Kolvenbach, a wise man and a teacher

Among those who certainly dedicated all their efforts to preserving and consolidating harmony with the pope and to ensuring the Society found stability and serenity in its life and work was the new general, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

Aug 29, 2020

By Fr Federico Lombardi, SJ
Among those who certainly dedicated all their efforts to preserving and consolidating harmony with the pope and to ensuring the Society found stability and serenity in its life and work was the new general, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach.

While Pedro Arrupe’s generalate has now been studied extensively, that of his successor, though longer, has attracted less attention from the media and public opinion. This corresponds perfectly with the personality and intention of the general himself who, very wisely, intended to walk along the lines drawn by his predecessor, but guiding the Society along a path – as he himself said – “less bumpy,” and keeping a “low profile” in the media would certainly have contributed to this.

Fr Elias Royón, while he considers Arrupe “a mystic and a prophet,” qualifies Kolvenbach as “a sage and a teacher.” A less charismatic personality than Arrupe, Kolvenbach nevertheless brought with him the experience of decades of missionary work in Lebanon, in the tensions of the Middle East, knowledge of other Christian traditions – he belonged to the Armenian rite – and the Muslim world. A scholar of linguistics and living in the university  environment, he knew and appreciated the reality and fatigue of intellectual work and cultural service. His reserved and monastic lifestyle, even if it seemed a little anomalous to most of his confreres, did not prevent him from visiting Jesuits in different parts of the world and from being pleasant, cordial and witty in conversations with them, facilitated by an extraordinary command of languages.

His work capacity and memory were impressive. The regular and systematic way in which he and his staff carried out their governmental duties and conducted their early morning meetings (the famous daily briefings) without delay are proverbial.

No one would ever get the impression that he was not carefully informed of all the situations – even the most particular ones – in the life  of the Order there was no sense that he did not exercise his responsibilities himself or was unduly influenced by others. At the same time, his government was not driven by his personality. He showed great confidence in provincials and did not like to intervene in the areas of their responsibilities. In short, he held the reins of government well in his hands, but he knew how to leave room for subordinate responsibilities.

Kolvenbach’s attention to the health of the spiritual life of the Jesuits is clear and a priority. The famous words of the Formula of the Society of Jesus (founding document of the Order) “curet primo  Deum,” that is, the affirmation that God must always be before the eyes of the Jesuit, became emblematic of his spiritual magisterium. Personal union with God, the daily celebration of the Eucharist and community discernment were recommended with constancy in the secularised climate of the day.

Kolvenbach also drew attention to the intellectual and educational apostolate of the Society, convinced that in this field, one of the great ministries that the Church expects from the Jesuits must still be recognised.

After about ten years of government, Kolvenbach believed that a new General Congregation, the  34th, was needed. Held in 1994, it reformulated in four specific decrees the overall vision of the Jesuit mission, extending it not only to the service of faith and the promotion of justice, but also to dialogue with cultures and different religions. It also dedicated extensive documents to various themes, such as chastity and religious poverty, “a just attitude in the service of the Church” (how to live in our times, the sentire cum et in Ecclesia, so important for St Ignatius), collaboration with the laity, governance structures, without forgetting important “signs of the times,” such as the condition of women in society and in the Church, as well as ecological issues.

Adapting to the new Code of Canon Law
The 34th General Congregation approved and consolidated the long work of the revision of the law proper to the Order, expressly requested by the previous Congregation following the promulgation, in 1983, of the new Code of Canon Law. At stake was nothing less than the need to adapt to our times the text – in a certain sense “sacred” for Jesuits – of the Constitutions written by St Ignatius. The solution adopted after many reflections is emblematic: to preserve the original wording, but to accompany it with a series of notes, indicating the points where the laws of today’s Church and Society required changes or clarifications, and to accompany the Constitutions, in a single volume, with a large series of “Complementary Notes,” that is, passages from decrees of the Congregations (for the most part from the 31st onward) and Letters of the last Generals, ordered according to the same sequence of parts and chapters of the Constitutions, almost as a commentary as well as updating each of them and their spirit for our time.

Meanwhile, the Jesuits worked with commitment on difficult and even risky frontiers. The massacre of six Jesuit professors at the Central American University in San Salvador on November 16, 1989 not only aroused great emotion, but became a painful sign of the price to be paid when one is faithful to the demands of the mission. This horrendous crime was the most serious of this period, but it was far from isolated. In the 50 years between 1969 and 2019 there were 57 Jesuits killed in the fulfilment of their mission for faith and justice. From a Christian perspective, their “martyrdom” was the most important confirmation of the fact that the Third Society also follows the Lord “who bears the cross,” according to the call received by Ignatius in the spiritual experience of La Storta.

The fundamental Ignatian project and the Third Society
How can we better express the continuity and renewal between the fundamental Ignatian project and the Third Society? Kolvenbach closely followed events around the world. With the fall of the wall between East and West, he promoted the resumption of the life of the Society of Jesus in the countries of Eastern Europe, pointed out Africa and China as the Order’s priority points of attention, and encouraged the establishment of the “Conferences of Provincials” in the different continents, so as to broaden the horizons of the Jesuits’ common reflection and encourage coordinated and innovative responses to the problems posed by the processes of globalisation.

The generalate of Kolvenbach continued through the pontificate of John Paul II. Relations with the Holy See were handled by the general with assiduousness and discretion. The life of the Society was varied and lively, and there were no lack of objections in Rome to Jesuits taking up causes in various countries. But in the Vatican there was trust in the general and it was known that his leadership was respected and followed by his confreres. So much so that, when Kolvenbach in the early 2000s began to think about the advisability of a change in the leadership of the Order, he took note that the pope  was not in favor and wanted him to continue. He then waited to put the question to the new Pope, Benedict XVI, who had no difficulty in giving his consent.

