Challenges on being a Jesuit in South Asia in the context of the 200th anniversary of the Society’s Restoration
-Fr. Cedric Prakash sj*
This year 2014 has indeed been a special moment of grace for all Jesuits, in commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the Restoration of the Society of Jesus by Pope Pius VII in 1814.
It is necessary at first to have a glimpse into 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. This we know revolutionised not only Europe but several other parts of the world at that time - including parts of South Asia. From its birth in 1540, in a little over 200 years, the Jesuits numbered 23,000 worldwide which was a phenomenal growth in comparison to the traditional religious congregations of that period.
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 not only for ‘loyalty to the Pope’ but also for ‘bold and creative initiatives’. They were a ‘well-connected’ group with the rich and the powerful and in fact with the ‘who’s who’ of Europe.
The Jesuits 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.
Later in 1762, France banned the Jesuits for some frivolous reason but also because of pressure from the Jansenists and other anti-Christian groups in the country. On April 2nd 1767, a royal decree was read out to all the Jesuit communities in Spain 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 July 21st 1773, through his brief ‘Dominus ac Redemptor’, he suppressed the Society of Jesus. Very strangely, the document begins with a text from Jeremiah that it 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 in fact not entirely 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 were able to continue with their work – and 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. The people of Europe and even several Church officials clamoured for the return of the Jesuits fully aware of their significant contributions to every dimension of society.
Eventually, on August 7th 1814, Pope Pius VII through the papal bull ‘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!
Some reasons for the suppression of the Society of Jesus
There are several reasons given as to why the Society of Jesus was suppressed; among them was the fact that they were openly backing the papacy inspite of the fact that several Roman Pontiffs led a very scandalous life-style and had a great obsession for power and control. There were others who regarded the Jesuits as arrogant because of their proximity to the rich and the powerful and there were still others who seemed to be threatened by the way the Jesuits were doing things not only in Europe but also in the distant lands of South America, India and China.
If one had to carefully analyse the reasons for the suppression of the Society, one could conclude the following:
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 want to put them in place for any reason whatsoever.
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 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.
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.
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 confront these “friends” who ultimately became their deadliest enemies.
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 the history and some of the significant reasons which led to the suppression of the Society, one needs to pay a closer attention at the challenges we Jesuits in South Asia face today and how best we could and should “restore” ourselves in the very complex and changing realities in this part of the world.
It is a little over fifty years since Pope John XXIII through the Second Vatican Council literally “forced opened the doors and windows of the Church”; in doing so, the Lord’s Spirit seemed to have breathed a time of renewal for Christendom. Exactly forty years ago, with the visionary leadership of the then Superior General of the Society of Jesus Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the historic 32nd General Congregation very emphatically stated that “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement” (D4 # 2). This year 2014, we celebrate forty years of that path-breaking mandate which in so many ways have defined the way most Jesuits think and act today. A case-in-point are the brutal assassinations (exactly 25 years ago) of Ignacio Ellacuria, his six Jesuit companions and two women co-workers in El Salvador on November 16th 1989 because they had the courage to take on the powerful vested interests, the political ruling class and the army of their country. General Congregations 34 and 35 continued in the same vein challenging the Jesuit of today to be truly ‘a servant of Christ’s mission’ and ‘a fire that kindles other fires’.
In March 2013 the world and particularly the Church had another pleasant shock when a Jesuit was elected as Pontiff and took the name Pope Francis. So much of what he says and does has its roots in Jesuit spirituality. His first apostolic exhortation ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (the Joy of the Gospel) which he promulgated exactly a year ago on November 24th, 2013 has become a blueprint for every Christian who wants to live one’s discipleship in a more authentic way.
The situation in South Asia is highly complex and a fast-changing one. The countries in our Assistancy have a wealth of diversity which is so evident by its numerous languages, cultures, customs and traditions. All the major religions of the world have millions of adherents living here; however, the last few years have witnessed, like never before, growing intolerance, exploitations and injustices: the gap between the rich and the poor is ever-increasing, patriarchy continues to rule the roost; violence on the minorities, the poor and other vulnerable groups seem to be the order of the day; fascism and fundamentalism seem to hold sway and in a very systematic manner democratic values and principles are being shredded to bits.
We Jesuits of South Asia are therefore challenged, as never before, to engage ourselves in a ‘new restoration’ which could and should mean:
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 to nor tied up with our pet projects or institutions. At the same time, we need to identify ourselves in more tangible ways with the poor, the marginalized and other vulnerable groups and to also create space for them in our own lives.
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 publicly. 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 and with whom do we (or our institutions) identify with.
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 must act: to respond constructively and positively to the context we live in and to the challenges which beckon 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, our Superior General in a letter dated November 14th, 2013to the whole Society writes, “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.
(This Article was first published in the IGNIS (No.2014. 2 & 3 / Vol. XLIV No. II & III) entitled ‘Challenges of being a Jesuit in India’. It has now been rewritten for the Jesuit South Asian Assistancy, International Seminar on ‘Jesuit Contribution to Nation Building in South Asia from the Nineteenth Century till Today’ held at JDV, Pune, November 27th – 29th 2014)
(* 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 Saffron Hotel, Drive-in Road, Ahmedabad - 380052
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