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from issue no. 03 - 2003

A meeting with Peter-Hans Kolvenbach

Us in the period of this absurd war

The Church, the world and the Society of Jesus seen by the twenty-eighth successor to Saint Ignatius of Loyola. Who says of the Iraq crisis: “It’s absurd to unleash war, one at a time, against all the countries governed by dictatorial systems, to bring in democracy through outside violence”

by Gianni Valente

Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus

Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General of the Society of Jesus

The pontificate of the happily reigning Pope is by now the fifth longest in history. But the “Black Pope” is no slouch either. Next 19 September Petrus Jacobus Johannes Maternus Kolvenbach, better known as Peter-Hans, will celebrate his twentieth anniversary as head of the Society of Jesus. Reaching seventh place in the list of Jesuit Father Generals who have been longest at the helm of the Societas Jesu.
You can bet that there won’t be any great celebration. If there is one thing that has marked the twenty-year ministry of the twenty-eighth successor to Saint Ignatius of Loyola, it has been the sober style, far from any wish for the limelight, of this religious, ascetic, reserved and kindly in spirit. They have been years largely spent traveling the world, to visit the troops and the remote outposts of a sui generis “army” that still surprises the whole world with the almost protean versatility with which it lives its vocation, adapting itself to the boundless variety of circumstances and local situations. Ad maiorem Dei gloriam.
Because of the very role he fulfills, almost by “professional deformation”, Father Kolvenbach is used to considerations and concerns that have the whole world as their horizon. It is interesting to take a brief virtual journey with him to visit the key places in “Jesuit geography”, now when the menacing clouds of another war are thickening over the world.

