Berkley Forum

Where Are Jesuits in the Midst of Twenty-First Century Challenges?

Responding to Jesuits as Bridge Builders

Since time immemorial, humanity has always had to wrestle with the challenges of life. In every generation, there have been countless men and women who have stood out to pave the way for solutions and act heroically to face the challenges of their times with their own sacrifices. In this line of thought, the sixteenth century generation will always celebrate Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the religious congregation he founded, the Jesuits, for their relentless contribution to the challenges of the sixteenth century history of the Catholic Church and the spiritual renewal of its adherents.

The religious men that Saint Ignatius of Loyola wanted as loyal companions of Jesus, called to live as contemplatives in action and always laboring for the greater glory of God, have gone down in the history books for their contribution to the life of the Church, with many of them celebrated as great pioneers of new evangelization models in different parts of the world. Those of us familiar with the history of China will call to mind the missionary zeal and creative apostolic imagination of the Italian Jesuit, Matteo Ricci, in the seventeenth century and the heroic missionary itinerary of Saint Francis Xavier in India in the sixteenth century. 

Close to home, history-wise, are the Jesuits of the twentieth century who have already placed their mark in the history of humanity and evangelization. Among them, I’ll particularly remember Pierre Tielhard de Chaldin and Saint Alberto Hurtado. In Tielhard de Chardin we will always remember his genius works dedicated to making faith and reason, religion and science, plausible bedfellows. Saint Alberto Hurtado has left us a mark in new evangelization frontiers by bringing faith and Christianity to the palaver. His social engagement and commitment to Catholic faith in the ordinariness of life have brought to the limelight the meaning of what social justice stands for from the perspective of the liberating good news of our savior, Jesus Christ. 

Furthermore, one thing common in the celebrated lives of the Jesuits that I have alluded to is their sense of duty towards others and towards society. Their attentiveness to the needs of their times and their capacity to penetrate the depths of their problems are expressions of the effects of an active life imbued in contemplation. They have all been men ahead of their time. They endured criticisms and misunderstandings at times, but at the same time they have inspired thousands in their generations, and the succeeding ones, by showing reconciling possibilities between situations otherwise judged hostile to each other. 

Theirs has been their rare capacity to adapt. And this is what the twenty-first Jesuits can inherit from them so as to make their contribution to the growing polarization of world affairs ranging from climate change, immigration laws, and global security to globalization and religious intolerance. To some, these themes may simply look too secular to interest the Jesuit evangelization options. But the redemption that Christ has wrought us is not something that men can pursue alone to detriment of the rest of the creation. We need to adapt our language in a way that our responses to the threats these challenges represent should anchor positive meaning to some of the defining terminologies that shape our popular worldview. 

For instance, our Christian anthropology can no longer continue to be anthropocentric in a way that hurts other creatures, as Pope Francis has warned in the encyclical Laudato Si (#116). The interpretation of the word of God and our Christian worldview can in some instances catalyze a change of mentality in a great many people in a way that favors counteracting environmental degradation. 

 The Jesuits of the twenty-first century therefore have an easier task of bringing about remarkable contributions to the challenges of their contemporary world simply because their companions of past generations have paved the way and confirmed a number of methods that can work to bring about positive change. Since adaptability is one of the defining characteristics of the Jesuits, it will be interesting to see the current generation of Jesuits investing their time and talents in seeking to embrace the courage and efforts of their celebrated confreres but adapting to changing contexts and times. 

For Saint Alberto Hurtado, “because [we] are catholic [we] must be social, which means, to feel within [ourselves] the pain of human and search for ways to find solutions.” In other words, what Saint Hurtado alluded to was that our Catholic faith renders us pro-active in alleviating social misery in the world, something that Jesuits have identified themselves with over the years, be it in scientific fields or in spiritual and social disciplines, for the greater glory of God. Our contemporary challenges are in no way to be feared or to threaten us – more than those faced by any generations of the past – to the point of disarming our imagination and creative power to find solutions for our social and spiritual aspirations. Today, we have the privilege of learning from the past Jesuit success stories and embracing the present with same zeal and commitment, while also taking advantage of the overall advances that the world is gradually coming to know.

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