The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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Towards a Common Spirituality

Towards a Common Spirituality

in the Social Apostolate

María del Mar Magallón(1)


This was the evocative title of the meeting I was invited to participate in on behalf of ALBOAN and the social sector of the Loyola Province: the Second European Meeting of the social apostolate held last August in Slovakia. Although somewhat daunted by the idea of meeting many unknown people, most of them Jesuits, I felt motivated by the title from the very start, for it frames the two terms that have been the foundation of my life: spirituality and the social apostolate. As the date of the meeting drew closer, I reflected on my personal experience in relation to these terms, and discovered that both had always gone hand in hand in the story of my life. They are not two independent topics for the spiritual has moved me towards social involvement, and through such involvement my faith has been challenged and has matured.

     With these premises I travelled to the city of Piešt’any, where a large number of people committed to social action would be meeting together to share their experience, hear one another, question one another and try to envision their common spirituality. Among those attending were representatives of the Misión Obrera movement, Eurojess, and the Jesuit Refugee Service; there were people dedicated to working with minors and immigrants, and others involved in international solidarity. Everyone was there to share an experience that starts off for each one as a personal calling but inevitably evolves into a communitarian questioning oriented to the transformation of social structures.


A spirituality de-centred by encounter


     If I had to use one word to describe the experience I had in the course of this week, I would prefer the word “encounter.” Many other terms appeared during the four intense days of work, but I think most of them revolved around the key concept of encounter: cultivating personal relations, being close to those who are excluded, working in the frontier regions…

     We began the sessions by delving deep into whatever basic experience it was that impelled each of us at some moment in our lives to work in the social apostolate. As we told one another our different stories, we discovered that our relationships and our encounters had been a privileged medium (in many cases, even indispensable) for producing the experience. Contact with, and closeness to, excluded people, a shared community life (religious, familial, communal), encounters with people who live in extreme situations, leaving our familiar lives to meet up with the unknown—all these were experiences that we expressed and shared with one another as we tried to explain our life stories.

     If we pause for a while to savour the word “encounter”, we discover that it has countless shades of meaning. On the one hand, encounter de-centres us, makes us step away from our selves, places us outdoors. At the same time, encounter becomes for us a source of hope and energy. The personal histories that we shared about our social involvement confirmed both aspects. When we enter into relations by placing ourselves at the service of excluded people, we become aware of our limitations and our vulnerability, we feel pain at their suffering, and we experience impotence; at the same time, though, those same relationships give us the courage to keep building the energy to overcome the crises and the hope to keep believing in life.

     Spirituality, then, is encounter, an encounter that de-centres us, dis-locates us, makes us conscious of our fragility and propels us to accompany those who are suffering and to continue to work for justice. In this way justice and spirituality are not two independent concepts, separated by social or theological discourse; rather, they are two sides of the same coin. Both feed into one another and challenge one another mutually. My faith grounds my commitment to justice and requires it, while that commitment appeals to, questions and matures my faith. For Ignatian spirituality, it is not a case of faith on one side and justice on the other; rather, the two are entwined and united.

     After recounting our basic experiences and becoming aware of the crises we have lived through, on the third day of the meeting we went a step further and asked: how do we progress from personal experience to community experience? How does our social action contribute to the transformation of the present power structures? Is there space for hope? Must we resign ourselves solely to resisting? All these questions led us finally to the definitive question: What should be our common mission as the European social sector?


From Ignatian spirituality to a common apostolate


     The social sector in Europe spreads over many different areas of work: assistance to refugees, work with minors and Gypsies, ministry in the prisons, Misión Obrera, development aid, social centres, assistance and training for immigrants. The meeting in Slovakia made it clear that this diversity of tasks does not represent a diversity of spiritualities; rather, all of it emerges from a common spirituality, and should therefore impel us towards a shared mission.

     Consequently, as a first exercise of our common apostolate we should become aware of the diversity of works in which we are involved, but we should also recognise that we are all part of a European apostolic body with Ignatian spirituality.

     Moreover, there are certain specific features of our shared mission which need to be cultivated and which in my opinion could give form and colour to this European apostolic body:


§           Listening to people: We live in an epoch of great changes and uncertainties. Yesterday’s solutions don’t work today. Poverty has changed its appearances, and situations of injustice and inequality are easily camouflaged amidst new social structures. As a body we will have to be alert to the signs of the times and know how to discern them jointly, in order to be able to respond appropriately to the reality of the people most in need.

§           In companionship: A spirituality of encounter cannot take the form of a solitary apostolate. Part of the essence of our social involvement is our recognition of the worth and the dignity of the people around us. Strangely, sometimes we are able to perceive that worth in the poor people we accompany more easily than we do in those with whom we share the mission (communities, families, groups…). Moreover, the social apostolate can sometimes exhaust us and leave us discouraged. On this journey we need to be able to count on companions who will support us in moments of crisis, listen to our concerns, celebrate with us and enhance our work. As regards lay people, the challenge is twofold. If we wish to maintain the spirituality of the works of the Society, we must involve lay people in the mission. If we are true to our convictions, they should be accompanied by training processes that will lead to lay people’s assuming new responsibilities and becoming progressively more incorporated into the decision-making mechanisms of the works and the European apostolic body.

§           Constructing citizenship: Most of the factors producing death and suffering for the persons we accompany are to be found in the countries of the global North. It is forces here in the North that stir up wars in remote places, create unjust market conditions and erect mechanisms of exclusion that favour the movement of capital but not that of persons. Even though the tasks of accompaniment and assistance remain essential, the European social apostolate cannot rest content just with these. The works that we represent have enormous potential, and they should be contributing to the construction of a committed European citizenship that is mobilised for the common good and the protection of people, over and above all particular interests.

§           In networks: There exists a fairly generalised tendency to compartmentalise what we know: light and shadow, rich and poor, faith and justice… and we persist in that practice as we relate to other sectors and organisations. If we stop to think about it, these differentiations that we make do not lead us to the end we desire, but instead put tremendous limits on our ability to act; furthermore, they cause poor coordination, inefficiencies and false comparisons. In these days when the problems are complex, the solutions must be the result of different disciplines working together – and who more able than the Society of Jesus to put them all in mutual interrelation?


     I should not fail to mention the importance of the communities of solidarity, to which we referred on several occasions in the course of the meeting. In my opinion, these communities would be an ideal way to help these same characteristics develop and become manifest. These would be communities in which lay people and Jesuits live together in companionship in frontier situations, on the lookout for what is happening around them, constructing a European citizenship in solidarity with those who live on the margins of history and cooperating in networks with many other persons and communities who, like us, want to be candles shining in the midst of the darkness.

     Many questions were left unanswered in Slovakia. To the extent that we progress toward finding answers, we will be creating a common apostolate.


Original Spanish

Translation by Joseph Owen SJ


María del Mar Magallón

Fundación ALBOAN

Padre Lojendio, 2, 2º

48008 Bilbao SPAIN



1) María del Mar Magallón is Assistant to the Director of ALBOAN, an NGO of Loyola Province in Spain [Editor’s note].