Tuesday, August 05, 2014

Challenges on being a Jesuit in India on the 200th anniversary of the Society’s Restoration by -Fr. Cedric Prakash sj

Challenges on being a Jesuit in India on the 200th anniversary of the Society’s Restoration
                             -Fr. Cedric Prakash sj*

On August 7th 2014, the Society of Jesus will commemorate the bicentennial of its Restoration (after it was suppressed in 1773). The Article below is meant to be a reflection on the Challenges which the Jesuits in India face today in the context of this Commemoration.

This year 2014 is a special moment of grace for Jesuits all over the world as we commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Restoration of the Society of Jesus, by Pope Pius VII in 1814.

At the outset, it is important to have a glimpse at the historical context and some of the facts which led to the suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773.  Ignatius of Loyola was a person with a difference. Because of his vision, his spiritual depth and apostolic zeal, he had the courage to translate his dreams into action. In 1540, the Society of Jesus was born and a little over 200 years in 1750, Jesuits numbered 23,000 worldwide! 

In those 200 years Jesuits had established themselves and involved themselves in all kinds of apostolic activities from becoming ‘the school masters of Europe in 1600’, to accompanying individuals and groups in their spiritual growth through the Spiritual Exercises. They became synonymous for their loyalty to the Pope, and for their bold and creative initiatives. They also had important connections with the high and mighty of Europe.

They demonstrated an uncanny ability to go like their founder Ignatius where others dared not go.  The theology of the Jesuits was pastoral and liberal, unlike the rigidity which was espoused by the Jansenists of the middle ages. Philosophers like Blaise Pascal, a Jansenist, took on the Jesuits who were exhorting people to be loyal to the demands of faith. In the late 17th century and early 18th century, the Jesuits had established several missions called ‘reductions’ in South America. This was done with the approval of Spain. However, in 1750 the Treaty of Madrid redrew the boundaries between the colonies of Portugal and Spain in South America. Seven of these reductions (now in Portuguese territory) had to be dismantled and relocated. What ensued was terrible violence and bloodshed between the native Guarani tribe from the Jesuit missions and the troops from Europe.  Portugal laid the entire blame on the Jesuits who had taken the side of the tribals.

In 1758, there was an attempt to assassinate King Joseph I of Portugal. The Jesuits were also blamed for this and charged with treason and in a matter of time, Portugal became the first country to expel all Jesuits from its territories which included its colonies in South America.

In 1762, France banned the Jesuits for some frivolous reason but also because of the influence of the Jansenists and other anti-Christians in the country.  On April 2nd 1767, a royal decree was read out to all the Jesuit communities inSpain expelling them from that country and their colonies, because of Jesuit involvement in the riots against taxation. This led to tremendous pressure on Pope Clement XIII to abolish the entire Society of Jesus throughout the world. He steadfastly refused to do so and continued to champion the Society of Jesus till his sudden death on February 2nd 1769.

Pope Clement XIV who succeeded him was apparently a pawn in the hands of powerful vested interests of Europe. Threatened with a schism in the Catholic Church, he finally gave in and on August 16th 1773, through his brief Dominus ac Redemptor, he suppressed the Society of Jesus. Very strangely, the document begins with a text from Jeremiah that is not sufficient only “to plant and to build” but it is also important “to uproot and to destroy”. The document goes on to assert that the Society of Jesus had always been an object of dissension clearly implying that the Jesuits are trouble-makers and rebellious!

Thanks to Catherine the Great, the Empress of Russia, the Society of Jesus was not wiped out. So when Clement XIV issued the brief of suppression, Catherine refused to obey it and did not permit the Bishops in her Empire to endorse it. It was due to her patronage and later on because of Ferdinand the Duke of Parma, the Society never died. Above all, there was Joseph Pignatelli with his undaunted zeal and total commitment to the life and mission of the Society, the Jesuits continued to survive.

Towards the end of the 18th century, Europe went through a tremendous amount of violence and mayhem. The Napoleonic wars and the French revolution brought about great suffering to the people. More and more, the Church and Society of Europe clamoured for the return of the Jesuits fully aware of the way they had contributed to every dimension of society.

Finally, on August 7th 1814, Pope Pius VII through his brief Sollicitudo Onnium Ecclesiarum ((the Care of All Churches) restored the Society of Jesus completely.  For forty-one years, the Jesuits were suppressed. The most powerful of Europe did everything they could to destroy the Jesuits once and for all. Today 200 years later, we need to thank God for those great men who refused to give up, who refused to be discouraged and who refused to die!

It is important at this juncture, therefore to look back at some of the dimensions that led to the suppression of the Society. If one got to carefully analyse, then they would fall under the following:

  • Commitment
Commitment was the hallmark of the Jesuits.  A commitment to the vision and mission of the Society, to the poor and to the signs of the times – the Jesuits were neither pushovers nor people who could be compromised. Their unflinching zeal ensured, that there were enough of enemies who would try to put them in place at any time. 

