As the tenth anniversary of his election approaches, Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the Superior General of the Jesuits, finds he is as committed as ever to the ideals of Vatican II. Felix Corley met him in Rome.
"CELEBRATING" WOULD BE
too strong a word to use to describe Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach's approach to the tenth anniversary of his election as 29th superior-general of the Society of Jesus. His low key response is typical of his modest attitude to his ten years at the top.
"Our work is very linked to what happens in the world," he explains. "The painful democratisation in Africa, the opening of dialogue with the great religions in Asia, the end of many guerilla wars for justice in Latin America... and the changes in Eastern Europe have enormously affected the work of the Society, presenting us with new challenges."
The political changes in Eastern Europe have not been an unmitigated blessing, he believes. "The collapse of communism first raised tremendous hopes that were subsequently transformed into the tragic reality of wars and economic crisis."
But there are also worries about the Jesuit order itself. "The most difficult aspect is the lack of manpower," says Fr Kolvenbach. The number of members around the world is 23,500 and, he estimates, is falling by about one per cent a year.
At least 65 per cent of novices now come from Africa, Asia and Latin America. Fr Kolvenbach, a Dutchman by origin, also sees the growing participation of lay people in the Jesuits' work and in the Church as a whole as a hopeful sign.
Traditionally, the Jesuits are known as an intellectual order involved in education and the mass media. "For us the criterion is not the kind of work but its urgency."
He stresses the Jesuits' refugee work. "Everyone knows now about Somalia, but who speaks about Liberia, where there are so many refugees? We try to go where there are refugees who are completely forgotten."
They are interested in dialogue with other religions especially, now, with Islam: "Here we feel that there is a double aspect to make Christianity known to the Muslims but also, to make known what Islam really is to Christianity."
He believes that some progress is being made, despite historically bad relations. "On a personal level there are real contacts and the possibility of sharing faith between the Islamic believer and the Christian".
Inevitably talk turns to the rapid exodus of Christians from the Middle East. Fr Kolvenbach who worked for 25 years in Lebanon is painfully aware of this problem. "Where Islam is the majority, you cannot say Christians are persecuted apart from countries like Sudan or Malaysia.
"But Christians often feel they have no future in the Middle East. The Holy See is very concerned by this and is doing everything it can to maintain local Christians, because it would be against the meaning of history that where Christianity started Christians would be completely absent."
I raise with him the question of the Protestant missionaries, many of them from the US, who are making great headway in Central and Latin America, and suggest that the Church has done little to respond.
"The Catholic and Protestant Churches are able to give the people what the sects are giving, but they are not doing so. Maybe it is because the Church is not sufficiently close to the people."
He acknowledges the Churches' "failure" in this area. "Sometimes our traditional Churches are too intellectual. After the Vatican Council we eliminated too much what could be called devotional life. That is what you see coming back, pilgrimages and devotions."
This acknowledgement of the failure of some elements of Vatican Il's legacy is all the stronger, given Kolvenbach's continuing commitment to the ideals of the Council. He reaffirms the order's controversial commit
ment to the "option for the poor" which, in its radical forms, led to bitter controversy within the order and the displeasure of the Pope.
It was his predecessor, Fr Pedro Arrupe, who was blamed by the Pope for allowing the order to go astray and whose suspension was spared only by a sta-oke in 1981 that left him incapacitated.
For two years the Pope banned the election of a successor, putting his own men in to bring the order back to the straight and narrow. When John Paul allowed a new election in 1983, Fr Kolvenbach was chosen as a diplomatic reconciler who could regain the Pope's confidence on behalf of the Society.
But he is unashamed to acknowledge his debt to his predecessor. "It is impossible to forget what Arrupe meant for the renewal of religious life in the post-Vatican II Church. It's astonishing that even though he died in 1991 after ten years of a long, debilitating illness, his death was a real blow to us."
Fr Kolvenbach concedes that there were bitter divisions between left-wingers and traditional Jesuits in the 1980s, but claims these divisions were "exaggerated", and that differences of opinion can be a "healthy" phenomenon.
Despite the fact that the Jesuits rely for their assignments on the decision of the Pope, there is no mistaking the coolness of the Jesuit leadership towards the present Vatican authorities.
In truth the 15 years of this pontificate have seen Jesuit influence in the Vatican being sidelined in favour of a more recent interloper, the secretive Opus Dei.
Asked about his relations with Pope John Paul, Fr Kolvenbach speaks only vaguely of the "availability" of the order to the Holy Father.
Do you meet him frequently, I ask, trying to extract a concrete answer? "It depends on the questions that have to be treated. But if You take the Holy Father and his collaborators, then there are frequent contacts." His answer is diplomatic, but noticeably brief.
Despite the fact that his "availability" requires him to continue as superior-general, there is no mistaking that Fr Kolvenbach would rather be Out in the field, especially if it was in his beloved Lebanon.