A Conversation with Tim Curtis, S.J., Director of Jesuit Missions, United Kingdom
July 23, 2012
Background: In this exchange on July 23, 2012 in London, Fr. Tim Curtis, S.J., and Colin Steele discussed missions work and inculturation. The two also discussed the state of the Catholic Church in England and Guyana, the charism of Jesuit education, and the way time and globalization has altered missions work.
Please give a brief history of your vocation. When did you join the Jesuits, why, and where have you been since then?
I decided that I was going to be a priest at the age of seven. At 12, I went to a sort of vocations fair, where different orders were handing out materials about their various works and rules; I collected a bunch of materials but discarded the Jesuit pamphlet out of hand because they were the toughest and smartest bunch and I didn’t think I was cut out to be one of them. Then my sister became a nun, which infuriated my parents, so I decided I had better lay low with my own vocation for a while. I went to Heythrop College to study theology and philosophy for three years, then taught for two more while picking up a mater’s in computer science. Finally, at age 23, the time seemed ripe, and this time I applied to the Jesuits precisely because they seemed like the toughest lot of priests. They accepted me, formed me, and then promptly sent the only Jesuit with a master’s in computer science to the only country without computers: Guyana. I spent a couple of years there, then studied at Columbia for two more years, then returned to Guyana for another dozen years. When I got back to London, I became the parish priest at Southall, which is one of the most “international” parishes in the UK (over 50 nationalities represented). After some time at Southall, I became director here at JM, and I’ll be headed back to Guyana shortly.
How have your travels and parish experience developed your views on inculturation and justice?
Everywhere I’ve been, my first priority and guiding desire has been to experience life as people on the margins actually experience it. Only by acquainting myself with the real conditions of their lives can I begin to determine what justice really means for people and what will be necessary to bring it about. In Guyana, for example, nearly everything hinges upon ecology in one way or another. The destruction of the rainforest is having disastrous consequences for the lives and lifeways of the native Amerindians. In their case, justice has to start with securing proper legal title to their land and its resources in order to make sure they’re properly managed; the Chinese have recently discovered huge uranium deposits under the Amerindians’ land, which the government wants to sell off because the Amerindians have title only to what lies on and above their land, not what lies below it. In order to approach this issue, we’ve started collaborating with the Jesuits across the border in Brazil, who bring their own resources and perspective to the issue. The Jesuits in Guyana are closer to the people but do not have the intellectual focus of the Brazilians; we each need the others’ help if we are going to help a community that existed long before the modern border lines were drawn.
How have the missions in Guyana developed and changed over time? What’s been learned along the way?
The British Jesuits have been in Guyana for over 100 years. We started by putting up a chapel in each rural village, then followed those with primary schools after World War II. After the country gained its independence, the Jesuits were expelled for a while; when we returned, the chapels and schools had fallen into disrepair, so we began by training laypeople to help us with education and liturgies of the Word. A few decades later, we still haven’t seen the province become totally self-sufficient: we have some fantastic lay leaders, but we’re not really seeing any vocations coming from the native communities we serve. The first generation of lay leaders is aging, too, and today’s young people are not stepping up to fill in their parents’ shoes. We’re further hampered by the problem of education and its products: primary schooling still takes place in the villages, but secondary and any higher education happen in Georgetown, the capital. Once students leave for the city, however, they rarely want to return to the villages they grew up in. There aren’t a lot of opportunities for them in the cities, but they still want to stay there and avoid the jungles.
As a result of losing all these kids to the capital city, we’re starting to rethink what constitutes a “appropriate” education for Amerindians and how to provide that while preserving and reinforcing a love for their local lifestyles that may encourage them to return to their villages after they’ve received their educations. We’re trying to instill native pride in general through initiatives like the Pan-Amerindian Games and the cooperatives we’re helping to establish for Amerindian workers and businesses. Most of all, we’re really working on the questions of education and development at the theoretical level, thinking about the means, content and ends of education in the life of the individual and the community. The result of education should always be to give one control over one’s life (hanging around the capital city for lack of a better idea is not really “control”). Likewise, the goal of development should be flourishing, which is very hard to measure. The only “metric” we have is contentment, which isn’t really quantitative or economical, but it can be seen in the vibrancy of village culture. If there’s a lot of singing, dancing, game playing and community activity, that’s a good sign. If “development” is simply pushing people into the city or the mining company, that’s not right.
