Cultivating “the Culture of Encounter”: Jesuits as Cultural Brokers and Bridge Builders

Responding to: Jesuits as Bridge Builders

By: José Casanova

February 1, 2018

In the early modern era, the Jesuits emerged as pioneer globalizers, indeed, as the first organized group in history to think and to act globally. They sailed around the world in the same ships as conquistadores, traders, migrants, and colonial administrators. Only a few decades after their foundation, the Jesuits had “missions” literally all over the globe, throughout Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Although in many of those missions they followed in the footsteps of Franciscans, Dominicans, and other Catholic religious orders, no other group, religious or secular, took the entire globe as eagerly as the focus of their activities, taking inspiration from Jerónimo Nadal’s famous motto “the world is our home.”

What distinguished the Jesuit missions, however, was the method of cultural accommodation and native inculturation which they cultivated as their distinct and controversial “way of proceeding.” For over two centuries, from the papal approval of the Society of Jesus in 1540 to the suppression of the Society by Pope Clement XIV in 1773, no other group contributed so much to the advancement of global connectivity and global consciousness linking the four quadrants of the world. 

They did it not only through their ubiquitous missions and colleges but through their prodigious production and global circulation of annual letters and edifying mission reports, scientific and ethnographic descriptions, mapping and cartographic exercises; through the construction of numerous scripts, lexicons, and grammars of non-Western languages; through the translation of classical Greek and Latin texts into non-Western languages and the translation of non-Western classical texts into Latin; through the production of catechisms in every possible vernacular; and through the global circulation of all kind of objects, from scientific instruments to printing presses and type scripts, from medicinal plants (Jesuits bark or quinine) to all kinds of sacred objects, icons, and paintings; church architectural styles, music, drama, and ballet.

In their global activities, Jesuits embodied what Francis, the first Jesuit pope, so frequently evokes as a “culture of encounter” and a “culture of dialogue,” within and between peoples as the only way to peace in our globalized world. As bishop of Rome, Francis has also emphasized that his title of pontiff means “a builder of bridges with God and between people.” Since the election of Pedro Arrupe as father general in 1965, in the midst of the renewal of Vatican II, the Jesuits have rediscovered their global vocation, grounded in the original charism of Ignatius and his companions, to serve as bridge builders at the service of social justice, peace, and cultural and interreligious dialogue for the greater glory of God and the common good of global humanity. 

The Jesuits have built again an important global network with an active presence throughout the world, even though it is relatively much smaller, less central, and more removed from economic and political elites than it was during the pre-suppression centuries. Above all the Society of Jesus has become less Western-centric, and its own face represents more closely the diversity of global humanity. Its members come predominantly from the Global South and from the east, India having become the largest Jesuit assistancy in the world.

Most significantly, Jesuits find themselves increasingly at the peripheries rather than at the centers of globalization. Today, more than ever, the mission of the Jesuits—and of the Church following Pope Francis—is focused less on instruction and conversion and more on listening and serving while accompanying the people at the margins, those who are most negatively affected by contemporary processes of globalization.

Through their global network of colleges and universities, through their increasing dedication to the primary and secondary education of the disprivileged, through such global initiatives as Jesuit Refugee Services, Fe y Alegría, and Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins, Jesuits are uniquely placed and therefore have a unique opportunity and responsibility to serve once again as global bridge builders between all cultures and peoples of the world. In his speech to Jesuit university presidents in Mexico City in 2010, Father General Adolfo Nicolás highlighted its strong humanist ethos and its far-flung international network as the two distinguishing strengths of Jesuit education. He also encouraged them to put those strengths to use at the service of global humanity in order to overcome the dominant “globalization of superficiality” and to contribute to what Pope Francis calls a deeper “globalization of fraternity.”

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Cultivating “the Culture of Encounter”: Jesuits as Cultural Brokers and Bridge Builders