in northern Ontario (one in Thunder Bay, one on Manitoulin Island and one in Sudbury) serving Indigenous, English-speaking and French-speaking people.

Through a process of discernment in common, we decided to form a single community, Great Lakes North Jesuit community, comprising nine Jesuits. Two questions were at the heart of our discernment: What is the future of the Society of Jesus in northern Ontario? What is the Church calling us to do in this region?

It has been a very real pilgrimage for us, and we don’t know where the journey will lead. What will our future be in this region? How can we incarnate our Jesuit charism in this region by being faithful to the Universal Apostolic Preferences? How can we walk with the Indigenous people?

It has been a very real pilgrimage for us, and we don’t know where the journey will lead.

We are not alone in this discernment. In concrete terms, as in Pilgrims Together, we are journeying with our apostolic partners: bishops, Indigenous peoples, and other apostolic companions in the region. We are also fortunate to have been guided in our discernment by Laurence Loubières, XMCJ, and Peter Bisson, SJ. Their generous availability and advice have been crucial to the process of communal apostolic discernment.

How is discernment carried out and what are the fruits? 

Based on a 40+ page discernment document (the fruit of our conversations) (attached), we conducted two meetings of spiritual conversations among the Jesuits. The following is the fruit of our prayer.

Areas of consensus

We seem to be living Easter Saturday. Something is dying. Something has died. We are living in the “in-between” time.  Resurrection is not assured. We are small in number, but we dream big. We desire to deepen our relationships with the Indigenous community in new ways, according to the underlying call we discerned earlier. Limit the mission to what we can handle and not overexert ourselves. Shake the dust from our feet, remain in a new way. We desire to let some things go, so that new possibilities, new life, new freedoms may emerge. We seek new direction for the parishes, Anishinabe Spiritual Centre and Villa Loyola. New life is emerging within us, but the concrete ways forward are still to be discerned. A more focused conversation will continue.

Limit the mission to what we can handle and not overexert ourselves. Shake the dust from our feet, remain in a new way.

We are called to deepen our friendship by walking a path of reconciliation and mutual understanding with Indigenous peoples, as bridge-builders, as those who wish to share and celebrate the joy of the Gospel rooted in Christ incarnate, poor and humble. We are called to the service of the Church of northern Ontario; attentive listening in relationship will enable the mission to emerge on our pilgrim path. Offered to us are the hands held out by the Indigenous and Francophone communities who are calling us into new modes of living out our longstanding relationships and commitments.

In addition to this general consensus, we surfaced some preliminary concrete suggestions. We did not develop consensus on these suggestions, but we wished to ensure that all the concrete items were saved for future discussions.

The apostolic discernment continues in early fall with a September 11 meeting of the Jesuit community with Laurence Loubières and Peter Bisson. On November 2–3, 2023, we hope to gather some Indigenous partners, and representatives from the Diocese of Sault Ste. Marie, for a conversation on the future of the Anishinabe Spiritual Centre. A future conversation will be had, as well, regarding the mission of Villa Loyola in Sudbury.

We hope to offer concrete recommendations to Father Provincial sometime in early to mid winter 2024. At least, that is the hope!

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