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What's the future for Jesuits in India?

Myron Pereira - UCANews - Sun, Jul 31st 2022

Given the cataclysmic pace of change in the world, Jesuits should ask whether they are destined for stagnation and obsolescence. 

Catholic nuns hold placards during a protest in Secunderabad the twin city of Hyderabad on October 21, 2020 against the arrest of Jesuit priest Father Stan Swamy in the eastern Indian state of Jharkhand for his alleged involvement in a violent incident. The aged priest died as a prisoner in a hospital on July 5, 2021, while awaiting trial. (Photo AFP/NOAH SEELAM)

This July 31 marks the end of a year dedicated to Ignatius Loyola and his conversion. 

For four centuries at least, the Society Ignatius founded, dominated the post-Tridentine Church, as a big fish in a rather small pond. But not just the Church, their myriad activities impinged upon the world at large.

Their schools and methods of teaching were a template for the education of the young. Their missionary techniques — Ricci, De Nobili, Ruiz de Montoya — were so far ahead of their time that they invited censure and closure from the stodgy dicasteries in Rome.

And in almost every area of scholarship — astronomy, linguistics, art and theater, education, theology, anthropology — they set the pace for others to follow.

But Trent came to an end with Vatican II, and since then the Catholic world has changed definitively.

How Vatican II changed us

In convoking the Council, Pope John XXIII  wanted an “updatedness” [aggiornamento] for a Church cloistered and suspicious of anything modern. 

One way of doing this was to “discover anew one’s origins,” one’s roots [ressourcement], shorn of the many accretions of Roman control.

Religious, in particular, were asked to take a sharp look at themselves, recover the vibrancy and innovation which had characterized their founding, and enter into dialogue with the world.

This resulted in several thousand religious, men and women, leaving their respective orders. The numbers of Jesuits too fell drastically.

For centuries Jesuits had been famous for their schools. In fact in the mid-19th century,  Capuchin missionary Anastasius Hartmann (1803-1866), who became the Vicar Apostolic of Bombay in 1854, had begged for Jesuits to raise the level of Catholic education in that city.

The Jesuits came and soon transformed the country.

But whereas education prepares the student for a place in society, very rarely does education challenge the hidden values of that same society — its biases against certain groups, for example; its hostility to the poor; or how the young are encouraged to degrade the environment in pursuit of rampant consumerism.

A Faith that seeks Justice

Inspired by their charismatic leader, Pedro Arrupe, the Jesuit General Assembly of 1975 gave a clarion call for “a faith that does justice”. It marked a decisive change in the ministries and ethos of the Society.

It asked Jesuits at every level not just to work for individual conversion through prayer, devotions and the catechism, but to strive for a “social conversion” though challenging the unjust structures of society.

This meant working for the rights of the poor, agitating for a more just economic order, working for peace in a violent society, fighting against the sexual exploitation of women, and now, joining hands with others for environmental change.

In Father Arrupe’s famous phrase, Jesuit education should create “men for others.”

But their presence in the socio-political field often provoked hostility from the government. Or from death squads that operated with tacit government support.

Several Jesuits paid for their courage with their lives:  the six Jesuit martyrs of El Salvador;  Bishop Oscar Romero himself, inspired by his Jesuit friend Rutilio Grande; Luis Espinal in Bolivia. And in South Asia, A. T. Thomas, Tom Gafney, and more recently, Stan Swamy.

South Asian Scene today

Of the 19 Jesuit provinces in South Asia, 18 are in India, with the vast majority of Jesuits living and working in India. Let’s look at India today, 75 years after independence, and how things have changed.

The country is largely in the grip of a fascist ideology called Hindutva [“Hinduness”] which has totally ruptured the traditional Hindu values of tolerance, diversity and dissent.

It seeks to “re-imagine” this nation as a majoritarian muscular bully.

But more importantly, the country is in the throes of sweeping social change. Millions of Indians are on the move, whether seeking better employment or fleeing persecution. Migration hits us everywhere.

Then the digital revolution, which impacts all our lives in the form of that versatile little smartphone — “duniya mutthi mein” [the world in your fist].

And finally, worst of all, climate catastrophe, upturning all we ever learned about the earth and its seasons. Pope Francis has given us a road map in Laudato Si, even though many persist with climate denial.

The Jesuit vocation has indeed thrown up new areas of engagement. Trouble is, many contemporary Jesuits cannot look beyond the blinkers of their three vows.

Religious life, instead of being an exercise in freedom and generosity, as it was for Ignatius and his first companions,  has become instead a claim to entitlement and an expression of hypocrisy.

Ignatian Inspiration

Ignatius Loyola continues to inspire many far beyond the Jesuit Society, and much beyond the confines of Catholic religious life.

Numerous Jesuit alumni, men and women, Catholics as well as of other faith traditions, espouse the Jesuit values of competence, commitment and compassion,  and would like to give at least some part of their lives to the transformation of society.

In the Jesuit Refugee Service [JRS],  Jesuits and their associates work in many ways  — rehab, accompaniment, advocacy — in some of the most dangerous areas of our world.

With Doctors Without Borders [MSF] and Reporters Without Borders [RSF], a new kind of volunteer enters strife-ridden areas, often at grave personal risk. These doctors come from all nations and every background. The “field hospital” is their only sanctuary.

So are the journalists, energetic in their pursuit of the truth.

They are only doing what Jesuits did in another age.

Then there is the whole area of dialogue, the “new way of being Church” [Pope Paul VI].

Faced with a triumphalist Hindutva and an aggressive Islamism, what is the Christian response, the Jesuit involvement in the tension-hit cities of South Asia? Are they known as agents of reconciliation?

Can the Society in South Asia re-imagine its vocation and read anew the “signs of the times”, or is it still obsessed with setting up more schools and colleges? Giving yesterday’s answers to today’s questions?

All that has been said above calls for new structures in Jesuit life, particularly in governance and formation. When these substantially change, new ministries will follow. But one can’t have innovative ministries with archaic superiors.

We all live in democratic societies today, and need more than obedience to feudal monarchical systems with no accountability and little transparency. Sadly this is what most religious orders, including the Jesuits, have become.

We want to know, decide and take responsibility — for our digital selves, for the turbulence around us, for climate change.

It’s a new age, and it’s changing rapidly. This means that the Jesuit vocation has to be re-imagined, re-invented, and re-structured for today. And if we do not do it, then who?

*The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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