The Spiritual Testament of Fr PH Kolvenbach: ‘A Paschal Love for the World’

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The Spiritual Testament of Fr PH Kolvenbach: ‘A Paschal Love for the World’

The Spiritual Testament of Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach : ‘A Paschal Love for the World’

Exactly twenty years ago on June 20th 1997, Fr. Peter- Hans Kolvenbach (PHK), the then Jesuit Superior General, addressed the ‘International Congress of the Social Apostolate of the Society of Jesus in Naples, Italy. This path-breaking and defining address,‘A Paschal Love for the World’, is today regarded as Kolvenbach’s spiritual testament: a rich legacy which he has bequeathed to his fellow Jesuits, their friends and collaborators.

In sum and substance Kolvenbach’s address is deeply spiritual, rooted in reality and very challenging. He dexterously weaves the vision of St Ignatius of the Society into the charism and commitment of his two predecessors, Fr. Jean-Baptiste Janssens and Fr. Pedro Arrupe. However, he aptly says,“to honour and imitate them (Ignatius, Janssens and Arrupe) by learning from them consists in this: to pursue a commitment to justice for the poor in an effective and profoundly Jesuit manner with the best possible comprehension of today’s society and culture”.

PHK’s ‘Paschal Love’, is an intrinsic whole, not a piece-meal one. Like a well-crafted ‘legal will’, not a single sentence can be omitted. In his introductory remarks he his brutally frank,“while many Jesuits appreciate the importance of direct social involvement, they acknowledge that they themselves feel unable to be on the front lines. There are also Jesuits who fear the effects of social action and who are suspicious about the motivations of those involved in it. Furthermore, social Jesuits are often accused of neglecting the faith dimension of their work. Unfortunately, all these were not able to attend the Congress and especially the liturgies. Such failures of understanding within the Society remind me of so many critiques I have heard from civil and ecclesiastical authorities in recent times.”

He invites all to travel through the Society’s ‘history of our commitment of justice’, from the cry of the poor which was heard by Ignatius and the first companions, to the time of Arrupe and beyond.“It was precisely the impassioned, insistent and urgent cry of the poor which impelled the Society toward Decree 4 of GC 32. This clamour made itself heard in Father Arrupe’s call in 1973 to the alumni of the Society’s schools, gathered at a congress in Valencia, Spain. “If we give the word `justice’ and the expression `education for justice’ all the meaning which the Church is giving them today, then in all sincerity and humility I believe we must answer that, no, we have not educated you for justice.” His talk was not well received, and the president of the alumni resigned. Nevertheless, the demand to be men for others was born…India denounced the sin which marked social realities; these conditions required, in God’s name, not only the palliative of social assistance but also the radical and rapid transformation of a non-violent social revolution”.

Kolvenbach emphasizes the importance of an incarnate spirituality and conversion.“It is rather a spirituality which is lived out within a social involvement, within a social commitment, following Jesus, according to the Gospel. This commitment is an experience which involves our whole life. Saying it in the words of Msgr. Romero, the assassinated Archbishop of San Salvador: “To give life to the poor, one has to give of one’s life and even give one’s own life.”Father Arrupe arrived by a different route at the same concrete conviction that social commitment is basically a question of incarnate spirituality”

He contextualizes this spirituality in the characteristics and many problems that grip the world. “The social movement launched in the Society by Decree 4, was inspired no doubt by listening to the clamour of the poor and by an attitude of compassion and solidarity towards the flagrant injustices which ravage the world. But this option would not have been possible without a paschal vision, without an optimistic view of history, without a dynamic of openness toward the world which can be and lets itself be transformed”.

For Kolvenbach, this paschal vision has to be deeply rooted in the vision of Vatican II (as in Gaudium et Spes) to work with all people in the building of a more human world. For him it is clearly the call of the Kingdom: the courage to say “yes” or “no”; where a Jesuit has no option.“In this context of hope, our mission for justice, culture and dialogue impels us to be near people and with them in their daily life, like the first Jesuits to take once again to the streets of our cities, in order to read there in the very heart of people’s existence the signs of the times, the signs of the Spirit’s action. If God loves the world, our mission among people should reveal to them that, in all aspects of their existence, they are already grappling with God, whether they know it or not. For this reason, the Ignatian call to mission is a call to be involved us the world, not to break with it; a call to become wide open to humanity where God is at work in all things, labouring for the salvation of all”

Justice, for Kolvenbach keeps no silence of God. They are not incompatible. “Justice which makes room for God and which says something about God helps “people become more open toward God and more willing to live according to the demands of the Gospel” And further,“the promotion of justice is intrinsically linked, to the vocation and the mission of the whole Society, to the proclamation of the faith, to evangelization itself which the promotion of justice, as promotion of justice, achieves in its own fashion. Thus the promotion of justice along with the communication of faith, the transformation of cultures and inter religious collaboration (D.2, n.19), are aspects of — points of entry into — one and the same single mission to bring the Good News to the world, to contribute to human liberation and salvation.

Kolvenbach is convinced that “Preaching in poverty” is accomplished, paradoxically, by struggling in poverty, with all competence and professionalism, with all the effective planning and indispensable strategies, because the poor deserve to have the best, the magic of our effort. For we make use of these impressive means, not to our own advantage, but always with the generosity, gratuity and non-violence which mark the commitment to the service of others, all the way without turning back and without recompense. On this point there is much more to discuss and many decisions to take. The true paradox of our apostolate is found here, between work for justice which is socially and culturally effective and works for justice which is evangelically expressive of the Good News.