Father Kolvenbach, twenty years at the head of the Jesuits is a fine feat. If you were to sum up in a phrase, in a compressed formula, all the great work undertaken in the world by your fellow brethren, how would you put it?
PETER-HANS KOLVENBACH: The first superior general of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola, was fond of summing up the mission of the Society of Jesus in a brief phrase. In Spanish he said «ayudar a las almas», which we translate by explaining that it’s a matter of helping people to meet their Lord and Savior personally. In founding the Society of Jesus, he had no other desire than that of continuing, here and now, the mission of Christ with a group of friends in the Lord, of whom the Lord could avail himself for going where he is still not known, known little or known badly. This mission of “ayudar”, of “helping”, has in no way lost its relevance. In our millennium in which the Church does not seek to impose itself but is committed to offering its Lord, the simple verb “help” gives a vigorous proclamation of the faith with the disinterested delicacy that respects the freedom of conscience of the men and women of our time in search of God in one way or another. As Jesuits we are aware we must fulfill the mission of Christ, not according to our own ideas and projects, but according to the way in which the Lord helped people find the path to his and our Father.
So that perhaps the answer is impossible. But I’d like you to tell us of an episode, a fact, a situation that you encountered or learnt about during these twenty years, and that represents for you the most immediate and simple image of what the Jesuits are in the Church and the world.
KOLVENBACH: I’m embarrassed for choice, since because of my position I have the privilege of meeting Jesuits practically everywhere in the world and of admiring their service to the Church of the Lord in conditions often painful and precarious. But, if to reply, I have to choose, what comes to mind is the gathering of all the Superior Majors of the Society of Jesus we held three years ago at Loyola. It wasn’t just an image, it was the fine reality of the union of hearts in the service of the same Lord and of his Church. More than a hundred Superior Majors from the disconcerting diversity of languages, mentalities and cultures: impossible to understand humanly as on a shared mission, but nevertheless possible in the Lord. Since our spirituality is very embodied and is lived in concrete situations, with people in their conflictual plurality. The experience of a meeting of that kind makes clear that the new commandment of the Lord is not a utopia, even in our divided world, but is possible thanks to the gift and to the forgiveness that we have learned and received from Him.
Let’s start with the complicated international situation. After 11 September, a whole influential current of thought has interpreted the conflicts and crises as a battle, one with apocalyptic coloring, to safeguard so-called western civilization with its Christian roots from the attacks it’s undergoing. How do you see that interpretation in reference to present happenings?
KOLVENBACH: The horrible and glaring events of 11 September have let loose a whole way of speaking and thinking “with apocalyptic coloring”, with the inevitable anguish to save the world from self-destruction and also the inevitable radical division between a good civilization to be defended and a terrorist “axis of evil” to be destroyed. It’s easy to describe any catastrophe on a global scale as apocalyptic, but that is not the meaning of the word that the last book of Holy Scripture – the Apocalypse – expresses. There it’s a matter of the revelation of Him who, as sign of contradiction, is about to come, living history with us. The television images of the Twin Towers in New York will remain in our memory and conscience. Though not as the single great catastrophe: there are many other great catastrophes in the world to which the media pay no attention, like for example the tens of thousands killed in Colombia. On the other hand all terrorism should be condemned, but the condemnation can’t be exploited so as to set aside the search for the causes of terrorism and remedy them.
For months a new war has been preparing, this time described as pre-emptive, going ahead yet again in the name of humanitarian repugnance for the misdeeds of a dictator. What do you think of this strong appeal to moral or even religious reasons to justify aspirations to the global government of the world?
KOLVENBACH: Although fifteen of the nineteen 11 September terrorists and their financial networks rather are Saudi Arabian, a war is being actively prepared against an Arab country by means of a pretext more or less imposed on the United Nations. What we’re heading for is certainly not a defensive war. As for a so-called pre-emptive war one wonders who has the right, outside the United Nations, to decide the necessity of an armed attack on another country – that will cause innocent civilian victims and political upheaval – when it is not a case of legitimate defense. With the theory of pre-emptive war there’s a danger of intervening, as custodians of the world, against an infinite list of states that seem to be preparing the use of weapons of mass destruction, at present possessed by numerous countries. It would be a dangerous illusion. The archbishop of New York has asked for clear and certain knowledge of a clear and certain threat. In any case, he says, the international community must not plunge into the conflict. The weapons to combat terrorism are first and foremost intelligence and international agreements. It’s absurd to unleash war, one at a time, against all the countries governed by dictatorial systems to bring in democracy through outside violence. The Iraqi regime is in the hands of a Sunni Moslem minority, which is ruling a country with a large Shiite Moslem majority. Religious reasons don’t appear to prevail, but anyone who knows Asia and the Arab world knows that the people almost instinctively identify America with what is white and Christian. A war would inflame a thousand million Moslems for a long time, a great number of whom don’t know or can’t imagine that the Holy See, the United States Episcopal Conference – and the American Jesuit Superior Majors – have taken a moral stance against the war.
According to some people, in the Church as well, the “clash of civilizations” atmosphere is a good opportunity for the reaffirmation of Christian identity and the rediscovery of the Christian roots of western civilization. The identification between Christianity and the culture of the West comes up in many speeches. Is there opportunism and misunderstanding in this interpretation of the present historical moment?
Above lecture-room at the Collegio San Ignacio in Medellín, Colombia; below, a group photo of the Superior Majors at the Loyola gathering in September 2000

Above lecture-room at the Collegio San Ignacio in Medellín, Colombia; below, a group photo of the Superior Majors at the Loyola gathering in September 2000

