The Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat of the Jesuit Curia in Rome


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The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice

The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice

Reminiscing about the Past and Looking at the Future


Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ

Informal talk at the Meeting of

Assistancy Coordinators

Friday, 11 May 2007




I am very grateful for the opportunity this morning to thank you all personally for coming to Rome to discuss and reflect on important matters concerning the social apostolate. I thank Professor Vidal not only for his presentation this morning but also for the long article on social research. I would like to express my special gratitude to all the lay partners representing the various continents of the world who have come to this meeting. It is also an appropriate moment for me to acknowledge the significant work you do towards establishing a more fair social order in the world; your personal convictions and your professional skills play an important role in many apostolic works of the Society of Jesus. This meeting acquires a special significance in that it takes place before the General Congregation (GC) 35. We count on your input.

     In your deliberations you have dealt with the issue of social research in the social sector and in the Society of Jesus; in view of the forthcoming GC 35, you have also reflected on and discussed some important themes regarding our mission in a globalised world. I am sure your discussions will help the deliberations of the coming GC. As you all are aware, the next GC will have its first session on the 7th of January 2008. One of the most important tasks of the Congregation will be to accept my resignation (that is my hope!) and elect a new General of the Society.

     In the light of this, I would like to share with you a few personal experiences and reflections of the past years on the Faith-Justice dimension of our charism. I also wish to outline some future challenges facing the Social Apostolate. I do not pretend to give you a historical account; I happily leave that task to the historians. Nor do I intend to present an exhaustive academic discourse on the issues of Faith and Justice. You have the specialists on that among you.


Social commitment from the beginning


     Let me then be an ordinary witness of what I experienced in the Society just before and after General Congregation 32. As you probably know, I attended GC 32 but spoke not a single word. I must confess that during the Congregation I discovered a new issue. I was, like many others, in (if I may use the title of a famous mystical work) The Cloud of Unknowing. After the Congregation I was responsible for carrying out the social commitment of the Society.

     Let me also affirm something else: the social involvement of the Society did not begin with GC 32; it started with Ignatius of Loyola. This fact is confirmed by none other that Benedict XVI in his first Encyclical Deus Caritas Est. In the concluding section, Ignatius of Loyola and others are specifically mentioned as one of the “lasting models of social charity for all people of good will” (no. 40). We should not forget that the Spiritual Exercises, the inspirational source of the Society, has, together with the famous rules for discernment of spirits, a set of rules to distribute alms to the poor (Spiritual Exercises, 338-344). For Ignatius this ‘social concern’ was ‘connatural’ with our vocation as Jesuits. For Ignatius we cannot call ourselves Companions of Jesus without sharing his preferential love for the poor. From the very beginning Jesuits have behaved in this way. As you also know, he wrote to the theologians attending the Council of Trent that they should spend three days a week in a hospital helping the poor or visiting those in prison. The first Jesuits who landed in Latin America were quick in going to the prisons to celebrate Christmas with the jailed. Ignatius himself, as you know, was active in this field. He was actively involved in improving the social order and customs in his hometown of Azpeitia. (1) Even today he is still known for the work he did in Rome.

     All that has been well recorded by, for instance, John O Malley, who lists the categories of people touched by the social concern of the Society.(2) We have to acknowledge, however, that Ignatius spoke the language of his time, a language that we cannot use today. He counsels the poor to be happy because they can receive money from the rich and provide an opportunity to the rich to be good! What we can hold on to is that this insight and concern of the old Society was carried over the years, and then, little by little, developed into our present understanding of our charism. The Society of Jesus, like the Church, has become aware of the revolution spoken of by Karl Marx: the problems of the poor are not to be addressed by charity, but through demands that justice be done.


Remembering General Congregation 32


     Let me return to some of the things that happened at GC 32. To my own surprise I was elected to the Congregation. I came from the Near East where I had lived most of my life. In the province of the Near East, it was very clear, as in many other provinces of the Society of Jesus, that Jesuits were mainly educators. The image of the Society of Jesus was that its main and authentic work was education. Even today we have in that province a University, colleges and high schools. People’s expectations of the Jesuits identified them with the educational apostolate. I would like to mention that Jesuits in Egypt started a whole network of village schools, very similar to the network of y Alegría. In spite of opposition, we also started work with the Palestinian refugees. We have always been present in prison-work.

     Let me add, however, that this type of apostolate was easily forgotten and not recognised as a typical Jesuit work. As a French Father used to say, it was considered to be the personal “oeuvre” (work) of some individual Jesuit or other. In the Middle East, the idea of struggle against unjust structures was always linked to the burning issue that exists down to this today: the rights of the Palestinian people. Any and every political action, even speaking about justice, was immediately considered as leftist, Marxist, and fomenting political turmoil. Christian churches, however, were well known for their charity work. In the Middle East, we always said that Muslims teach us faith because they pray in public five times a day; Jews teach us hope because they are still expecting the Messiah; and we Christians teach everybody charity.