  • Contemplation
Thanks to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits were encouraging people to become more and more contemplatives in action. They insisted on a spiritual depth but at the same time in the service of the others. This was in complete variance to the hollow ritualistic religion that was meted out and propagated at that time. This dimension gave new meaning and purpose to several, very specially to the youth of the day.

  • Courage
In GC35, we are reminded that “Jesus confronted the powers that opposed his kingdom and that opposition led him to the death on the Cross, a death which he freely accepted in keeping with his mission” (D3#14). This is exactly what the Jesuits prior to the suppression were doing. They confronted the rich and powerful of their times, they took sides with the Guarani Indians in South America, they sided with the ordinary folk when they were over-taxed, what mattered most was that the faith that does justice becomes a reality in their lives and in the lives of others.

  • Conscience
GC34 in Decree 3 “Our Mission and Justice” highlights new dimensions of justice which include the full range of human rights.  This powerful Decree reminds us that “The promotion of justice requires, before all else, our own continuing personal conversion – finding Jesus Christ in the brokenness of our world, living in solidarity with the poor and outcast, so that we can take up their cause under the standard of Cross.  Our sensitivity for such a mission will be most affected by frequent direct contact with these “friends of the Lord,” from whom we can often learn from faith. Some insertion into the world of the poor should therefore be part of the life of every Jesuit.” (#17)

In the days prior to the suppression of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits very effectively touched the conscience of the world they lived in. They had rich powerful friends but the Jesuits had no fear to take these friends on and these latter soon became their deadliest enemies.

  • Creativity
Another reason why the Jesuits were suppressed was surely because of their ability to have creative and contextual responses.  They were able to transcend the narrow confines of the status quo. The context at that time challenged them to go to new frontiers. They easily became a threat to those who would rather have confined them to the Church or their particular institutions.  The same applies to us today. The new context in which “we live our mission today is marked by profound changes, acute conflicts and new possibilities”. (GC35 DC3 #8)

Having reflected on a bit of history and some of the characteristics that were the hallmark of the Jesuits - pre-suppression, during the forty-one years of suppression and immediately afterwards - it is necessary for us to see how the Society of Jesus can and should “restore” itself today in the 21st century.

In the last fifty years, we have had the Second Vatican Council which “opened for all, the doors and windows” of the Church; historic General Congregations particularly 32, 34 and 35 and as recently as March 2013, a Jesuit has become Pope Francis and he seems to have embarked on the restoration of the Church and very significantly through his first Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel)”.

For us Jesuits in South Asia, restoration of the Church and Society could and should mean the following:

  • Availability
How available are we to go to new frontiers? to go to places where no one dares to go? to think “out-of-the-box?” and as Pope Francis reminds us “to be priests without frontiers and to literally “smell of the sheep?”  Availability pre-supposes an attitude of self-giving; that we are not tied down or tied up with our pet projects or institutions. At the same time, we need to identify ourselves with the poor and marginalized and create space for them in our own lives.

  • Articulation
We are not sufficiently articulate in highlighting the context, the challenges and concerns of today.  Many of us seem to be compromised (cfr. Jesus’ temptations in the desert) with power, privileges, possessions and positions!  As long as we can remain in our comfort zones, we fight shy of serious research, objective analysis and having the courage to communicate our stand to the wider world.  If we seriously do so, many of us will surely lose our places of privilege and the patronage from powerful vested interests. It is also important for all of us to do a reality check and to see who are our friends, with who do we / or institutions identify with.

  • Action
Any meaningful action for a Jesuit necessitates contemplation and our closeness with Christ means “to follow Christ bearing his Cross means opening ourselves with him to every thirst that afflicts humanity today.”(GC35 DC2 #12) As Jesuits, we need to act to respond constructively and positively to the context which challenges us and beckons us.  The substantial actions of the Jesuits was a clear reason for the suppression of the Society but these men were not afraid, they were able to give and not count the cost.

Fr. Adolfo Nicolas , the Superior General in a letter dated November 14th, 2013 wrote “I pray that our grateful commemoration of this 200th anniversary of the Society’s reestablishment might be blessed with a greater appropriation of our way of life and a more creative, generous and joyful commitment to give our lives in service for the greater glory of God.”

This Jubilee Year indeed challenges every single Jesuit to make important and greater strides towards the ‘Magis”.  We can surely do so through greater Availability, courageous Articulation and committed Action.

(* Fr. Cedric Prakash SJ is the Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace.)

Address: PRASHANT, Hill Nagar, Near Kamdhenu Hall, Drive-in Road, Ahmedabad - 380052
Phone: 79 27455913, 66522333 Fax:  79 27489018
Email: sjprashant@gmail.com     www.humanrightsindia.in

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