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  • Writer's pictureProfiles in Catholicism

An Interview with Father Ward Biemans. SJ

Gordon: Why did you decide to be a Jesuit?

Father Ward: The first calling that I received, was to be a priest. In those days, around 1998, I was already volunteering for several years in a Jesuit parish in The Hague.

I edited the parish magazine, cycled around to put them in mailboxes and I was active in a charity group called ‘Mission, development & peace’. Especially the preaching attracted me in this parish, because it was well grounded in faith and at the same time socially engaging.

Further, I was thrilled by the way community building took place, by organizing art exhibitions, concerts with sacred music and charity meals. The church really was a vibrant place in town and besides that it was – and still is – a beautiful building.

So then, one day I made an appointment with the provincial superior in the Netherlands. He received me kindly and when I told him that I wanted to become a Jesuit, he asked me a few questions: Have you ever done a retreat? Do you have a spiritual director? Did you read some books on St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Society of Jesus? My answer to the first two questions was ‘no’, but one year later, having done an eight-day retreat and being guided by an excellent director, I returned to the provincial and once more expressed my desire to be a Jesuit. And he said: ‘Then, let’s get to work.

Gordon: When did you attend Utrecht University and what degree did you earn?

Father Ward: That was between 1989 and 1994, when I got a master’s degree in environmental science. In those days, people spoke a lot about acid rain, about a hole in the Ozone layer, about desertification and water pollution. Nowadays, environmental challenges have changed a lot, especially climate change and biodiversity get much more attention than three decades ago.

Gordon: When and where did you serve as Environmental Policy Worker and what did you enjoy most about your work?

Father Ward: Before I entered the Society of Jesus, between 1994 and 2000, I served as an environmental policy worker for the province of South-Holland in The Hague. It was a huge organization, with some 1,400 employees. It was at the same time a joy to have so many colleagues, but a disadvantage I found that I saw only few results from my efforts. It was all embedded in a large, hierarchical organization and direct contact with politicians was limited. But we did have good contacts with farmers, nature protection organisations, water quality managers, etc. We have seen an improvement of the water quality in agricultural and natural areas, which was great.

Gordon: When did you attend the Pontifical Gregorian University and what degree did you earn?

Father Ward: In 2005, I had the chance to come and live for two years in the eternal city, in Rome. I did a licentiate in moral theology. Before that, I had studied three years of theology in the Netherlands. The two universities had a very different approach. Suddenly, I had to read encyclicals. We lived with some 30 students from all over the world at the Gesù College, on walking distance of the University. We were told not to speak English, but only Italian with one another. This had advantages, since the lectures and most of the exams were also in Italian. During my second year, I was able to accompany a native Italian in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, as a volunteer at the university chaplaincy. My licentiate thesis I wrote on the prevention of abortion, which I could later expand into a book: “The Heart and the Abyss”.

Gordon: When did you attend Tilburg University and what did you study?

Father Ward: In 2006 in Rome, I was ordained a deacon, together with ten other Jesuits. A wonderful day. I returned in the Netherlands for a pastoral year. During that year I followed some courses in pastoral theology and we had intervision sessions with other students. It has been a good experience to share with them the first steps in the pastoral field. Some were active in a hospital as spiritual guides, others worked like me in a parish. The parish where I worked, in the city of Delft was led by a Franciscan Father, we had a very good cooperation. I had my first baptism celebration there, held my first homilies, I did some marriage preparation, house visits, etc.

Gordon: What is one of your fondest memories when you were a priest at St. Peter Canisius parish?

Father Ward: Lots of memories. Marriages, funerals, baptisms. I did the preparation for first Holy Communion together with one or two mothers, that was always nice. We had a big group of volunteers, with whom we organized several concerts of classical, sacred music, like Handel’s Messiah and music by Arvo Pärt and Francis Poulenc. In Sunday’s eucharistic celebration we also had a good choir, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam. They sung Masses by Mozart, Haydn, etc. During my years as a chaplain, we had a big fusion of parishes in the city of Nijmegen into one parish, named after Saint Stephen. The cooperation between the priests and lay pastoral workers has been good during this process.

