Fr Sacha Bermudez-Goldman SJ has successfully defended his doctoral thesis at the Jesuit Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Madrid. The oral defence, before a panel of five professors — two sociologists, an economist, a psychologist and a theologian — lasted two hours.
Fr Sacha acknowledged it was a daunting experience, if only for the initial minutes of the defence. ‘I was initially quite nervous’, he said, ‘as I wasn’t quite sure whether my Spanish would be up to the task.’ The defence took place in a large university hall, and even though the thesis was written in English, it had to be defended in Spanish.
It helped that a few Jesuit companions, most of them doctoral candidates themselves, came to offer Sacha moral support. As the kindness and encouragement from the members of the panel became evident, Fr Sacha says he could relax and actually enjoy the experience. ‘I quickly got the sense that they really wanted me to do well and demonstrate the value of my thesis’, he said.
After a half-hour presentation by Fr Sacha, each panel member gave his impressions on the thesis — both its strengths and suggestions for improvement — and also posed several questions. Then it was Fr Sacha’s turn to respond.
‘I found their comments and questions very constructive and helpful. Since most of them came from other academic areas different from theology, their suggestions offered perspectives I had not considered before’, Fr Sacha said.
While written for the Faculty of Spiritual Theology, because the area of study dealt with survivors of forced displacement, Fr Sacha’s thesis required a multi- and inter-disciplinary approach, taking into account not only theological and spiritual factors, but also psychological, anthropological and sociological factors that have affected the lives and experiences of forcibly displaced people.
The full title of Fr Sacha’s thesis is: For the greatest benefit of each soul: Applying the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius Loyola to the context and needs of survivors of forced displacement resettled in Australia. It sought to explore ways in which to support and nurture the spiritual lives of ex-refugees from the perspective of the Ignatian tradition.
‘While local and international organisations — governmental, faith-based and charitable — have striven to respond to the physical, material, psychological and emotional needs of survivors of forced displacement, in general, very little has been on offer to them in the pastoral, faith and spiritual areas’, Fr Sacha said.
He added: ‘The phenomenon of forced displacement and migration has become one of the key issues in the world today, as we well know in Australia. It has also become one of the most pressing issues for the Church, not only because the Church seeks to care for the ever increasing needs of the forcibly displaced, but also because such displacement affects the Church’s nature and composition.
‘It challenges the Church’s understanding of its “catholicity” or universality as the people of God, and it challenges it to seek ways to incorporate the experience of people-in-movement into the lives of its existing communities of faith and to discern their specific contribution to the Church’s identity.’
The thesis explored how best to offer the Spiritual Exercises to survivors of forced displacement, concretising these learnings in a program of 200 Ignatian spiritual exercises, called ‘Spiritual Exercises to lighten the burden’, and designed to meet the identified needs of ex-refugees, in particular their need for healing and for re-writing their life narratives in a more meaningful way.
‘Survivors of forced displacement have so much to offer to our communities, including their hope, their resilience, their capacity to survive the unimaginable, and the richness of their home cultures and traditions, among other things’, Fr Sacha said.
‘My hope is that these exercises will contribute to nurturing their faith and offer them opportunities to discern ways in which they can share their gifts and enrich our faith and wider community.’