At the CenterAt the Center

Retreats - parish work - spiritual direction
the Jesuit presence is felt in Jordan.

The Jesuit Center in Amman, Jordan, is the heart of a small but growing Jesuit presence in the city and the country. It is here that Fr. Clarence Burby, an Iraqi Jesuit, conducts retreats for young adults; where Fr. Kevin O'Connell, a Jesuit from New England, serves as pastor at a church for English-speaking Catholics, including personnel from the Irish embassy and maids from the Philippines (see box story to the right); where Fr. Thomas Fitzpatrick, another New England Jesuit, does spiritual direction and supports diocesan work.

At the heart of the Jesuit Center are two lay people, Emile El-Deek, a former parochial school teacher, and Jack Hijazeen, a former seminarian with a strong interest in youth ministry. They both began their journey of lay collaboration with the Jesuits in 1989, shortly after Fr. Fitzpatrick arrived in Jordan to start work as the center's director. Since then, the center has grown into an integral part of the local church, the result, in many respects, of Emile's and Jack's efforts. This in itself is an extraordinary witness in a local Christian community in which lay people do not normally take on prominent roles of responsibility and leadership in the life of the Church.

But the road was not an easy one for either Emile or Jack. Both spent about two years going through a spiritual, theological, and personal formation process. Jack, who'd team up with Fr. Burby to offer three-day retreats for youth, is working on an MA in religious education at Boston College, which he expects to finish next year. This will help him in continuing his work in youth ministry once back in Amman.


Jack Hijazeen, whose family are Christian Bedouins, works in youth ministry at the Jesuit Center in Amman. He is currently at Boston College, working on an MA in religious education.

Jack comes to Boston from a very different world, one where Christians make up a small percentage of the population. He's already tried to help shape the attitudes of the young Christians with whom he works who are living in a predominantly Muslim society.

"Christians like to think of themselves as a minority," he explains; "but what I say to them is that we are Arabs. In fact there were Christian Arabs here before there were Muslims, and we should not feel like a weak minority. For a long time the Christians were trying to hide, trying not to make any noise to disturb the big majority. That affected us in a very negative way. We are not just a small minority; we are part of this society, part of this country."

Jordan and Boston are different, but young Christians face many of the same issues everywhere, issues of adjusting to the speed of change in society, issues of the conflict that the modern world presents.

They are trying to fit into this world, fit into the culture, and the challenge for them is to get some kind of balance between the world we are living in and the teachings of Jesus. Sometimes it is difficult for them."

Jack already has a lot of experience confronting these issues; with his new learning and new experience, not to mention his professional credentials from Boston College, he hopes he can help the young Christians of Jordan even more.


Emile El-Deek, a layman on staff at the Jesuit Center in Amman, Jordan, commits himself through his studies and works to spreading the influence of the center's ministries.

Emile made that same journey to Boston College for an MA in religious education, which he received almost two years ago. He is now actively involved in the formation of teachers of religious education at local Christian schools, conducting workshops for parochial-school teachers of a variety of rites, including Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Roman Catholic, Armenian, Orthodox Chaldean, and Catholic Chaldean among them. He travels extensively around Jordan with an assortment of programs designed not only to offer teachers more-effective methods of conveying the tradition of faith to students but also to help them deepen their own faith in ways appropriate to the realities of Christian Arabs living in a largely Islamic and increasingly modern world.

"The teachers have a lot of experience," Emile explains, "but they need to reflect upon it. They don't have the time or they don't give themselves the time." Thus Emile has organized meetings to give them the opportunity to do just that, "to think about their experience."

This reflection allows the teachers to become what he calls "critical thinkers," to move from being teachers to being educators. If they do not make this move, he believes, "the teachers will not improve themselves and they cannot improve their students."

One of Emile's major goals is to introduce methods of education that emphasize the experiences and active response of students. "I found that most important is how they can teach in dialogue. What is happening now is one way of teaching. My aim is to help teachers learn to teach in dialogue with the student and to be not just someone who talks about things."

In the context of Jordan, this is something new, so Emile designs his workshops to introduce the teachers to this experience. "Once I had a workshop of 60 teachers, and my topic was the aims of education. So I told them, 'I have three or four questions. If you don't cooperate and answer the questions I won't give you anything. If you cooperate and you talk, then I will succeed and we will succeed. If you don't speak I won't succeed because I don't prepare.'

"Of course I did prepare the ideas that I wanted to raise. But I wanted to encourage them and let them know that they are important in dialogue that they are important in sharing. And so the meeting was a success, and that was the first time that I had dialogue with 60 people."

A new style of teaching is important for helping the students develop a deeper spiritual life. But more is needed, for to reach the goal of transforming students, transforming the religion teachers is crucial. Emile offers an example: "If the teacher's aim is to convert the students to become Christians--they are Christian in name, but I mean Christian at heart--if the teacher is really to move them, then the teacher has to know what conversion means; the teachers have to go through the process of converting themselves."

And simply on pragmatic grounds, he says, "the teacher should have some background in spirituality--in theology, of course, but first in spirituality. The teachers themselves should also go through the process of conversion and become really Christian so that while they are teaching they can know from the students' questions what stage they are at--not as a spiritual director but as a teacher--and can help the students better."

Thus he sees his teacher training as including spirituality, theology, and Scripture. He calls this his work "for the long run." And he knows that it will take time. But he has time, and he also knows that his work is taking on an increased significance as a result of a recent law that allows for religious education of Christians attending government schools--a major breakthrough!