As you say, that’s a somewhat unconventional way of looking at education and development. What is it about the Jesuit charism and spirituality that produces this kind of vision of human purpose and potential?
The Jesuits’ huge advantage is the powerhouse of intellectual reflection that undergirds everything we do. There’s a fantastic interaction between those working at the coal face and our brothers in academia, and the dialectic that creates between theoretical and practical knowledge is very dynamic. Taken together with the Spiritual Exercises—another exceptionally powerful tool in our kit that makes God real and effective in our lives and works—this dialectic drives our discernment and our commitment to faith doing justice. We firmly believe that one without the other of those is ineffective. As long as we keep developing our practical work for justice alongside our deep spiritual/intellectual understanding of what justice means, we’ll have the ability to do a lot of good.
How does that express itself in Jesuit Missions and the way the organization sends lay people around the world to serve in faith? How do you go about collaborating and sharing your spirituality and mission with lay people?
First of all, I have to say that “collaboration” between Jesuits and lay people is not new, and nor do I particularly like the term itself. Ignatius knew his spirituality had plenty to offer lay people as well as priests, and he spent at least as much time giving the Exercises to lay people as he did to his brother Jesuits. I’d say it was only after the restoration that Jesuits started getting exclusive about their spirituality, and it’s nice to see the Order opening itself up to lay people again. Speaking of which, I don’t like the idea of “collaboration” precisely because it implies some kind of superiority of the Jesuits in the relationship, which I don’t agree with.
As far as our volunteers go, Jesuit Missions takes a similarly broad view of what constitutes “success” for the organization and our missionaries. Not many of them join us or leave us with vocations or even as highly consistent church-goers, but that’s all right with me as long as they are prepared by the program to take better and broader perspectives on their lives than they otherwise would have. By that standard, we’ve been highly successful; many people have come back saying that God is real to them in ways they never could have imagined beforehand and that they’ve pretty dramatically taken stock of their place and purpose in Creation as a result. We bring that spirit to everything we do, including fund-raising, where we prioritize people and relationships over income. It’s not about squeezing people for the absolute maximum amount of money but co-opting them into truly respectful and loving cooperative relationship. I’d put relationship-building over money-seeking any day of the week.
Finally, could you give me a snapshot of the Church in England? How does the Catholic Church fit into the fabric of British social and faith life?
The Church is doing quite well in England right now, and it’s gratifying to see how quickly and effectively we’re diversifying, too. The Church is a great leveler of nationalities in a multi-national city such as London, and we’ve got more and more parishes that celebrate Masses incorporating the many linguistic and cultural heritages represented in their pews. We have a ways to go on ecumenism, however. The current pope has changed the pronunciation of that word to “you-come-in-ism,” and there are some tensions between pastors and flocks over the admission of Anglican-rite priests and churches into the Roman communion. At the parish level, most of those communities are leaving for negative reasons of being tired of the Anglican church than especially positive ones vis-à-vis the Catholic Church. That’s not the best condition in which to welcome people. Amongst the priests, too, there’s huge resentment of the married Anglican-rite priests, and I don’t think it’s very politically astute or fair to the long-time (celibate) Catholic clergy here to actively recruit married Anglican priests along with their flocks. In fact, the Anglican church itself should be a lesson to us: it’s simultaneously too fractious and too hierarchical to decide what it wants to be or to give parishioners a say in the process, and we should guard against that as much as possible. A full, free realization of Vatican II and its emphasis on openness is essential: we’ve got to let believers have some say in their Church rather than imposing upon them as was done with the new Missal. Such an approach is not really fair or realistic at this stage, and it’s important that the institutional Church put aside its fears and open itself up to its flock more than it has traditionally shown itself willing to do.