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from issue no. 04 - 2006

JESUITS. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach speaks to us

«It’s the Lord who makes the difference»

An interview with the Provost General of the Society of Jesus on the 500th anniversary of the birth of Saint Francis Xavier and of Blessed Pietro Favre, and the 450th anniversary of the death of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Interview with Peter-Hans Kolvenbach by Giovanni Cubeddu

Saint Francis Xavier
baptizing native people

Saint Francis Xavier baptizing native people

«Your visit today gives me the opportunity of thanking the Lord together with you for having granted your Society the gift of men of extraordinary holiness and of exceptional apostolic zeal such as Saint Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Francis Xavier and Blessed Pietro Favre. They are for you the fathers and the founders: it is right, therefore, that in this anniversary year you remember them with gratitude and look to them as sure and enlightened guides on your spiritual path and apostolic activity». It was with these words that Pope Benedict greeted the pilgrimage made by the Society of Jesus on last 22 April to Saint Peter’s to visit the tomb of the Prince of the Apostles.
The celebration was for the five hundredth anniversary of the birth of Saint Francis Xavier, whom Pius XI declared patron saint of the missions, and of Blessed Pietro Favre, and for the 450 years since the death of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Societas Iesu. A timely occasion for an interview with Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Provost General of the Society of Jesus since September 1983.

For which episode of his life, is Francis Xavier particularly dear to you?
PETER-HANS KOLVENBACH: Xavier wanted to serve the Lord in poverty and humility as he had learned from Ignatius and from the Spiritual Exercises. His appointment as papal legate to Asia didn’t alter his way of life. We have testimony from the epoch on Xavier’s poverty. He and his friends travelled on foot and dressed so poorly that the Japanese children hurled stones and mockery at them. Describing his apostolic wanderings in the heart of the winter, Xavier speaks of the pain caused him by his swollen feet. Thinking that a visit to the master of some provinces would gain him permission to preach in public, he asked for an audience but was refused entry to the palace because he had no suitable gifts to offer. That experiences taught him to alter his approach. So he went to the city of Miyako, dressed in silk, presenting letters of accreditation as ambassador of the governor of India, written on illuminated parchment, and taking expensive presents… That episode embodies an important principle of the apostolic zeal of the Society of Jesus: the use of means in the service of the highest purposes. Xavier represents the “indifference” that Ignatius teaches in his Spiritual Exercises. He was free, detached from comfort and from appearances so that the Lord might make the difference in his choices and in his apostolic projects. And because he was spiritually free he could adopt another style of life in order to make the preaching of the Gospel possible in the circumstances of Japan. I find the episode extremely revealing.
There are two classic images of Francis Xavier, one as he’s leaving for India with the breviary in his hand, the other as he gathers young Indians by ringing a bell to invite them to catechism and to prayer. And yet Saint Ignatius said that Xavier was «the most rebellious clay he had ever had to shape…»
KOLVENBACH: Yes. When Ignatius met him, Xavier was dreaming of becoming an intellectual, a jurist, or a soldier so as to win a position of consequence in his native Javier and restore the fortunes of his family humiliated in political clashes. It took a long time and much perseverance by Ignatius before the words of the Gospel, incessantly repeated, found an echo in Xavier’s heart: «What does it profit a man to win the whole world and suffer the loss of his own soul». Whereas, losing one’s life in following Christ, one becomes rich in Christ… That led Xavier to do the Spiritual Exercises and to give himself to Christ. Once having yielded, he devoted himself totally to the Lord and to helping others in the footsteps of the poor Christ, in humility and in free service.
Peter-Hans Kolvenbach

Peter-Hans Kolvenbach

As regards Saint Ignatius, Cardinal Martini has declared that every time there is discussion in the Society of Jesus – as a result of all the varied views and opinions arising from the multifarious experience of the Jesuits throughout the world – everything comes back together as if by magic when they turn to the Spiritual Exercises.
KOLVENBACH: There’s no shadow of a doubt that the Spiritual Exercises are the basis of the spirituality and life of the Society. Many Jesuits have realized that God was calling them to the Society of Jesus in the context of Exercises often encountered when young and consolidated then in a month’s retreat in novitiate. In an enriching diversity of cultures and languages, of spiritual approaches and professional abilities, all the Jesuits have discovered, helped by the spiritual experience of Ignatius, a call to discern the will of God and a way of continuing the mission of Christ today.
Francis Xavier died, like Ignatius, without the consolations of religion
KOLVENBACH: There’s an anecdote from the life of Saint Luigi Gonzaga that is often quoted. It’s said that he was playing billiards with other young Jesuits when one of them asked him: «Luigi, if they told you your hour had come, what would you do?». They say Luigi answered: «I’d go on playing»… True or false, the anecdote reveals an important point in the spirituality of Ignatius. More that immediate preparation at the moment of the death it is the hours and years that went before, sustained by the grace of God and lived in the fulfilment of his will, that have weight in the encounter with Christ in the prospect of eternity. The very few Jesuits that were at Ignatius’ deathbed were “stunned” by the lack of those gestures that are usually expected from a dying founder: summoning collaborators to his bedside, giving the last advice, naming a successor… Ignatius never considered he was governing “his” society, but the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were completely surprized that Ignatius died simply, “like an ordinary person”. The only witness to the death of Xavier tells us that Xavier was happy at the moment of his solitary going, convinced as he was that the moment had come for him to meet Him who during his life had been his Lord and friend.
Cardinal Tucci has written that it would be easy to see in Xavier the mentality of the conquistador of those times. Whereas, the cardinal continues, what motivated Xavier was the conviction that nobody can be saved without having received baptism. What example and teaching can one draw from that?
KOLVENBACH: In many aspects Xavier was a child of his times. The theology he learned in Paris and the religious milieu in which he had lived, considered baptism an absolute necessity for salvation. Xavier suffered greatly when he saw the Japanese weeping after having told them that their ancestors were damned to hell because of not being baptized. As a result Xavier set more emphasis on the mercy of God who would accept the righteous lives of those who were blamelessly ignorant of the necessity of baptism. Guided by the Church and by the Vatican II Ecumenical Council, we know today that the seed of truth is to be found in all mankind, and that God will offer salvation to those who did not come to know Christ. But that was not the doctrine at the time of Xavier. However the new interpretations of Vatican II have not decreased the urgency for the Church of being missionary with the same passion as Xavier.
At the time of Xavier the Chinese sages were considered the leaders in human knowledge. In discussion with the bonzes, Xavier was told that if the Christian religion were true the Chinese would have known of it beforehand. What has the Society of Jesus learned, over these centuries, of the religious mentality of the Chinese and how – not least after the recent nomination of the bishop of Hong Kong as cardinal – can better relations be developed between Beijing and the Catholic Church?
An examplar of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, 
the Antwerp edition of 1671, held by the University of Valencia

