A Discussion with Fr. Francisco Ivern Simó, S.J., Vice Rector of Pontifical Catholic University, Rio de Janeiro
November 27, 2013
Background: In this exchange on November 27, 2013, Fr. Francisco Ivern Simó, S.J., and Erin Shevlin discussed the role of social justice in globalization. The conversation highlighted Fr. Ivern's personal experience of the Jesuit mission in the twenty-first-century global world and touched on the ongoing work of Jesuits in Brazil.
Tell me a little about your background.
I am a “gypsy”! I have lived in many different countries. I am originally from Barcelona, Spain. I studied and worked in India for ten years. I spent four years in Belgium where I got my Ph.D. in social and political sciences. I did my theological studies in Toronto, Canada. I studied and worked in Rome for thirteen years. Then I came to Brazil where I have been for the last for 34 years. At the beginning I directed the Brazilian Institute of Development for eleven years. Then I was appointed provincial superior of the Jesuits of the Central Eastern Brazilian Province which comprises five states. After six years as provincial, I was made the first president of the Conference of Jesuit Provincials of Latin America—something that I initiated. And now in my old age, I have been appointed vice rector of the PUC-Rio: i.e. the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.
Could you tell us a little about your vocation as a Jesuit and what prompted you to join the order?
I joined the Jesuits very young, when I was 16 years old and studying in a Jesuit high school at Barcelona. At 19 I left for India to study philosophy and then I also studied in Rome, at the Gregorian University. I experienced in my own life, the global dimension of the Jesuit order. And I have paid the price for this “gypsy” life, in the sense that you lose a little bit of your own identity and, e.g., speak all languages, including your own, with an accent. But there are advantages to the global dimension of the order’s work. I think that this intercultural, interreligious experience is very necessary today and I have something of that present in me. I think that if we do not open to these international and intercultural dimensions, we will have problems. In the Gospel, Jesus says that there are still many things that He cannot tell us but, after He is gone, the Holy Spirit will tell them to us. Well, the Holy Spirit is not going to come and speak to our ears and tell us directly these things, these truths. By interrelating with others, through intercultural and interreligious dialogue between different groups, is how we are going to hear the Spirit and grow.
Could you tell us about how you see the role of social justice in globalization and challenges?
I founded the Social Justice Secretariat in Rome (now Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat) and directed it for seven years. Before that I worked in the Indian Social Institute, New Delhi, for seven years. Therefore I have some experience in social and justice questions. In the Gospel, there is not talk of law. The main Gospel message is that faith is expressed through love, and service to others. This is fundamental. The first requirement of love is justice. There is no lasting peace without justice. These basic Christian messages, these Gospel teachings, are those that the current Pope emphasizes very much: mainly the question of love. You must have an open mind and heart mainly towards the poor, but also towards the elite. This is fundamental. Today, in many countries like Brazil, there has been much progress. The middle class has grown, is stronger, but we have still many, too many poor. We have made a commitment to fight poverty and injustice. Justice is a requirement of love, but this love should not be simply limited to the materially poor, though they do have a preference. To spread this love and justice is our mission, as defined by the Gospel. Years ago, we were told that our mission is the service of faith and the promotion of justice. This justice, however, was very much conceived in economic and material terms. Today, we have a much broader conception: love and justice not only for the poor, but also for women; today ecological issues, like respect for nature and for animals, are also considered very important.
Do you think Pope Francis being a Jesuit will change the order and the Church?
I don’t know about changing the Jesuits! However, I think he will have a great influence on the Church. Pope Francis leads by example: he gets out of his car to greet the people, to embrace children, to console the suffering and the weak. We’ve come a long way from the time when popes held a cross in one hand and a spade in the other! We have certainly improved. However, the question of titles and dignities in the Church still remains. If you serve in the Vatican, you are considered to have a high position. Some priests, e.g., are made and called “monsignors," a reminiscence of the medieval lords. Pope Francis is against this.
Jesus Christ, though born in the West, in the Middle East, was not born for the West. He was born for all. His teachings are universal and his Spirit, the Spirit of God is present everywhere. Buddha was born in the sixth century before Christ, for example, and his life and teachings inspired and inspires millions. Before, our ancestors believed that only Christians could be saved. But what about Hindus, Muslims, and Buddhists? They follow their conscience and try to be faithful to it. Many of them are inspired by love as Christ was and Christ's followers are. They were born in a particular time and place, but in many cases the inspiration and the message are the same.