KOLVENBACH: First of all, in a civilization that is afraid to define itself with clarity and that thereby deprives words of their meaning, the person who speaks with conviction and certitude is easily considered intolerant. It is therefore a grace that the Church, especially through the mouth of the Holy Father, recalls us in every context to the Truth without ambiguity and without compromises aimed at pleasing, without blushing for the cross. Though proclaiming with clarity the crucified and resurrected Lord, to touch the heart of others one has to meet them in their own language. Saint Paul did so in Athens: without in any way denying his resurrected Lord, he sought to touch the hearts of the Athenians by presenting him as the unknown God they worshipped. Saint Paul was without doubt aware that, even when making use of the most acculturated language possible, the “folly” and the “scandal” of the crucifix have always to be recognized. Nevertheless, if one doesn’t set the message of the faith in the everyday situation of different cultures and civilizations, it won’t get through.
How can one not refer to the experience, dear to the Church as to the Society of Jesus, of Matteo Ricci, born in Macerata on 6 October 1552? At that time, even if Europe echoed the determination of the Franciscan Father Alfaro, who «with or without soldiers, wanted to go to China to try to grasp the moon», Matteo Ricci became Chinese among the Chinese. Rejecting a pallid humanism, he cultivated their friendship so as to be able to proclaim his Lord in Chinese, encountering many obstacles, to the point of confessing in one of his letters: «We shan’t in any way lack encounters in which we shall have to suffer greatly for our Lord». In following the Lord and proclaiming his liberation one can also go through suffering and ordeals. Is that not perhaps the criterion of real dialog and real enculturation?
On the subject of Matteo Ricci, the missions to proclaim Jesus Christ in China have always been a leading thread for the Jesuits. How do you see the situation of the Catholic Church in that country today?
KOLVENBACH: The Jesuits have always been fascinated by China. Francis Xavier died while waiting to enter China, and in 1582 Matteo Ricci wrote: China is the most important and richest thing in all the Orient, all the kingdoms of which it surpasses. Perhaps China attracts today because of its enormous number of inhabitants, many more than a thousand million, and who, after the collapse of the ideologies, also show a certain thirst for spirituality. It is painful, given that context, but not irremediable, that the Catholic Church is divided. Along with a Church of silence, there is the Patriotic Association of Chinese Catholics founded in 1957, which insists on pursuing an exclusively Chinese autonomy, refusing any foreign interference. The association is a government agency, not a Church. There is a Church recognized by the government, and some of its bishops and priests, religious and faithful belong to the Patriotic Association, but it would be wrong to identify the Patriotic Association with the Church recognized by the government: wide sectors of the latter are more than reticent towards the Patriotic Association, as was proved by the refusal of many faithful, seminarians and priests to attend the consecration in Beijing on 6 January 2000 of bishops not approved by the Holy See. Members of the Church recognized by the government are seeking communion with the Holy Father or are already in contact with the Holy See. While the Patriotic Association, fighting for its survival, is resisting normalization of diplomatic relations with the Vatican. The Jesuits are continuing with their academic, pastoral and social work, for example with the 101 leper hospitals located in 17 Chinese provinces which are looked after by the fellow brethren of the Ricci House in Macao. Working, as the Holy Father has asked, for the reconciliation of all these millions of Catholic Chinese, true witnesses to Christ in a continent that more than ever needs his grace and truth.
Let us move on to Russia, which is going through a period of trouble between the patriarchate of Moscow and the Catholic Church. Again in the history of relations between Rome and Holy Russia the Jesuits have had a leading role from the start. In your view, are there reasonable motives for the present Orthodox mistrust?
KOLVENBACH: When the Holy Father sent us to Siberia to offer pastoral help to tens of thousands of Catholics, all deported by the Stalinist regime, who were without priests for more than fifty years, he did not want the Society of Jesus to send only Polish Jesuits, but an international group so as to express the catholicity of the Church of Rome and above all he gave very firm directives aimed at avoiding any sort of proselytism. After so many years of cruel persecution, the Orthodox Church of Holy Russia needs the help of its sister Churches, and this reciprocal help is a fact on condition that it remain a disinterested and discreet service in appearance also. So the Catholic and Orthodox dioceses cultivate contacts. There are also shared initiatives as regards the training of the clergy. The Russian Orthodox Church willingly attends meetings with the Catholics on spirituality, history and the things at stake in our time. Only when this dialog of Christian life comes up against the level of ecclesial structures does it encounter a question of principle. As a patriarchal Church, Holy Russia does not permit the institutional presence of another patriarchate on its territory. That would go against a very old Eastern canonical tradition. The Russian Orthodox Church does not reject the presence of Catholic bishops on its territory in the pastoral service of Catholics, but it will not tolerate the institutionalization of the presence of bishops in dioceses of the Catholic Church. There are here two conceptions of the Church, one national, the other universal, confronting each other. It will probably take much patience and time yet, but to the extent that the passion of the Lord for the full union of Christians is alive in the two Churches, there will be one shepherd and one flock when and in the way the Lord himself desires. It’s up to us, following the example of the Holy Father, to make use of every chance to express this passion for the union in meetings, reciprocal services and above all in common prayer.
A copy of the Spiritual Exercise of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, published in Antwerp 1676, in the University of Valencia library