The preparation of the 35th General Congregation was set in motion at the beginning of 2006. It was scheduled for  the beginning of 2008.

But, while the preparation proceeded, there was no lack of highranking personalities in the Vatican who raised new concerns about the situation and governance of the Society, to the point of formulating the possibility of another visitation of the Order, which could have been entrusted to Cardinal Ber goglio, Jesuit, Archbishop of Buenos Aires. Bergoglio, for his part, was decidedly opposed to such a proceeding, and Fr Kolvenbach moved with timeliness and decision, turning directly to Benedict XVI. The danger was averted, but the Congregation opened in an atmosphere not entirely serene as regards relations with the Holy See. It would be the speech by Benedict XVI, on the occasion of the audience granted to the Congregation, that re-established an atmosphere of true trust, thanks to which the newly elected general would be able to begin his work with serenity.

Nicolás and Sosa
The main task of the Congregation was in fact to accept Kolvenbach’s resignation and elect his successor. This was Adolfo Nicolás, a Spaniard who had spent his entire apostolic life in Asia, in Japan and the Philippines. He was naturally open to dialogue with different cultures and religions, cordial, polyglot, able to communicate with spontaneity to his confreres an enthusiasm for the mission of evangelization and service that knows no borders and is sincerely eager to meet the other. He was the right personality to incarnate the spirit of “reconciliation,” of collaboration with others, with which the now multicultural body of the Society of Jesus intended to move “together” in the globalised world.

Since 1965, the Society has suffered a very major decrease in the number of its members, and at the same time a very notable demographic shift from Western Europe and North America to Latin America, South and East Asia, and  Africa.[10] This involved, obvi ously, a continuous process of adaptation to new situations, committing itself to escape the mentality of a simple “retreat by narrowing  the front,” to find instead, with creativity, new forms of approach and organisation of its apostolic activities and government.

Nicolás dedicated much effort in these directions, providing for the restructuring of provinces,  and assistancies, and encouraging all forms of collaboration, both internal and external to the Order. At the same time, he continually insisted on the quality of the spiritual and cultural commitment of the Jesuits: “depth” and “universality” are the two words that most characterise his messages. He also ensured that the Society responded seriously to the manifestation of the very serious problem of sexual abuse of minors, both as regards itself and in service to the Church. As a reflection of the new distribution of Jesuits around the world, it wanted the 2012 Congregation of Procurators to take place in Nairobi, Africa, held for the first time outside Europe.

The Jesuit Pope
The generalate of Nicolás will go down in history mainly for another reason, i.e. the election of a Jesuit as Pope. Even if this was not in itself impossible, it was an eventuality that always appeared far removed from the expectations and imagination of the Jesuits. In addition, the figure of the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, was of absolute importance in the Church of Latin America. In past years he had been the object of different feelings and tensions within his own Province of Argentina, of which he had been a very young provincial at the time of Arrupe. But it was thanks above all to Pope Francis, and also to General Nicolás, that from the very first moment, the relationship between the new Jesuit pope and his Order was marked by the fullest mutual trust and cordiality, without any uncer tainty.

This trust and cordiality has been preserved and increased over time, not only thanks to the Pope’s repeated manifestations of concern for his confreres – whom he continues to consider as such – but also because he is personally deeply rooted in the spirituality and history of the Society of Jesus.

Pope Francis made himself present in a special way to all the Jesuits also on the occasion of the 36th General Congregation, which had become necessary in 2016 to accept the resignation of Fr Nicolás, whose strength was diminishing as he approached the age of 80, and to elect his successor, Fr Arturo Sosa, a Venezuelan, as the first non-European general. The Third Society then saw the first Jesuit pope, the first non-European and Latin American  pope, and at the same time the first non-European general, also Latin American, and saw them together in the hall of the General Congregation encouraging their confreres to serve the Church and humanity today in union with and under the guidance of the Roman pontiff. The transition to a no longer Eurocentric world was definitively complete.

To live in an attitude of discernment
The Jesuit Pope is very discreet in giving indications of specific commitments to the Society as a whole. He insists rather on discernment in order to find suitable ways to support the mission, and on making use of the help the Jesuits are able to bring  to the Church, encouraging all – especially priests – to live in an attitude of discernment, although he does not fail to ask for the collaboration of some Jesuits he trusts in the Roman curia, in the Roman academic institutions and La Civiltà Cattolica. For his part, the new general promoted a broad reflection throughout the Society to identify what he called the “universal apostolic preferences” of the Order, consistent with the perspectives pointed out by Pope Francis:

1. To promote discernment and the Spiritual Exercises;
2. To walk together with the poor, the excluded of the world, wounded in their dignity, in a mission of reconciliation and justice;
3. To accompany young people in the creation of a future of hope;
4. To care for our common home.

The Third Society’s story is therefore currently going through a very particular moment. For Jesuits, the pope is always a fundamental and vital point of reference, whoever he is. He will also be so in subsequent pontificates, as he  was in previous ones, for over four centuries. However, certainly in these years there is an exceptional circumstance, which can help to insert effectively the service of the Society of Jesus in the ministry of the universal Church, in its “outgoing” missionary impulse.

St Ignatius liked to call his Order “minima Compagnia,” that is, “this least Society.” Despite the strong decrease in numbers, which must make them more humble, the Jesuits feel themselves bearers of a spiritual gift that is always current, capable of fruitfulness in the newest and most diverse situations of humanity, in which one can and must always “seek and find” God at work for the salvation of the world.––La Civilta Cattolica

Continued from last week.You can read the first part here

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