Walking together in challenging times, companionship in the fulfilment of our common mission – this unique experience of unity in diversity can be experienced by the participants of different JECSE meetings – a network of Jesuit and companion schools in Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.

This time, Heads and Leaders of the Primary schools enjoyed being together at the regional meeting of our educational network. During the 4-day conference in Soutelo, Portugal, we got to know each other, reflected on our shared mission, prayed and gained strength to better serve our school communities.

We lead people, not just institutions

Like our high school friends before us in October 2023, we were guided by the words “He sent them two by two… Accompaniment; walking with our colleagues from and into the heart of our Ignatian tradition”. The first input during our meeting was offered by Mr Ivan Miron from Spain. Following his inspiration, we reflected together: What are called to do? What is our vocation? How do we reconcile being managers of an educational institution with the mission of leading others?

Let’s build a culture of care that nurtures hope

Prof. Ana Berastegui from the Universidad Pontificia Comillas (Spain), showed us the enormity of the mental health problems our students are facing in a post-pandemic world. Although the statistics she presented might make us lose hope, she also showed us the antidote to the modern crisis – the urgent need to build a culture of care and trust! The great continuation of this thought was the presentation by Dr John Stoer (Education Delegate, Great Britain) and Mrs Maria Neal (Great Britain). They shared their observations and practical experiences of how to build relationships with the students and how to accompany them. Their call to listen at different levels and to remember to “speak little and listen well” still resonates with us.

You need to experience support yourself in order to accompany others

An important moment of the meeting in Portugal was the time for listening to the testimonies of school leaders. Our colleagues Daniela Camilleri Sacco (Malta), Benjamin Rombaut (Belgium North) and Antonio González Crespo (Spain), interviewed by Jonathan Tiernan (Education Delegate from Ireland), showed us where they find support in their mission. In an honest way, they also shared moments of loneliness as school leaders and what they have learnt from them. Moved by their testimonies, we then talked in pairs about our own experiences in this area and considered how we could take better care of ourselves in the future.

Dreaming about accompaniment for mission

In the final group work, preceded by many moments of individual and group prayer, spiritual conversation, sharing and listening, we looked to the future together. We dreamed about the kind of accompaniment culture we want for our schools and we wondered what we would bring back to our schools from the conference. In the closing Eucharist, celebrated in three languages and led by Fr Jimmy Bartolo SJ from Malta and Fr Chris Cann from the UK, we entrusted our hopes and plans to God.

It’s time to return to the school communities

In order to strengthen the bonds formed during this conference, before returning home we went for a walk around Braga, continuing the conversations we had started and regaining strength in the Portuguese sun.

We would like to thank Mr Pedro Valente – Educational Delegate of the Portuguese Province, Fr Calros Carneiro SJ and the team at Casa da Torre for their great hospitality in Portugal and their help in organising this meeting. We would like to express our gratitude to all who helped us to prepare this event, especially the volunteers who accompanied us throughout the conference and all the participants who made this event so special.