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“Live in such a way that people will ask you the reason for the hope that you have”. In many regions of the world Jesuits live with the poor, sharing their suffering and helping them build a better future. Because of their faith, they stand up for and with the people – regardless of race, gender or religion.
The Society of Jesus was from the beginning a missionary order, according to the foundational spirit of St Ignatius, out of love for Christ „- to help souls in word and deed – “. The first Jesuits committed themselves to this in the founding document of the Order, the „Formula Instituti“. They vowed to go, without excuse, wherever the Pope would send them for the propagation of the faith, „whether to the Turks or to other infidels, even in the areas that we call India.“
Just six months after the official approval of the Society of Jesus by the Pope in 1540, one of the founding fathers, St Francis Xavier, was on his way to India to evangelize throughout Asia. His letters and reports aroused great enthusiasm among young Jesuits, and soon the Society of Jesus was the biggest missionary order of the Church. The Order not only grew geographically into the newly discovered continents, but also developed a new way to evangelize. They wanted not only to convert individuals but to create dialogue between the culture and social order of the new nations on the one hand and the church on the other. China, India and Paraguay are shining examples of these endeavours. The Society of Jesus became such an important vehicle for the Catholic mission in the world that when the Order was suppressed in 1773 it was a huge blow to Catholic missionary work, which only got reinvigorated after the restoration of the Order in the 19th Century.
Of the 17,637 Jesuits in early 2012, 5,685 lived and worked in Asia, 4,036 on the Indian subcontinent alone, 1,485 in Africa, 2,572 in Latin America and the Caribbean. Most of them come from the countries themselves, with only a small proportion of foreign missionaries. This fact alone is evidence of a change in the orientation of the Order. The Jesuits from the former mission territories are now competent to evangelize their own peoples. The Jesuit missionaries from other countries and continents come only as their collaborators. The Jesuit Mission has therefore now taken the form of international cooperation, and this applies not only to the former „mission continents“, but also to the increasingly urgent mission in Europe, where Jesuits from other continents also participate.
The Jesuit understanding of mission has also changed in content after the Second Vatican Council. Focus has shifted from the salvation of the individual and the growth of the church, towards the connected future of humanity and the growth of God's kingdom in the world. The real mission document of the Council being not so much the decree „Ad Gentes,“ but the pastoral constitution “Gaudium et Spes" on the Church in the world today.
After Vatican II, there were papal encyclicals on development and on peace and justice in the world. Not only individual sins, but also „structural sins“ were condemned. Economic issues, trade and the environment were now significant for the kingdom of God. Liberation theology became a rallying point for these ideas. Jesuit theologians in Latin America as well as in Asia were instrumental in the development of this theology. These ideas played a crucial role when the Society was reevaluating its position and effectiveness in the time of upheaval after the Second Vatican Council. They also left their mark on the General Congregations of the Society after the Second Vatican Council, a little hesitant at first (31, GC 1965/66), and then with full force almost a decade later (GC 32 1974/75).
The famous Decree 4 of the 32nd General Congregation, i.e. of the supreme legislative body of the Order, summarized the mission of the Jesuits as „the service of faith and the promotion of justice,“ in a way that the commitment to justice is inseparably linked to the service of faith. This meant that every Jesuit was now involved in a mission not only to help individuals but also to fight unjust social structures. The time before and after the 32nd General Congregation was a time of unrest and conflicts within the Society, but also with the Roman Curia, and even the Pope. The Society was at the forefront of some of the upheaval in the church, which led to a new definition of the relationship between the church, the world and the kingdom of God. The subsequent General Congregation 33 (1983), confirmed the fundamental option of the Society for faith and justice, but also tried to clarify some misunderstandings, until finally the 34th General Congregation (1995), thirty years after the Council, add the formula „Faith and Justice“ to a few key aspects.
The basic decree of the 34th General Congregation entitled „Servants of Christ's Mission,“ says, “our mission of the service of faith and the promotion of justice must be extended so that it includes the proclamation of the Good News, dialogue, and the evangelization of cultures as essential dimensions”. In three other decrees, the Society’s commitment to justice, inculturation and interreligious dialogue is developed and justified by showing their connection to the service of faith. This commitment to justice is expressed as a lived faith; it is understood as evangelization through living witness. This link back to faith in the gospel of the kingdom of God is essential. At the same time other aspects of this commitment come into play: the structural changes in the socio-economic and political order, the fight for human rights, the promotion of decent international relations in the framework of globalization, the protection of human life from its beginning to its natural end, care for the environment and the sustainable use of global resources for development and promotion of grassroots level solidarity for communities. The aim is to promote a humane life, conforming to the will of God, for everyone in all regions of our increasingly interdependent world.