Gordon: When did you serve at the Christian Life Community (CLC) and what were your responsibilities?

Father Ward: I have been ecclesiastical assistant for CLC in the Netherlands and Flanders (North-Belgium) between 2015 and 2021. CLC is the Ignatian lay-movement, which has 25,000 members worldwide. Some 200 of them are active in Flanders and the Netherlands. When I started as ecclesiastical assistant, CLC in the Netherlands did not have a national board. It took one year to start this anew, after a discernment process with some active persons who knew CLC from abroad. Some French-speaking groups were already gathering in the region around The Hague and they later joined the national community, which doubled our number of active members! In 2018, a World Assembly took place in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which I joined. There, the importance of discernment-processes, a way of making decisions through prayer and sharing, became clearer. Of course, we felt strongly supported by Pope Francis, in whose footsteps we also visited some Buenos Aires poor suburbs. The whole World Assembly took place in a former Jesuit seminary – now the Centro Loyola - where he has been rector.

Gordon: You hold several positions concurrently. What do you enjoy most as Spiritual director and teacher at Ariensinstitute?

Father Ward: Being a spiritual director means coaching young men towards the priesthood. It can be a great joy if they make it, although I have also encountered difficulties with men who have stopped their studies down the line. The students do their studies in theology and philosophy at the university, where I am also student chaplain. For most of them, this is an enriching experience, to study among other men and women who are also doing theology, but with very different career perspectives. At the Ariensinstitute we give the candidates for the priesthood some additional courses. I teach the Catechism of the Catholic Church and in the past, I have also given courses in Holy Scripture and moral theology. And then there is a yearly retreat and some recollection days, for which we invite speakers or give them ourselves.

Gordon: What are some of the challenges as Student Chaplain at Tilburg School of Catholic Theology and Fontys Hogeschool Theologie?

Father Ward: Since the Netherlands is a very secularized country, there are sometimes tensions between Bishops, clergy and lay personnel. This is all part of the game. As a student chaplain, I do not have much influence in decisions that are taken in the Boards of Directors or the diocesan staff. My role it is to accompany students who have questions regarding their faith life, the education they receive, their integration in local parishes, their relationships, etc. My Ignatian formation has been a great help in doing this. St. Ignatius’ rules of discernment are still a big treasure for the Church.’

Gordon: What do you teach at St. Boniface Institute?

Father Ward: I give three courses in moral theology, two fundamental courses and one on the virtues, in particular regarding bio-ethical questions. Most of the students are committed volunteers in various parishes throughout the country. Some of them want to become permanent deacons, other become catechists or more equipped parish board members. It is a diocesan institute of the Haarlem-Amsterdam diocese and affiliated with the Pontifical LateranUniversity in Rome, which guarantees the educational quality.

Gordon: When did you start serving as Spiritual Director at Grootseminarie St. Willibrord and what are your ordinary responsibilities?

Father Ward: Two years ago, I started at this seminary, organizing so-called ‘silent days’, days of reflection. During those days, I give introductions in Spiritual Exercises, followed by silent meditation. I am also available for personal conversations and the Sacrament of Reconciliation. It is encouraging that after the corona-crisis, some new students have started their formation towards the priesthood. At the Major Seminary, a good cooperation exists with the staff of the Redemptoris Mater seminary of the Neocatechumenal Way. Their students have all the lectures in common with the diocesan candidates for the priesthood. The St. Willibrord seminary is in Heiloo, in a former monastery at a Marian shrine. The Sanctuary of Onze Lieve Vrouw ter Nood (Our Lady of Refuge) in Heiloo is the largest Marian place of pilgrimage in the Netherlands. The history of the sanctuary dates back to the end of the fourteenth century. It is always good to be there.

Gordon: Thank you for a memorable and inspirational interview.

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