An examplar of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the Antwerp edition of 1671, held by the University of Valencia

KOLVENBACH: From our contacts with Chinese culture over history we have first of all learned to respect and admire their conquests in the field of the human spirit. The West went eastwards with a cultural superiority complex. Xavier and the other missionaries that followed him have helped the West to adopt a more nuanced attitude and to become able to appreciate aspects that have not derived from the Greco-Roman legacy. If it is true that under the influence of Christianity Europe developed a philosophy of human rights and human dignity that in some other cultures is in no way obvious, there are other human values that we find better kept to in the oriental cultures.
Relations between the Church and China are complex obviously and require strenuous efforts from both sides before an agreement will be reached. It’s not easy to understand the reasons behind certain demands from China, and it’s clear that China doesn’t understand the nature of the Church.
There has never been a lack in the Society of Jesus of stories of friendship and holiness. With Ignatius and Xavier one also recalls Blessed Pietro Favre…
KOLVENBACH: The first companions developed a deep friendship that enormously strengthened their unity of purpose. Their friendship preceded the spiritual bond that united them later as members of the Society of Jesus. Even before taking the decision to create a formal grouping («if it please God we shall perhaps have imitators in this way of life», says the Formula of the Institution presented to Julius III), Ignatius and his friends thought of themselves as «a group of friends in the Lord». As you said, even though they were strong characters from different backgrounds, there was a fine and deep friendship amongst them based on their inwardness with Christ.
Ignatius, Francis and Pietro Favre all had personal relationships with the popes of the time.
KOLVENBACH: The unconditional willingness of the first Jesuits to accept and carry out the “missions” – any mission – entrusted them by the pope, was obviously a novelty for time, and an attitude that encouraged the bond between them and the popes. And then, some Jesuits were notable theologians with whom the popes loved to debate. Quite a lot of them were “papal theologians” at the Council of Trent, and Favre died worn out after a long journey, on foot, on the way to the Council to which the Pope had summoned him. Ignatius had one desire only: that the Jesuits that he had gathered together and trained be sent on mission by the Vicar of Christ on earth. Francis Xavier, in fact, was sent to Asia as pontifical legate.
From where do vocations to the Society of Jesus come today? Does the great experience of the Jesuits in inculturation and in education still produce its fruits today?
KOLVENBACH: Every year around five hundred young men enter the Society of Jesus. The origins of their vocation can’t be easily summarized. However, as at the beginnings, the Spiritual Exercises are often the means whereby young men recognize the call of the Lord. The educational, social and pastoral institutions of the Society are still the breeding grounds for many vocations.
Blessed Pietro Favre

Blessed Pietro Favre

Xavier died alone and without ever reaching China. There is a story that at that moment the statue of Jesus in the chapel of a tower in the castle of Javier sweated blood from its side. That statue is known as the Christ of the Smile. What did that image mean for Xavier and for the Society of Jesus?
KOLVENBACH: The sculpture to which you refer has attracted the attention of many people on the five hundredth anniversary of Xavier’s birth. It is, in effect, a rather exceptional depiction of Christ smiling on the cross. The historians tell us that the sculpture, dating from the 12th century, was in the castle and Xavier used to pray in front of it. I don’t think the sculpture was very well known among the Jesuits till a little time ago. But certainly the calm beauty of the face of Christ reminds us of his words: «All is accomplished» for our salvation. That is also the meaning of Xavier’s death: «In death he seemed very happy».
It’s now official that you are about to give up responsibility for leading the Society of Jesus for so many years. What do you have at heart to say?
KOLVENBACH: In reality I don’t have much to say on the subject. The Holy Father has benevolently understood that the reasons for which Saint Ignatius wanted the role of superior general to be lifelong have changed. Today we can live for a long time without any guarantee of the energy and ability of guiding and inspiring a group such as the Society of Jesus consisting of almost 20,000 members, scattered throughout so many countries, involved in so many different apostolic fields. With his permission I have consulted my advisers and all the provincials. All have agreed with my intention of presenting my resignation at the next General Congregation. It’s up to the Congregation to accept or not, but I’m confident that in 2008, after twenty-five years in this post and on the threshold of my eightieth year, my brethren will be willing to name my successor.

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