Fr. Jožko Zajec is a Slovenian Jesuit working at the Pontificial College Russicum in Rome as a father “spiritual”. He also regulary travels to Armenia to help the Sisters of Mother Teresa at the local orphanage.
When he visited Slovenia, in December 2021, we asked him to speak out about his experiences: what does it mean to be a “spiritual” , how does it look his mission among the Armenian orphans and how all this started: how did he became a Jesuit?
How I decided to become a Jesuit
I decided to become a Jesuit first and foremost through a personal experience of Spiritual Exercises that were held in Stična at that time, led by Fr Jože Roblek. I believe this was the first and decisive encouragement. With the help of Ignatian Spiritual Exercises, I had a personal encounter with the Lord. The fact that we were offered spiritual accompaniment during the exercises was a beautiful experience.
I remember one particular moment. It happened when I had already become a Jesuit. I met a young Muslim woman who asked me: How come that you decided to become a Jesuit? Honestly, I could not answer her right away. That made me ask myself a lot of questions. Personally, I see that my life has allowed concrete events to direct and guide me. I have come to realize overtime that it is very important to search for the image of Christ, who I have met for the first time, and that He always watches and goes with me.
When I was young, I never thought that I would become a monk, a Jesuit, a priest. I dreamed of doing technical works. I was fond of exploring, of learning new things. I marveled at how certain things worked at their very core (such as radio, television). Who invented them? These were my questions.
The spiritual world is essentially very vital and concrete. I felt a strong connection to everything that was happening around me. People I met then lived that way, and they were a great inspiration to me.
Since childhood, I have always loved being a part of various choruses. It gave me joy and also an opportunity for prayer. I was inspired by the songs we were singing at the summer youth camps, led by the late priest Vinko Kobal. The songs were a real discovery to me and a new way of prayer. I enjoyed playing an accordion as a child, and even now I sometimes play one at the Russicum.
My role of a “spiritual” at the Russicum: What does it mean?
I am currently in my seventh year at the Russicum, serving as a “spiritual” or “priest” as the Slavic people call it.
Russicum is very interesting as a college, since it hosts seminarians and young priests of different Slavic nations. In addition to different Slavic nations, we have many Christian denominations: from Orthodox and Greek-Catholic to Latin Liturgical Rite. All this represents a very wide spectrum of activity. It is a unique Roman college, where different people and different churches are present.
My main role is to accompany the seminarians on their path of becoming young priests. The specialty of this college is that most of the seminarians, who are ordained priests, are married. So, today our mission is very complex, because all forms of life have to be taken into account, either as priests or future fathers. Above all, it is necessary to be available for conversation, counselling or confession. I think that the main role is to make people feel accepted. This cannot be done in the short term. It takes time and a lot of patience. One of the essential roles of the “spiritual” is to be present at the daily liturgy and various rituals existing in the Eastern Byzantine rite. All liturgies take place in the old Slavic language. In fact, every prayer is sung. I often say that every dot and comma is chanted here.
The Armenian experience
Jesuits are known for their long formation. We have different levels of probation. I did my third one in Ireland. And for my pastoral practice, I was sent to Armenia. Before my third probation, I did not know Armenia and what the Jesuits were doing there. At that time, they were looking for a Jesuit in Ireland for Armenia who could speak English and Russian. Our Jesuit father, who was in Armenia at the time, was 80 years old and in need of urgent medical attention for an eye surgery. That is how I entered into the mission.
The late Jesuit Fr Harvey Laurier from Canada, who was basically the only Catholic priest who provided spiritual care to the Sisters of Mother Teresa, had been working in Armenia for 28 years. Before coming to Armenia, Fr Harvey had spent many years helping the Sisters in India. In 1988, there was a strong earthquake in Armenia (Spitak) and therefore, the Armenian state asked the Sisters of Mother Teresa to set up a centre to help sick children without parents.
The Sisters established the first orphanage in Spitak, located in the north of the country at 1600 meters above sea level. Ten years ago, the Sisters of Mother Teresa opened another home (orphanage) in Yerevan (the capital of Armenia) for young children and infants, closer to hospitals.