What do you see as the future of Jesuit education?
To answer your question, let me tell you about a chaplain from Columbia University who visited us a few weeks ago and told us about they do. They have about 14 or 15 chaplains, not paid by them, who are there to look after the different religions present in the campus. They receive donations from outside sources to foster interreligious relations and exchanges among students and teachers. We see this at a Protestant university. They foster interreligious exchanges within the space of the university. This is to respect the interreligious dimension typical of today´s world. Without abandoning our religious values and beliefs we should do the same.
How does Brazil fit into the rest of South America and the world?
Brazil has an advantage in relation to other Latin American countries from this point of view of the interreligious and intercultural dimensions of today's global world. Because here, as opposed to some other countries that have mostly Spanish and indigenous origins and influence, we have a much greater cultural diversity. In Brazil we have Germans and Italians in the south. We have also have quite a number of Polish immigrants. African descendants constitute a high percentage of the population. We have also a large Japanese population. This is an advantage in today´s world, because we do not have only just pure Spanish or Portuguese origins. I chose to work in Brazil because of this diversity. Brazil is a multicultural country with much potential. We have good international relations today with a variety of countries: India, South Africa, China, etc. Compared to some other Latin American countries, Brazil can establish more easily these relations because it has so much diversity within its own borders. Economically, we depend mostly on commodities: mineral and other natural and agricultural resources. We have few elaborate goods that we produce and that have an aggregate value. So we buy a lot of foreign products and from this point of view we are rather dependent and must modernize. But it is a country that is very hospitable, welcoming, and has a future.
We often hear that there is a vast discrepancy between the rich and poor in Brazil. What are your thoughts on that?
There is definitely this vast gap between rich and poor. In the favelas live people who cannot afford to buy their own homes or apartments. The favelas are a wound for Brazil. Years ago they were peaceful. Then the traffic, the drug dealers took over and there was a lot of violence. Now, many of these favelas are occupied by the military and the police. But before that, when I visited a favela, I could see people standing on the sidewalks heavily armed, with pistols and rifles, at the service of the drug dealers. Though in some favelas violence still exists, in others, thanks to the occupation by the army and the police, there is more peace.
Do the Jesuits work in the favelas?
Yes, we have worked a lot in the favelas. Mainly in the past, before the drug dealers took over. Our university, even today, is very much present in the favelas. For instance, the Federal University of Rio is responsible for establishing Wi-Fi systems in some neighborhoods occupied mainly by the middle class. We have installed Wi-Fi and communication systems in many of the favelas, not only because we have a very good Computer Science Department, but because we are present and welcome in many of the favelas.
And are there students from the favelas who attend your university?
Yes, we have quite a large number of students coming from favelas. Thirty percent of our students have full scholarships, and 50 percent of our students have some sort of scholarship. We are a philanthropic organization, therefore we don’t pay certain taxes, but then we have an obligation of using 20 percent of our income for philanthropic purposes. These resources are mainly used for scholarships for poor students. But we grant also scholarships to many members of our staff. Because of these scholarships, our student population has changed a lot in the past decades. It used to be a middle class university because we did not get any help from government and the university fees are high.
What do you think the future of the Jesuit order is?
As you know, the numbers have decreased. When I joined, we had over 30,000 Jesuits. Now we have around 17,000. Except in Africa and South Asia, the number of Jesuits is decreasing all over the world. The decrease is greater in Europe and North America and less in other continents, like Latin America and the Far East. When the economic, the “material” civilization advances, the interest in religion decreases. Of course, the main thing is not just numbers. There will come a time when the number of Jesuits will be lower, but it will hopefully stabilize. However, there is also the question of rethinking our apostolic priorities and our ministries in terms of this new situation and of less personnel available. We have still many Jesuits who work in the many schools and universities that we still have, and some who work also in parishes. The number of Jesuits has decreased substantially, but there has been a very small decrease in the works and institutions that we have. We have the same amount of works for a much lesser number of people. We have to define clearly what our priorities are. And we need people to be well-trained to meet the present challenges which are not the same than in the past. .