Sr Pauline Campbell writes about her recent visit to Slovenia for the Annual Conference of Spiritual Directors Europe from 3rd – 12th March.
On the 2nd March 2015 three of us set out for Slovenia via Frankfurt Airport – Bernie (a Holy Faith sister), Therese (a Sister of Mercy) and myself. We had a seven hour delay at Frankfurt and so we decided to see the city. As we walked along on the main street admiring the locality we saw a spire of a Church in the distance. We made our way towards it and found ourselves at St Bartholomew’s Cathedral, where we had the opportunity of being present for the 12 noon Mass in German. Since the 11th Century the Church was used for the election of Emperors and German Kings and after 1562 for their solemn coronations. With all its history, the primary role of the Cathedral was not of a historical monument, but as a house of worship to God. We were surprised to see a leaflet at the back of the Church depicting NIGHTFEVER. I have been involved in it in Clarendon Street Church for the last twelve months. Originally, it began with German Youth after the visit of St. John Paul II.
We arrived in Ljubljana airport, Slovenia at 5.45 p.m., where transport was waiting to bring us to the Retreat House (House of Bread) where we were greeted by the Ursuline Sisters and the Team members of SDE. As we had a day to spare we travelled next day into Ljubljana, quite a distance from the Retreat House. We had decided before coming to Slovenia that we would visit the castle of Ljubljana, towering over the town. It was a mighty fortress for more than five centuries. We travelled from the centre of the city in just one minute, with the panoramic funicular railway, to the castle. History interweaves with the present day at every step of Slovenian history. Little did we know that this would be a preparation for the theme of our Conference, when we visited the Penitentiary and heard the dreadful cries on a video from cells where prisoners were held captive before execution. Originally, the property of the Hapsburg family, it became a barracks, refuge for the poor and finally a prison. The theme of the Conference was Truth, Compassion, and Reconciliation which leads to Transfiguration. We were introduced into the theme with a presentation by a Jesuit, many of them very involved in the Conference, followed by a video ‘Il Colore Dell’amore’ with the history of Slovenia, in preparation for our pilgrimage on the next day to the mass graves of Crngrob.
The following workshops were led by the Jesuits involved in the Faculty of Theology, Ljubljana: Working for Reconciliation – An Experience from Gorizia: David Bresciani SJ Experiencing the One Year Program of School of Forgiveness at the Ignatian Home of Spirituality: Ivan Poljansek SJ Healing in Spiritual Exercises: Janez Poljansek SJ Healing Societal Traumas through Transitional Justice – The case of Slovenia and Beyond: Peter Rozie SJ Trauma and Art: Robert Dolinar SJ
In 1945, at the end of the 2nd World War, 400,000 soldiers of the defeated foreign formations and civil refugees from Poland, Hungary, France, Czechoslovakia, Romania, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark, England, Switzerland, USA, Norway, Sweden, Spain, Brazil and Canada were captured by the Yugoslav army in the Slovenian territory. These people were killed and buried in mass graves by the Communist revolutionaries, without any trial processes and any known records of the killed persons. Some of the soldiers who shot these people were Slovenians. They were forced by the Yugoslav army to shoot or they too would be shot themselves. Some of these soldiers are still alive today – depressed or alcoholic – hence the silence of the people. Today, there are seven registered mass graves, some marked by the sign of the cross. The victims were buried in a hurry in very shallow areas and the people could see parts of their bodies. The smell started to spread and the water was contaminated. The government tried to hide the evidence and forbade the people to visit the graves and to speak about the past. The people began to bring flowers and light candles secretly at night. In 1990, after Communism ended, the Catholic Archbishop celebrated Mass for reconciliation at the graves. In 2001, ten years after Communism, the commission researched the situation. The third day of the Conference was Pilgrimage Day. We began the day with Morning Prayer. Our pilgrimage is a sign of the openness of our whole reality as persons to God who is searching us. We were invited to accept the liberating spirit that his Word is offering us through our personal and collective histories. We were asked to join our hearts and spirits to praise God by our walk and singing.
