Today's Jesuits are searching for new ways to speak to and engage with those who are
seeking God, says Fr David Smolira; but they have remained true to their tradition
his year the British Province of the Society of Jesus celebrates the 200th anniversary of its restoration. In 1773, under pressure from various Heads of State, Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Jesuits amid concerns about their considerable influence. Thirty years later, in 1803, the Society of Jesus was restored in Britain (and worldwide 11 years later) and since then they have directed their energy to the proclamation of the Gospel in the service of the Church.
Thankfully, the order's relationship with the present pope and his recent predecessors has been less problematic than in the time of Clement XIV, as Jesuits have striven to live out their unique and special vow of obedience to the Holy Father. This vow enables Jesuits to be missioned directly by the Pope, and so respond to the most urgent needs throughout the world. Successive popes have confirmed this important service to the Church by the Society of Jesus.
This "mission" of the Jesuits has always been understood as taking the Gospel of Jesus Christ to those who do not know God. And certainly, to make God better known, we continue to focus our energies and resources on the mission given to us: to combat atheism, to evangelise cultures, and to dialogue with others. New mission fields have opened up in recent decades, which have taken Jesuits out of some of their traditional ministries and into different, demanding and, sometimes, controversial areas.
Against the backdrop of falling church attendances in Great Britain, for instance, we have seen a growth in people's spiritual hunger, a hunger that institutional religion does not always seem able to satisfy. Yet Jesuit-led retreats, programmes of adult formation, and theological education are flourishing. Similarly, the use of Ignatian spirituality in schools, universities and other pastoral situations is appreciated as a tremendous gift that the Jesuits share with lay people who are seeking a deeper meaning in their lives.
The work of the Jesuit Refugee Service is another example of a challenging ministry both at home and overseas and this brings us into contact with people who are on the margins of society, the oppressed, the vulnerable, the disadvantaged. One certainly does
not need to look very far to see the need for God's love in the plight of refugees and displaced people fleeing from wars, or oppressive regimes, or religious persecution.
Evangelisation today demands effective communication, as acknowledged by the Holy Father himself. "It is necessary to integrate (the Christian) message into the "new culture" created by modem communications", he wrote in Redemptoris Missio. And he urged the Church to find "new ways of communicating, with new languages, new techniques and a new psychology".
This is a substantial challenge, because, on the one hand, we Jesuits are trying to make the Gospel message accessible and understandable to the people of today, within the cultural realities of today; and on the other hand, we constantly aim to remain faithful to the fundamental truths of our faith. We must search for new ways to speak and engage with those who are seeking, while being true to our tradition and to the beliefs that make up our Catholic faith. This forms the bedrock of the dialogue in which we struggle to engage: listening and speaking with those of different opinions or beliefs, growing in mutual understanding with each other, so that together we might discover more and more of the truth. This is also, perhaps, where some of the misunderstandings surrounding the Jesuits and our mission today have sometimes arisen.
The mission of the Society of Jesus is to make God better known and more present in people's lives. But even though we strive to "find God in all things", our understanding, our vision of the Divine, is never complete; God is never fully disclosed. Just as scientists are constantly examining, interpreting and developing their understanding of the physical world around us, so the Church and its theologians are on a similar pursuit to understand God and express the truth in contemporary and meaningful ways: "new languages, new techniques and a new psychology".
For Jesuits, the key Ignatian principle of "thinking with the Church" is as central today as it was at the time of our founder. Loyalty and faithfulness to the Church and to the Vicar of Christ are indispensable, since one cannot serve Christ without loving his Church.
The Society of Jesus is a vehicle of communication between the culture of the day and the Church. And it is inevitable that there will be times of tension. But these tensions are healthy and necessary, and contribute to the Church's mission of proclaiming the Good News of Jesus Christ to the world of today. Our
motivation should always
he based on a desire to be constructive and a genuine love for the Church. Should any Jesuit fail to act out of these motives, it is right that he be confronted.
Jesuits are not working in the Church to court popularity: we are there to serve. We are very much in the world, in the multicultural marketplace. The new missions and responsibilities that the Society of Jesus has taken on in recent years have been as a direct result of some of the most profound concerns expressed by the Holy Father himself, and in obedience to him we have embraced them warmly, while recognising their challenges.
The ultimate mission of the Society ofJesus is to make Christ better known and loved through evangelisation, through helping people to grow and develop spiritually and through working to create a more just world the service of faith of which the promotion of justice is an integral part. That may lead to us being criticised from time to time. Maybe this is an inevitable consequence of the work that we are given to do. Because we are certainly not involved in this mission for our own glory, but only For the Greater Glory of God: Ad Maiorem Del Gloriam.
Fr David Smolira Si is Provincial of the Society of Jesus in Britain