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from issue no. 03 - 2003

BIOGRAPHY. Who is Peter-Hans Kolvenbach

An ascetic General

Who is Peter-Hans Kolvenbach

by Gianni Valente

Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach on a visit to the mission of Nagaland, in India, in 1995

Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach on a visit to the mission of Nagaland, in India, in 1995

Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was born in Druten in the Low Countries on 30 November 1928. His father was a shopkeeper from Nimegen and his mother (Jacoba Johanna Petronella Domesino) was of old Italian stock. His early training at the Pietro Canisio college in Nimegen took place during the terrible years of the world war, when the country was under Nazi occupation. His entry into the Society of Jesus occurred in 1948. Ten years later, in the September of 1958, Peter-Hans left his native land with the first group of Dutch Jesuits assigned to Lebanon, where he studied theology at the Saint-Joseph University in Beirut and he was ordained priest in 1961. In the Levantine country the Jesuit from the North spent his middle years absorbing the languages and the ecclesial and liturgical traditions of the Near East. His studies centered on Armenian. He first taught philosophy, then general linguistics and Armenian at the Saint-Joseph University in Beirut. In 1974 he was elected Provincial of the vice-province of the Near East, which includes the Jesuit communities of Lebanon, Syria and Egypt. Those were the years in which the country famous for its cedars began to be torn apart by civil war. Kolvenbach stayed there till 1981, when Father Arrupe called him to Rome as rector of the Papal Oriental Institute. After the troubled closing phase of Father Arrupe’s ministry, who suffered a stroke in the August of 1981, as an extraordinary measure the Pope entrusted the leadership of the Society to the Italian Jesuits Paolo Dezza and Giuseppe Pictau. The two papal delegates “towed” the Society up to the thirty-third General Congregation, which on 13 September 1983 elected Kolvenbach as Superior General.
Though called to administer the delicate phase after Arrupe’s “charismatic” period, when the latter’s decisions had ended by polarizing enthusiasms and resentments within the Society itself, it can’t be said that Kolvenbach’s mandate has been marked by “normalization”. Ascetic and spiritual by temperament, even as head of the Order Father Kolvenbach has been reserved and interested in dialog, seeking out untraumatic solutions to disputes, as was seen in the role he adopted in the “Dupuis case”, which broke out because of the reservations shown in 1998 by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith towards the theological works of the Jesuit professor at the Gregorian Papal University.
Father Kolvenbach is a member of two Vatican Congregations (Evangelization of Peoples and Institutes of the Consecrated Life) and Consultor of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches.

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