There is for him the specificity of Jesuit social commitment, “both the one who wages the struggle and the one for whom the struggle is waged must open themselves, through the justice they seek, to evangelization, concretely, working together with all their fellow Jesuits who are also brothers in all these ventures. It is here that we find the specificity of Jesuit social commitment”.

Finally, he reiterates ‘The Mission’ with a blessing, “May you continue your apostolate enriched by the reflections, the prayers and the proposals of these days, in order to serve the faith and promote justice, a concrete justice, an evangelizing justice, in every culture and in every society. My hope is that we continue to find, in our prayer and contemplation, in our community life and in our religious and priestly identity, the primary source and the ultimate fruit of this mission of ours: to be “in solidarity with the poor and outcast, so that we can take up their cause under the standard of the Cross” (D.3, n.17).

In a remarkable coincidence, three years later, in December 2000 the United Nations decided through a resolution (55/76)that June 20th every year would be observed as World Refugee Day. This decision had nothing do with Kolvenbach, but it was significant. On November 14th1980, in response to the plight of the forcibly displaced people of South East Asia Fr Pedro Arrupe founded the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS); less than a year later on August 7th 1981, he suffered a stroke which left him paralyzed. Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach succeeded him on September 13th 1983, as Superior General of the Society of Jesus and continued till January 14th2008. During his tenure for almost twenty-five years Kolvenbach, ensured that in keeping with Arrupe’s vision, the Jesuits never lost sight of their commitment to the refugees and other forcibly displaced.

On 14th February 1990, in a path- breaking and in-depth letter to the Universal Society entitled, ‘Review of the Jesuit Refugee Service’, Kolvenbach confirmed Arrupe’s vision of JRS “both as an expression of our concern for the poor and as a significant step towards our renewal, personal and corporate, in availability, mobility and universality”In that letter Kolvenbach also highlighted the specificity of JRS saying that, “The Jesuit Refugee Service is a modest venture, but it does claim to bring a specific dimension to its work which is sometimes lacking elsewhere. While always ready to help refugees in their material and spiritual wants, and also in designing projects leading to a fuller and more independent life, we try to place special emphasis on being with and doing with, rather than doing for. We want our presence among refugees to be one of sharing with them, of accompaniment, of walking together along the same path. In so far as possible, we want to feel what they have felt, suffer as they have, share the same hopes and aspirations, see the world through their eyes. We ourselves would like to become one with the refugees and displaced people so that, all together, we can begin the search for a new life.” Rich words that resonate in many ways with his landmark address of June 20th 1997.

Fr Kolvenbach went to his eternal reward on 26th November 2016, in Beirut. On14th May 2017, there was a Memorial Eucharistic Celebration for him at the Jesuit Church of St Joseph in Beirut, presided over by the Apostolic Nuncio to Lebanon Archbishop Gabriele Caccia. Glowing tributes were paid to Kolvenbach’s singular contribution not only to the Society of Jesus but also to the Church, the Armenian Community, and world. The highlight of the evening though was the release of a 40 pages illustrated booklet in French entitled ‘Un Amour Pascal PourLe Monde’. The booklet contains PHKs address of twenty years ago; this address is blended with some excellent notes and historical nuggets, which help provide deeper insights into his ‘magna carta’; besides there are about ten memorable photos of Kolvenbach.

In his introduction to the booklet Fr Dany Younes the Jesuit Provincial of the Near East writes of how this text impacted on him as a young religious during his spiritual retreat in December 1997 and of how twenty years later, having matured in his Jesuit vocation and knowing Kolvenbach closely, he felt that it was important that this ‘lectio divina’ be known much more and be assimilated by all.

Dany entrusted Fr Alex Bassili, with the task of bringing out this booklet. For Fr Alex it was a labour of love and as Dany says “he put his heart into it”. Alex has been a long-time companion and good friend of Kolvenbach, and is nostalgic when he says, “Kolvenbach truly lived what he wrote and said. He had a spiritual depth and his lifestyle was very simple. Having been in several General Congregations he could best understand how the Society should respond to our changing world. He contributed significantly to our Society and to the Church. This document is a real spiritual testament of his vision and mission for each one of us today!”

Alex was assisted in this work by two Dutch Jesuits of the Province Fr. Paul Brouwers and Thom Sicking. A great memorabilia in the booklet is a personal letter from Peter Hans to Thom a little after (3rd October 1983) he was elected Superior General; he writes that his election came “like a bomb”, of dining with the Pope for the first time and of Fr. Arrupe. The letter is vintage Kolvenbach!

The back-cover states, “the text presented in this booklet can be considered as the spiritual testament left by Fr Kolvenbach to the Jesuits their friends and collaborators.” How very true! PHK s testament makes compelling reading: a call to radical conversion, to live the gospel, in our world today, without compromise.

The style of the testament truly epitomizes Kolvenbach: unassuming, all –embracing, unequivocal and direct. He does not leave any room for ambiguity or for double talk. Today twenty years later, the least one can do to honour this great human being who lived in our midst, is to imbibe the spirit of his spiritual testament and be determined to face the challenges of today!

About Author: Fr Cedric Prakash SJ is engaged with the Jesuit Refugee Service(JRS) in the Middle East on advocacy and communications. He is based in Beirut, Lebanon.

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