Jean-Paul Hernandez SJ
Letting life speak
I was born in Switzerland in 1968. Ideological struggles and dreams of “grandeur”. Then, two Jesuit friends, a biography of Francis from Assisi, the person of John Paul II, the discovery of Ignatius…
I was born in Switzerland in April 1968. In a family of Spanish immigrants. From my parents I received a boundless trust, a sober – almost implicit – faith, centered on the person of Jesus, a healthy distance from the sacristies. As well as a “combative” affirmation of Mediterranean pride.
My childhood is a memory of many different cities where my parents moved for work, for nostalgia or for enjoyment. And the impression of being, everywhere, basically “from elsewhere”. The freedom of “the road”. The charm of “the one who passes by”.
Two Jesuits, friends of my father’s, from his studies, inhabited my childhood mythology. About the first, I was struck by his ability to talk about anything that was not “church.” Honest laugh. A clown. The second was highly educated, but exaggeratedly modest. When I was 8 years old, a Baptist acquaintance gave me “The Good Stories of the Bible.” I loved it.
Adolescence was all about ideological struggles, dreams of grandeur (in the field of journalism), and distance from an official “dull and fading” Church. I didn’t get Confirmation. A Calvinist friend lent me a biography of Francis: I wanted a life like this!
Big dreams and the invitation by John Paul II
At High School I was part of a Pentecostal group, but I was interested in the Jesuits, because the professors spoke so badly about them! Many of my friends didn’t believe; I would have wanted to give my life for their faith. But I didn’t know how to speak. I was ashamed. Then my life itself should have spoken. Becoming a Carthusian?
Soon, the person of John Paul II became central to my vocational journey. He repeated: “there is a need for priests”. I thought: “Well, if it is true that there is a need, it can be done”. Then, I read Ignatius: “defense and propagation of the faith”, “under the Roman Pontiff”. And that, as “poor and itinerant priests”. What was I waiting for! “You’re too young”, my parents told me after graduation. Now, I thank them.
I studied literature in Fribourg and worked at Swiss International Radio. At the end of the second year, I experienced the Ignatian Exercises. It was this Jesus that I wanted to give to people! I decided to be a member of the Society of Jesus, while cycling with my brother along the “Camino de Santiago”, towards the “World Youth Day”, in 1989.
I joined the novitiate in Genoa in 1992. A violent purification from all human expectations awaited me. “My kingdom is not of this world”. The “war of the waves” is within the heart. The journey is interior. I experienced myself for the first time as a “poor pilgrim”. Great joy.
Stages of the journey
Then Philosophy in Padua, with the first significant apostolic experiences. I would never have imagined, Lord, to be able to talk about You. Two difficult years followed, in our school in Turin, where great friendships remained. I understood that I was not made for institutions and large structures. Then, theology in Naples. It’s hard to go back to school at 30! But it’s incredibly good, if you live in a small suburban community. Then, license and doctorate in Theology in Frankfurt.
It is the city where the Euro was born, where everything is paid for. There, I sensed strongly that every city needs a “lung of gratuitousness”, in order not to die suffocated. And the last “lung of gratuitousness” in our market-cities are the churches, the historical churches. Because the beauty of art is free, it is “useless”. Because whoever is in a church must be there in a free way. And must announce, in the midst of all the banks and all the frenzies, the Gratuity of God.
Being Living Stones
This is how the experience of the “Lebendige Steine” (“Living Stones”) groups was born. They announce, to those who enter a church, the gratuitous love that is God, through the explanation of art and architecture; Beauty through beauty.
After ordination and finishing my doctorate, my first mission “as a grown up”: “you will go to Bologna, to take care of young people!”, the Provincial announced to me. From 2005 to 2014 I lived at “Villa San Giuseppe”, on the hills of Bologna. In this “Spirituality Center” of ours, I accompanied many courses of Spiritual Exercises for young and old, and listening to the hearts that encounter God was the most important schooling in my life. But very soon I experienced the need not to remain “on the mountain”.
In the heart of the city
In the historical center of Bologna, in the middle of the streets filled with students, as Jesuits, we had, for decades, a youth center: the “Centro Poggeschi”. By then without Jesuits and with a program that seemed to me to hide the beauty of our spirituality. It was that hidden beauty that I wanted to reawaken. Why couldn’t what we discover “on the mountain” also be discovered in the beating heart of the city?
Isn’t our spirituality a spirituality for everyone? Aren’t the Exercises a way of becoming “contemplative in action”? Aren’t the Exercises a way of becoming “contemplative in action”? Is not our faith the discovery of an incarnate God? This is how the idea of accompanying students in the “Spiritual Exercises in Ordinary Life” was born.
Spiritual Exercises in Daily Life
With the young confrere Narciso Sunda, we had put up posters in (and outside of) the bulletin boards, in many Faculties. Would they be read? The first evening we waited restlessly at the entrance to the Centro Poggeschi. A few minutes before the indicated time, unknown students began to enter. We had never seen so many, for such a challenging proposal. In that event, all my apostolic convictions coagulated: what we can do best, what is most urgent, what everyone hungers for, most deeply, is… the encounter with God.
From the Exercises’ journey grew all the other Ignatian youth groups, that soon formed the “Loyola Network”. Culture, marginalization, evangelization, formation, … but, above all, a “home”. This was the new youth reality born of the Spiritual Exercises… or, between us, even further upstream, born out of “sticking up posters”.
The years in Bologna were, for me, also the beginning of the teaching of theology. But as I reiterated courses, exams, teachers’ councils, conferences, articles,… the same reflection always came back to my heart: I don’t do true theology from the University chair, but with my groups of volunteers, with those who evangelize, with the Living Stones, with those who serve in the night, with those who stop at one of our “slow masses”.
In 2014 I was sent to Rome as Chaplain of the University “La Sapienza”, and Superior of the small community of Jesuits, living inside the University city. A real trench. For those who are not afraid of the roar of the cannon. In fact, the architect Piacentini had conceived its plan, in 1932, “as a great open-air basilica where, instead of the altar, there will be a Minerva in arms, the heart of this temple of knowledge and arms”. The Minerva is still there. In arms. Nowhere else could I have understood so well the expression with which Pope Francis describes the Church: “a camp hospital.” Thus, our Chapel, planted within the camp. And my admiration today for those who still operate there.
Jesuit to the core
In the fall of 2016, I attended the 36th General Congregation where we elected our new Father General, Arturo Sosa. And on that occasion I had three thoughts: 1. Life has only one meaning: the giving of everything. 2. Today more than ever, if the Society did not exist, it would have to be invented. 3. If I were born again, I would enter the Society again. A thousand and one times.
For three years now I have been living in Naples where I teach theology. And I continue to take care of the “Pietre Vive” groups, now active in about 40 cities in Europe and America. In prayer, I like to simply repeat the name “Jesus”.