The mission of the Jesuits in Armenia is mainly to provide spiritual care for the Sisters of Mother Teresa in both institutions. This means a daily Holy Mass, confession, various spiritual addresses and other things the Sisters need. The Sisters give so much help to the poor, so they often need help as well.
This summer, I held many conversations and visits to the families whose sons serve the army. Currently, the Sisters of Mother Teresa are the only ones interested in offering spiritual support to these families.
The work in the orphanage is very interesting. From dusk till down. A typical day goes something like this: the morning begins with the Holy Mass for the Sisters. The children are also present. During homily, I always use a picture. It is only with them I preach this way. It certainly depends on the priest to find a way to get closer to children. Then, until lunch, there are various activities: walks and activities that are supposed to involve most children –as much as possible, of course. Children help each other a lot.
For the children that are not able to participate, we need to be constantly present to help them eat and exercise. These basic everyday tasks are done similarly as in any other family with young children. It is interesting that time passes differently here; it is calmer and slower. Every gesture is significant.
Children develop many different illnesses. Those suffering from only one disease are very rare. These are things very difficult to describe, and it is difficult to imagine how these children live with their condition.
In the afternoon, we have a common prayer of the Divine Mercy chaplet and then follows adoration. Dinner is early, mainly because eating requires a lot of time for many children. Before going to bed, everyone is blessed. Usually, one of the children always accompanies me, while I visit all the rooms.
In Yerevan, the Sisters care for children up to 15 years of age. The Sisters admit the children directly from the hospital. Some of them are successfully given up for adoption. Most often, they are adopted into families who already have their own children. When a family decides to adopt a sick child, they literally accept Christ. These children are certainly something special and a real blessing for the new family.
The Sisters who run the two institutions (orphanages) have, first and foremost, a special approach to childcare. This approach adapts very much to their spiritual life. From the beginning, the children naturally participate in the Holy Mass and daily adoration – everything is adapted to them. They are used to praying the Rosary (in English and Armenian), etc. every day. The sisters do not force them into anything – everything comes spontaneously, with great compassion. The children who can move, walk by themselves, or use their hands, – they help as much as they can. They want to play a role. Everything is done with real love.
I especially remember the children who are not able to walk, hear, see or speak. The other children see them as the Christ incarnate. And they treat them so as well; every time they walk pass their beds, they make the sign of the cross or show them affection in some other way. They act just like us when we are gathered before the Most Holy. These children are sacred to them.
Their daily prayers at Holy Mass are also very eloquent. They always pray. First, they pray for their parents (it makes no difference to them whether parents are alive or dead, because they do not know that), then they pray for the needs of the world, peace, reconciliation. In their prayers, they very much remember people who have visited them and helped them.
They always remember and ask about your parents’ names and telling them is not enough; we also need to write it down on a piece of paper several times. They find it very important that we take time for them respectfully.
Saying goodbye is also very special. First, they thank us for bringing Christ to them. They always repeat that. They never question how you said mass, how you worked – they always understand the point of all. And what is important for us Jesuits is that they do not thank me for being with them, but rather they thank my superiors who allowed me to be with them.
How does your work help or change children’s lives?
This summer, I also visited Armenia. A Sister who works in Yerevan with young children battling very hard diseases asked me for help. I helped a child who had difficulty breathing and was bedbound. I had to make sure his head stayed in a straight position. Before that, she advised me only one thing: try to be present with your heart. I think that was all I needed to know about the approach to this mission.
A few years ago, I listened to a conference in Russia, where an Orthodox priest was speaking. He said something very interesting about such special children: they teach us about humanity, how to become and remain the people that we are. This is true.
And who would have thought this experience would help me in my work at Russicum? There are plenty of seminarians who remember the Sisters and the children from Armenia daily in prayer.
At first, I wondered how this could be. And that is what we call the great secret of connection.
In the Byzantine rite, angels are strongly present in prayers. I believe the angels of these children are very active. In fact, the prayer of a little girl in Armenia, who told me that she would pray for all the people I would meet, is coming true.
Finally, I can only say that all this helps me in discerning of what and how I put it first in Life.
Read this article in Slovenian.