A copy of the Spiritual Exercise of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, published in Antwerp 1676, in the University of Valencia library

In another part of the world marked by the missionary capacities of the Jesuits, Latin America, while there are new ferments, a terrible crisis is going on.
KOLVENBACH: Latin America is changing as it passes through a new worrying and discouraging crisis. So much hope for a radical socio-economic change, fed and backed by theological reasons, has ended up in the bitter conclusion that the rich are ever richer, the poor ever poorer, and the continent is ever farther removed from the development elsewhere in growth. Deluded, people distrust the traditional political parties and choose charismatic figures as leaders from whom they expect rapid and miraculous solutions, the outcome of what one may call “fantastic realism”. On its part the Church continues to put forward the option for the poor, in line with its social teaching, reminding the administrations and the institutions of a responsibility towards the poor that can’t be dodged any longer by shrugging off all the blame for growing poverty in Latin America on an external foe. Even though the Church remains prophetic, one nevertheless is aware of a shift from the Elias of Carmel to the Elias of Sarepta. Violent action to overthrow structures of sin in one fell swoop is no longer on the menu, but there is a slow and patient effort above all at local and municipal level to come to the aid of all those who suffer through institutions, and in that way build, gradually but steadily, a juster society. One example is the social work done by the universities and colleges. An enormous field of action is open to the Church here. It’s more difficult to predict how long people’s patience will put up with the delay in urgent social change.
Last year some US administration documents listed certain Latin American Jesuit communities among the “subversive groups”. And in those countries many Jesuits have received their baptism of blood in past years. As happened to Father Rutilio Grande, and the professors of the University of Central America, slaughtered in San Salvador in the 1989.
KOLVENBACH: It’s true that last year the US State Department published a document that accused the Jesuits of having founded one of the guerrilla movements in Colombia. After being asked for clarification of the fact, the State Department amended its statement and admitted that the Jesuits were not involved in the revolutionary movements. Unfortunately it happens all too often that people who denounce injustice so as to proclaim the justice of the Gospel are accused of being Communists or Marxists. Years ago, while concelebrating mass with Father Ignacio Ellacuría, later assassinated in San Salvador, I was stunned by the violence of the words of his sermon and by the cruelty of the images painted on the walls of the chapel of his university. Were these the words of a leader of the extreme left or those of a priest of Jesus Christ? Father Ellacuría explained to me that neither the persona of Karl Marx nor his theory merited his priestly concern, but that the structures of sin maintained by Christians in his country demanded the clear language of John the Baptist and the prophets, of the exigent word of the Lord, friend of the poor, in face of the injustice that is forcing so many of the people of San Salvador into poverty.
In Africa Jesuits have also been targeted for convincing the government of Zambia to refuse donations of genetically modified products that were being “offered” by American multinationals. They were accused of ingratitude and ideological and irresponsible pauperism that would end in causing a lot of people to die of starvation who would otherwise have survived by accepting the products. What’s your view of the matter?
KOLVENBACH: The Jesuits run an agricultural center and a center for theological reflection in Zambia. The Zambian government asked the two centers, as they did many centers run by non-government organizations, for their opinion on donations of genetically modified foodstuffs, offered by American multinationals. At the same time a government delegation was sent to the United States to gain information and work out a scientific view. The Jesuit centers spoke out against the donations of the foodstuffs, but they were by no means alone in coming to a negative opinion. Leaving aside the still-open question of the effects of the foodstuffs on long-term human health, the Jesuits pointed out the disastrous influence of the donations on the local agriculture of the country, and on the future of the peasants who mostly produce Zambia’s maize. The economic effect of these donations of foodstuff could lead to the total disappearance of local agriculture. The discussion on the consequences of the donations continues, but in the meanwhile, thanks also to the ecumenical initiative taken by the Churches of the Lord in Zambia, some important agencies have promised “normal” foodstuffs so people won’t die of hunger.

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