MICHAEL KELLY. What brings a Jesuit Pope to Asia?

Nov 23, 2017

One of the biggest influences on Pope Francis remains relatively unexplored – Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits (1965-83) who appointed Jorge Bergoglio Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina (1973-79) at the tender age of 36.

Though he described the appointment as “crazy”, the now Pope was set on a path of leadership by someone who was to shape his imagination in ways that almost daily are reflected in his ministry as the Bishop of Rome, including the priority he gives to Asia.

Bergoglio’s own devotion to Arrupe is signaled by his repeated visits to the site of Arrupe’s grave in the Gesu, the main Jesuit church in Rome, where Pope Francis always goes to pause and pray on the occasion of any visit to the “mother church” of the Jesuits.

Pope Francis has called the appointment “crazy” because he had little experience of anything that his new job required. And it was a time of conflict and division in the Jesuits and the wider Argentinean society.

But he got the job for several reasons: there was a gaping hole because the candidate expected to take the job was killed in a car accident some six months before he was to take over leading the Province; his appointment followed a pattern of appointments of Provincials in the Jesuits at the time when popular superiors of communities of young Jesuits (Bergoglio was Novice Master) got the jobs; and it came at a time of conflict and division among the Argentinean Jesuits caught in the social and political conflicts that led to the coup by the military and an end to democratic rule.

Bergoglio was appointed by Arrupe as a spiritually mature young man who would be a steady pair of hands and one to carry the Province and the hopes of its younger members as it fell apart and dozens left the Order. In the course of his tenure, he had a close relationship with Arrupe and was part of what has become the fountain head of inspiration for Jesuits today – the 32nd General Congregation (1975) that redefined in contemporary terms what the Jesuits are the mission for the Order in a post Vatican II church.

That this policy was underway is verified in his subsequent appointment by Arrupe, after his time as Provincial, when he was made Rector of the Jesuit theologate outside Buenos Aires where, as Provincial, he hid people targeted for death by the military junta that continued to rule until democracy was restored (1983).

But the connection with Arrupe began in the early 1960s. Before he became General of the Jesuits, Arrupe had been Provincial of the Jesuits in Japan and it was his practice to travel widely – including to Argentina – to attract Jesuit recruits and raise money for the Jesuit ministries in Japan. It was at that time that Bergoglio volunteered to go as a missionary to Japan, a country that remains dear to his heart. The present Provincial of Japan is an Argentinean who had the missionary spirit stirred in him when Bergoglio was Provincial of Argentina.

Asia has always bulked large in the imagination of the Jesuits from the Order’s earliest days. The culturally accommodating early missionaries to China, Vietnam and India – Matteo Ricci, Alexandre de Rhodes and Roberto di Nobili – are in the pantheon of Jesuit greats and reference point for all subsequent generations of Jesuits who wonder just what the Order is. It was an remains so for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

Arrupe and his advisers in the 1960s believed the Jesuits were over-ripe and, despite their apparent successes and abundant numbers (36,000 when he became General in 1965), they needed a spring clean to accommodate what Vatican II called on all religious congregations to do – not rest on their laurels but rediscover their founding inspiration and contribute that to the renewal of the Church as called for by the Council.

Arrupe’s vision and practice were at once spiritual – his was a profound understanding of the founding spiritual experience of the Jesuits in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius – and world embracing as his leaving the convenience and comfort of his native Spain for the utter otherness of Japan displays. Along the way, he experienced everything from the mystery and diversity of the world in other religions and other cultures than his own.

He also experienced firsthand one of the defining horrors of the 20th Century when the Americans dropped the bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. He was then Novice Master for the Japanese Province and lived outside the city reduced to nuclear rubble. As someone who had all but completed a medical degree, he rushed to assist those ravaged by the radioactive catastrophe.

The 1960s were also the time when people – including the Popes and theologians – in Europe and the USA discovered what a mess colonialism had made of the economies and societies of what came to be called the Third World. In response to this distressing challenge, the Church’s social magisterium developed quickly and the Jesuits bought into the challenge by defining the Order’s mission as “the service of faith and the promotion of justice” which the Order saw as two sides of the same coin.

Some Jesuits reduced this mission to engagement in politics. Bergoglio, long a sceptic in his assessment of all ideologies, Catholic ones included, did support this reduction of mission and for it was attacked by some Jesuits as going soft on the abuse of the poor. As his subsequent work and writings display, there was no truth to the allegation.

For the informed Jesuit, there is absolutely no surprise in anything Pope Francis says or does, especially including his missionary impulses. Anyone familiar with Spiritual Exercises, the 32nd General Congregation (1975) and the history, tensions and struggles of the Order since then will hear their echo in Pope Francis who is the most visible fruit of that journey of faith over the last fifty years by many other Jesuits.

Michael Kelly SJ is based in Bangkok.

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