“Go set Africa on fire”: Accompanying and Empowering African Youth in Discernment and Leadership
by Fr. Joseph Mboya SJ
11 laypersons, 17 Jesuits, and a religious sister, from the Jesuit provinces and regions of Africa and Madagascar (JCAM), met in Nairobi from 16-18 August for a workshop on Discernment and Leadership for Youth. This was the first meeting of its kind to be held at the conference level. The fruits of the 3 days of intense meeting can be summed up by the phrase “Go set the world on fire”, rightly fitting with the Gospel of the closing Mass where Jesus proclaims that he has come to set the world on fire. Indeed, Fr. Orobator, in his opening remarks at the beginning of the workshop invited the participants to “be fires that kindle other fires”, by being ambassadors, champions, catalysts, and leaders, charged with the zeal to accompany young people in discerning concrete life situations.
The journey to the Nairobi conference began with the mandate that the Thirty Sixth General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, gave to Fr. General, Arturo Sosa, and his counsellors to lead the Society of Jesus in discerning in common its apostolic priorities and preferences. Whereas this had been done many times before, the emphasis was on making this a more spiritual, prayerful, inclusive and collaborative process, beginning at individual and community level, extending to our areas of apostolic engagement. Fr. General appointed a counsellor for Discernment and Apostolic planning, who convoked the first-ever Worldwide Workshop on Discernment in Common and Apostolic Planning. The workshop held in Rome on February 2018, was attended by, among others, four representatives from JCAM, who were tasked with transmitting what they had learnt in Rome back in the African context by conducting trainings, workshops, and seminars on Discernment in Common. The workshop was organized and facilitated by Ms. Puleng Matsaneng from the Jesuit Institute, South Africa; Fr. Gauthier Malulu; Fr. Joseph Mboya; Fr. Joachim Zoundi; Fr. Heribert Müller; Fr. Charles Chilufya and Sch. Tendai Matare.
The Synod on Youth was held on October 2018, citing the important need to accompany the youth in various aspects of their lives such as: accompaniment in vocational discernment; marriage and sexuality; discernment about mature life-patterns in today’s highly digitized environment; discernment with regard to the promotion of justice and in the field of politics so as to build the common good. The Society of Jesus on its part promulgated its Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPS), with the third preference being to accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future. This led to a discernment that the planned workshop should have as its focus, the accompaniment and empowerment of youth in Discernment and Leadership using Ignatian tools of discernment. The workshop employed a participative approach, marked with moments of personal prayer, work in diverse groups, as well as meeting according to provinces and regions in order to identify and propose areas of emphasis accordingly.
The Obvious Needs
It was widely perceived that contemporary youth in Africa have a lot to deal with. There are issues of identity, sexuality, migration, abuses, wars, joblessness, marginalization, among a myriad of others. Underlying these is the need of young persons to be listened to, to be loved, accepted, to experience God’s liberating love and mercy, and to be provided with space where they can express themselves and explore their talents fully. It follows then, that many young people feel the need to learn how to discern or to be accompanied in making decisions. Ignatian spirituality invites one to Indifference, freedom, generosity, and gratitude. Our Jesuit apostolates ought to be places where many youths can feel welcomed, safe, and invited to embrace Ignatian spirituality.
Thus, there should be persons who are well trained to accompany our many young people. The youth need people they can look up to. For as Pope Francis says “If you are to accompany others on this path, you must be the first to follow it, day in and day out” [Christus Vivit #298]. Through the three days, the participants were exposed to various themes and practical activities, especially on the practice of discernment and the necessary tools that accompany them by developing a culture of discernment. The tools of discernment that were used included a life of prayer and the examen. The examen is a key and privileged place for discernment. Others included promoting the use of spiritual conversations in groups and promoting discernment in common by applying the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius Loyola. The participants were also taught creative ways of accompanying youth using coaching, prayer apps and websites on prayer and other important themes.
The way forward
The workshop would have been incomplete without a way forward. The first step was empowering the participants to go back to their provinces and regions and organize training programs in their contexts. This involves formation of people involved in youth ministry. Networking was encouraged in order to collate and share resources. It was considered important for the provinces and regions to evaluate how they carry out youth ministry, especially in Jesuit apostolates and places where Jesuits work. It was noted that there is more success in provinces and regions with a youth coordinator and office/secretariat. Provincials and regional superiors are to be encouraged to have a delegate for youth. Also, given that youth is one of the preferences, the Jesuits and their collaborators should respond generously to the important call of accompanying young people in their search for God and search for meaning.
Called to be friends of youth
The workshop brought the participants to the realization that the Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus (2019-2029) are intrinsically interlinked. The first and obvious connection is between the first and the third. To speak about Discernment and Leadership in youth points towards journeying with young people in their search for God, specifically through the Spiritual Exercises [cf. UAP #1]. However, the youth in Africa form the majority of the poor, migrants, the excluded, violated, and those stripped of their identity and dignity. It is with them that the mission of reconciliation and justice has to begin [cf. UAP #2]. Furthermore, we cannot realistically talk of collaborating in the care of our common home without taking seriously the role of young people [cf. UAP #4]. Caring for our common home responds to Pope Francis call for a conversion of our lifestyle and use of created things if we begin with young people.
Perhaps these words of Pope Francis can inspire us to be full of life and give life to the young people: Christ is alive! He is our hope, and in a wonderful way he brings youth to our world, and everything he touches becomes young, new, full of life. The very first words, then, that I would like to say to every young Christian are these: Christ is alive and he wants you to be alive! [Christus Vivit #1]. In order to accompany them, we have to be their friends, listening, not judging them, while challenging them positively, and above all, inviting them to be friends of Jesus Christ, the eternal youth. We hope that this weekend meeting in Nairobi is the beginning of a wonderful work of God.