Eighty of us in pairs and in silence departed from the Retreat House at 9.30 a.m. There were two cars for those who might find the walk too long. It was windy and cold but dry and we sang the Taize hymns ‘Misericordias Domini’ and ‘O Christe Domine Jesu’ as we walked towards the mass graves of Crngrob. Each country had a lighted candle and a red rose to be left on the sacred ground marked by large crosses. The walk was towards the woods. It was about forty minutes uphill to the mountainous woods. The Pilgrimage was led by a Jesuit who led us to each area in prayer. As we sang and prayed for the perpetrators and those murdered, the Slovenian soldiers were practising in a shooting range nearby. These sounds penetrated our hearts and souls with the memory of how these prisoners of war had died, shot and thrown into large holes.
In a group sharing later that evening, there was a religious sister from France who shared with us. Her father was shot by the Germans when she was four years old. It took her so many years to forgive as a religious, but finally it happened. That evening her wound was reopened and she felt the pain of loss. We were a European group that came to help with healing for a country that was wounded by the past, to allow our own wounds to be touched and healed and to try and initiate spiritual guidance in this country. We were available for each other as we listened and prayed knowing that our wounds too had to be healed. The following day was a Retreat day. It was a day of silence and prayer from the experiences of the previous day. That evening we had a party in celebrating each other. We tasted different types of food which we were asked to bring from each country and to perform a party piece. Una Agnew SSL, founder member of AISGA, joined us in singing “For Dublin can be Heaven with Coffee at Eleven.” Therese, was able to get the music on her iPad and so we were well supported and got many encores. We really enjoyed each other’s company and made many friends.
The AGM took place next day. The term of office of our German President, Maika (Lutheran Minister) was completed so a new President – Sister Raphael Maria (Poor Clare Sister) – was elected. In the afternoon we met for the Triads, sharing our skills in Spiritual Direction. We shared as director, directee and observer. I had the experience of directing a Slovenian lady who is working with the Jesuits in Ljubljana in Spirituality and is coming to Dublin at the end of April. Our new President is also coming to Ireland to the Poor Clare Convent in Simmonscourt, Donnybrook. So we all hope to meet again. All our Liturgies were arranged by the different countries, including Lutheran and Anglican. Our closing liturgy was a celebratory Mass by the Jesuits and permission had to be got from the Archbishop for those present to receive Holy Communion if they believed as Christians.
At the closure we were invited to adopt a victim of evil during World War II and to be a Guardian of his/her venerable memory every Sunday at noon and to join in the prayer of the Angelus with merciful remembrance…. On the last day we went to Ljubljana by train, where we stayed for three days. We managed to get a hotel right in the centre of the town for bed and breakfast at a good price, two minutes walk to the lovely Franciscan Church of the Annunciation. What surprised us was the number of young boys on the altar attending Mass with great devotion. Slovenia is ninety per cent Catholic, with Churches everywhere.
We visited Lake Bled – one of the main attractions of Slovenia. It is surrounded by wooded hills and alpine peaks with Bled Castle perched on a rock above the town.
We saw in one of the brochures that a concert for St. Patrick’s Day was to be celebrated by the Slovenians in their National Concert Hall, organised by the Irish Embassy. The three of us made our way to the Embassy to see if tickets were available and found there were only two left, so I decided to stand back. My two companions left and shortly afterwards I was ushered to the front row of the Hall right beside the three Ambassadors from Serbia, Slovenia and Poland! There was Irish Dancing, Jigs and Reels, Traditional Irish songs and Irish instruments with many mandolins. Slovenians love our culture, and the response from the audience was really heart-warming with many encores.
It was a very fitting end to a most wonderful nine-day experience of companionship, sharing and healing and in keeping with the theme of the Conference – Truth, Compassion, and Reconciliation which leads to Transfiguration.