As a layman forming religious educators and teaching as a local theological expert, Emile has offered an example to local Christians of a potential vitality for the Jordanian Church in the future. As a Greek Orthodox, he brings an additional gift to the life and work of the Jesuit Center. His work with the Jesuits and his familiarity and comfort with both Ignatian spirituality and Catholic tradition make for a valuable witness to a local Christianity often divided by confessional lines. He wrote his MA thesis on the use of icons in religious education, a method he sees as both wholly Orthodox and wholly Ignatian. In addition to the work of forming teachers, Emile uses a slide presentation at the center and local parishes as well to teach theology as it is represented in icons and to invite people into the experience of prayer that the icon can offer.

The need for Jesuits in places like Jordan and now Iraq, where the New England Province has missioned its first man in nearly 30 years for work in a Chaldean seminary in Baghdad, is undeniable. With the high esteem people in the Middle East hold for the spiritual life, religious vocations are not lacking but need fostering. Next to that, a new course has been set with the work of Emile El-Deek and Jack Hijazeen. Lay collaboration will form an integral, even central, part of the Jesuit presence in the Middle East.

Parish sans Boundaries

Fr. Kevin O'Connell, SJ, former president of Le Moyne College in Syracuse, arrived in Amman about a year ago to serve as pastor of a new English-language parish there. In addition to U.S. and other diplomats and business people who are Catholic, there are a number of Catholic Sri Lankans, Filipinos, and Indians who work as domestic help who would attend English-language masses at various parishes. But the departure of a particular English-speaking priest would necessitate the suspension of a mass that these Catholics had come to depend upon. The Latin Catholic Patriarch of Jerusalem, whose jurisdiction includes Amman, asked the New England Province to assign a Jesuit to serve this large congregation's needs effectively. Enter Fr. O'Connell, who had studied Arabic and had done biblical and archaeological research in the Middle East.

Fr. O'Connell's new "parish" consists of four weekend masses in different churches around the city (some with the musical assistance of a Filipino choir), weddings, baptisms, religious education, counseling, and other pastoral works.

You can check out Fr. O'Connell's website, with links to the Jesuit Center's site, at . (Paul Heck, SJ)






New England Jesuits were in the Middle East well before Jordan was a nation. They were in Baghdad, running a high school and a university (see Fadheria article) as well as other ministries. Hopes at that time included establishing a Jesuit region or even province, made up of Arab Jesuits and fostering local vocations. While this hope materialized with the work of French Jesuits in Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, the three countries today forming the Jesuits' Near East Province, the process in Iraq was cut short by the expulsion of the Jesuits in the late '60s. The Jesuit presence in Jordan is the legacy of the Baghdad mission.

The work in Jordan is different from its predecessor in terms of size and focus but very similar in terms of significance. Christian Jordanians constitute about 5 percent of the population, but in the daily life they share with Muslims they play a tremendously important role in the mission of dialogue. They also have many needs in terms of their own religious formation and faith development, and the New England Jesuits were invited to Jordan specifically to attend to those needs. (Paul Heck, SJ)






Bedouin Christians: the phrase sounds a little strange. But Christianity is not at all unfamiliar to the Bedouin heritage. Most of us, if we have any awareness of Christian Arabs at all, assume them to be sedentary people, whether of citied or agricultural origins. This is largely true of Christian Jordanians as it is of Christian Arabs as a whole. But the Jordanian population, aside from those of Palestinian origin, includes those who are tribally organized, among them Christians.

There are few Bedouins who continue to live the nomadic life, which government policy in recent decades has discouraged, but the life of the desert is not far away. Of the Christian tribes in Jordan, there are two, the Hijazeen and 'Akasheh, who have only this century abandoned the nomadic life and even today raise goats and sheep as herdsmen. It is a strange feeling to stand amidst these Roman and Greek Catholics on the northern edge of the Great Arabian Desert and survey the magnificent horizon of undulating desert as far as the eye can see, while flocks of sheep and goats pass by, bleating vigorously in response to the call of the shepherd. The whispers of the desert are a stone's throw away and remain an attraction to both young and old, though now settled in village life. Personal honor and generosity, basic features of desert life, remain essential marks of moral life today. Tribal raids have receded into history, but the sacrifice has not. The birth of a child is celebrated, tribal alliances cemented, vows kept, weddings celebrated with the blood of a goat or a sheep. The sacrifice bestows a blessing on an event and forms an integral part of the way these Christians understand both their faith and the world around them.

There are probably no Christians in the world so closely integrated into the religious and cultural matrix from which Islam emerged, the Hijazeen themselves tracing their origins to the Hijaz, the birthplace of Islam. They feel completely comfortable identifying themselves culturally with the world that produced Islam, a potentially disturbing suggestion to Christian Arabs of citied or agricultural provenance. Living in alliance with Muslim tribes as they have for centuries, these Christians of Bedouin origin offer a unique example of a Christian life that expresses itself in language very much shared with Islam. (Paul Heck, SJ)




Paul Heck, SJ

Paul Heck, SJ, currently working toward a doctorate in Islamic Studies at the University of Chicago, has lived and worked with Jesuits in Egypt, Jordan, and Syria.




Page maintained by R VandeVelde, [email protected] Updated: Fri., May 09 1997