Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Pope Challenges Jesuits, Say South Asians: Priests of the Society's Largest Unit Emphasize Grassroots Involvement

Magazine article National Catholic Reporter

Pope Challenges Jesuits, Say South Asians: Priests of the Society's Largest Unit Emphasize Grassroots Involvement

Article excerpt

NEW DELHI * As the Society of Jesus gets ready to elect a new superior general, South Asia--its largest unit--looks forward to a leader who can help them respond to the challenges that Pope Francis has thrown at Catholic religious.

"The pope has been living his Jesuit vocation without proclaiming it. That has challenged the Society [of Jesus] to reflect deeper," said Fr. Varkey Perekkatt, the Jesuits' Delhi provincial.

The 76-year-old priest is among 46 people who will represent 4,030 Jesuits of South Asia at the 36th General Congregation, the top legislative body of the Society of Jesus. The congregation, which begins Oct. 2 in Rome, will elect a successor to the current superior general, Fr. Adolfo Nicholas, who is stepping down after almost nine years in office.

According to Perekkatt, introspection would bring about personal and structural changes among the Jesuits.

"Whether we like it or not, most of our institutions are middle-class and above middle-class," Perekkatt told NCR. He said internal changes of each Jesuit will lead to collective transformation of the congregation as well as society. Such changes are required for the society to get back to its charism of caring for the poor, he said.

Perekkatt said he regrets that the Jesuits' social action has become increasingly institutionalized and their preferential option for the poor has been watered down. This pro-poor option was the challenge the Jesuits' 32nd General Congregation in 1974 put forward to the church.

The Jesuits then insisted serving the faith through the promotion of justice and formed numerous grassroots movements that worked for the poor and downtrodden. In the 1970s and 1980s, "we were in villages," Perekkatt recalled.

However, many institutions emerged over the years as social action became structured.

"Gradually, we became project managers and moved into many institutions," said the priest, who is the former head of the Jesuits of South Asia and attended the 34th General Congregation in 1995.

Social scientist Fr. Ambrose Pinto, who has headed Jesuit social institutes in New Delhi and Bangalore, southern India, said Francis has taken over from the Jesuits the "prophetic role" of challenging unjust structures and calling for a new world that has a preferential option for the poor.

"What at one juncture was considered the mission of the Society [of Jesus] of faith and justice has become the mission of the entire church," said Pinto, who is now in Bangalore.

The pope, Pinto told NCR, has "radicalized the church" in such a way the Jesuits' General Congregation "may have to fall back on many things the Holy Father has said to reinvent its mission for today."

Fr. Joseph Thadavanal, who works in Bihar, eastern India, also finds Francis challenging all religious, not just Jesuits, to listen to the poor. Francis has become an "inspiring and empowering figure" and "a strong moral voice" in a disintegrating world situation, he said.

Hence, the pope's personal example will greatly impact the Jesuit meeting, which will "grapple with the pressures of a fast-changing world," he told NCR in an email interview.

The pope's initiative to reform the church and society has given the Jesuits new enthusiasm, said Fr. George Pattery, who now heads the South Asian Jesuits. The 65-year-old Indian Jesuit leader welcomes the pope's leadership and applauds his initiative to implement the church reforms the Second Vatican Council envisioned.

Pattery is happy that the Jesuits have a good rapport with Francis. Earlier, the society, the largest Catholic religious order for men, had faced problems, due to the Vatican's difficulty in understanding the Jesuit interpretation of justice and faith, Pattery said.

"We now have a good moment, as the highest authority in the church is leading a mission that we had been shouldering all alone," he added. …

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