The external – just or unjust – living conditions of the people are part of the cultures in which they live. Changing these conditions depends on changing the values of these cultures. If the Christian faith is to play a role, it must deeply penetrate into the cultures of the peoples – a process that is now known as inculturation, „through which the Gospel brings something new to the culture, and this contributes something new to the richness of the Gospel“. The 34th General Congregation speaks in this context not only of the ancient cultures of Asia and Africa, but also speaks extensively of the „critical postmodern culture“ and its growing influence in the world. It is partly characterized by the attempt to “confine religious beliefs to the private and personal sphere," since „neither the Christian faith nor any other religious belief is still relevant to the benefit of mankind.“ Crucial in this encounter with a variety of cultures and even with a non-religious, „human spirituality“ is the image of God and of Christ that we provide through our witness. The dialogue of partnership can then help us „to discover the limits of pure human awareness before transcendence and immanence.“ At the same time it must be made clear „that the structural injustice of the world is rooted in value systems that are driven by a powerful modern culture aiming to gain influence in the world today.“ As a global community, the Jesuits have a special task to engage with this „postmodern culture“.
The deepest layer of culture is religion, or at least the question of transcendence. For the Jesuits therefore, interreligious dialogue is necessary for the service of faith. In line with a Vatican document (Dialogue and Proclamation), the 34th General Congregation gives the four aspects of this dialogue as dialogue of life, of action, of religious experience and of theological exchange. It is „our participation in God's ongoing dialogue with humanity“ and it enables collaboration for the creation of a more humane world. The tasks of dialogue with Judaism, Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism are specifically dealt with. In a special way the Jesuits in Jerusalem have been encouraged to explore the possibility of developing “projects for inter-religious dialogue between Jews, Christians and Muslims in coordination with other Christian centers in Jerusalem". A separate section of the document deals with the „phenomenon of religious fundamentalism, which is found in all religions, including Christianity.“ It is described as a variety of „revivals“ that arise from the desire to fight against the oppression of one’s religion by another or the onslaught of modern secular culture on one's own religious foundations. The manipulation of religious structures and feelings by certain ruling groups also plays a significant role. For dealing with these movements, it is important „to be clear about their legitimate concerns and hurt feelings.“ And for the Jesuits this demands willingness „to admit to our own previous intolerant attitudes and injustices against others“. Only then is dialogue and reconciliation with these movements possible. Finally, the Decree on Interreligious Dialogue once again points out that the Jesuits in a world marked by pluralism have a special responsibility to promote inter-religious dialogue. „The culture of dialogue should be a defining feature of our Society, which is sent into the world to work for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity.“
Finally, there is the constant emphasis of perspective that is found in all recent documents on the mission of the Society, the preferential option for the poor. „We are a community that lives in solidarity with the poor, because Christ preferred to do the same.“ That is a key text in the decree Servants of Christ's mission, proclamation of the gospel, inculturation and inter-religious dialogue are aligned primarily to the relief of the poor. This is because, „abject poverty produces systematic violence against the dignity of men, women, children and the unborn, which is unacceptable in the kingdom of God.“ So we're back to the original inspiration of St. Ignatius and the early days of the Society of Jesus. The 34th General Congregation reiterates that spirit, under the conditions of today's world, with today's possibilities and with a new understanding of God's action in history, „to help the people of God“, according to the will of God, to live in dignity and so to find their temporal and eternal destiny.
The 35th General Congregation that in 2008 elected Adolfo Nicolás from a long career in East Asia as the new Superior General, in its decree, Challenges for our Mission Today stresses the mission to the frontiers especially in the context of globalization. It sets five global priorities for the Society: work in Africa, in China, in the Roman institutions of the Society, the „intellectual apostolate“, i.e mental examination of the trends of the time, and finally the service to the refugees brought about by international migration. „In this global context,“ the decree concludes, „it is important to highlight the extraordinary potential that lies in our capacity as an international and intercultural body. It does not only enhance the apostolic effectiveness of our work, but can also bear witness to the reconciliation and solidarity of all the children of God in our fragmented and divided world.“
Fr. Dr. Ludwig Wiedenmann SJ
Missiologist and Co-worker at Jesuitenmission
The term „mission“ may make some people wince and think of forced baptisms or crusades. Jesuitenmission as a work of the Society of Jesus belongs to a long tradition of evangelization and mission. The Jesuit understanding of mission has changed over time and our staff member and missiologist, Fr. Ludwig Wiedenmann SJ explains the meaning of mission today.