     The document of the Synod of Bishops in 1971 on ‘Justice in the World’ makes clear the stand the Church took at that time:


Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or what is the same, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.


     It is therefore, quite evident that before GC 32 the Church was involved in the struggle for justice and in the transformation of the world. The problem with this text is that, first, nobody knew exactly what this meant in concrete terms, and, as far as I know, nobody was asking about the consequences that the Synod’s declaration would have for the Church herself. The second problem, one that still remains, is this: ‘action for justice’ has always been considered the responsibility of the laity. What then does the term ‘Church’ mean in the text quoted above? One of the interpretations is that priests, religious men and women are also called to a social commitment for justice.

     The Synod was not the only element that prepared us for GC 32. When Father Arrupe went about with his Assistants preparing for the Congregation he did not speak about a social sector. He spoke clearly about the fact that all the works of the Society should be re-thought in the spirit of what today we call the promotion of justice. Father Arrupe did not speak about suppressing pastoral activities, educational institutions, spirituality centres, but he wanted all the work carried out by the Society to be influenced and re-thought by the social thinking of the Church. Mind you, this was a Church that was herself not aware of the impact of the Synod of Bishops. Probably all this shows that the Society before GC 32 was also living in the Cloud of Unknowing. We can admit that there was reluctance in the Society to change; this is quite normal for a big institution of this kind. I do not believe that everybody attending the General Congregation was convinced that we should take up this new issue of justice and this new challenge. There was also the opposite view of those who thought that, apart from justice, all other work in the social sector was not for Jesuits but for the Sisters of Mercy; later this sentence was changed to “the sisters of Mother Teresa.”

     I want now to touch on the most famous expression that came from GC 32 (D 4, n. 2): “the Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice.” I have the impression that this expression is also understood as “a Faith that produces Justice,” or as “a Faith that does Justice.” The following text confirms this interpretation:


The mission of the Society today is the priestly service of the faith, an apostolate whose aim is to help people become more open toward God and more willing to live according to the demands of the Gospel. The Gospel demands a life freed from egoism and self-seeking, from all attempts to seek one's own advantage and from every form of exploitation of one's neighbour. It demands a life in which the justice of the Gospel shines out in a willingness not only to recognize and respect the rights of all, especially the poor and the powerless, but also to work actively to secure those rights. It demands an openness and generosity to anyone in need, even a stranger or an enemy. It demands towards those who have injured us, pardon; toward those with whom we are at odds, a spirit of reconciliation. […] It is by this that we know that the promotion of justice is an integral part of the priestly service of the faith. (GC 32, D 4, n. 18. Author’s emphasis).


     I am a linguist and for us words are important because they mirror our experiences. I would like to say something about the expression “service of faith and promotion of justice”. Let me note right from the beginning that from a linguistic point of view it sounds like a typical slogan: saying the maximum with a minimum of words, inspiring profoundly with very few words. We can ask ourselves what the meaning is of these words. We should never forget that every time we use one word we do not use other words, and this opposition between what is used and what is not used makes the total meaning of a word or an expression.


Service of Faith: diakonia fidei


     This expression concerned with ‘faith’ reminds us effectively of the whole of our past history and of the whole tradition and purpose of the Society. The word was coined by the Society of Jesus in 1540: “the defence and propagation of the Faith” (Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae, 27 September 1540). Note that the term used by GC 32 drops the word ‘propagation’, something which has also happened to the name of one of the Vatican Congregations when in 1988, under John Paul II, the name ‘Propaganda Fide’ became ‘Congregation for the Evangelisation of Peoples’.

     It was proposed at GC 32 to use the expression “proclamation of faith”. The expression was not accepted because it might connote imposing something on others, and this is not what the Holy Father John Paul II wanted to convey. He often repeated the observation that we should never impose but propose our Faith as our Lord did according to the Gospel. The Congregation accepted, however, the term “service of faith”. We need to remember that the term ‘service’ comes from the Greek diakonia, and hence the expression “service of faith” has to be understood in terms of diakonia fidei; this is something we easily forget.

     The Vatican Council used three Greek words which sum up its new orientation: koinonia (the Church’s communion), kerygma (proclamation), and diakonia (service). We need to explore further the meaning of diakonia. We translate the word as ‘service’, and that is certainly a correct translation. The real meaning of diakonia, however, is what today we would call a service performed by “a go-between person” or mediator; someone who goes between two persons for the sake of doing a service to both. For example, in the Greek of Plato’s time, when the emperor sent someone to the people with a message, the person was called diakonos, a deacon. Diakonos could also be the person going between the kitchen and the table: bringing the food from the cook to the people who were eating. It needs to be stressed that the full meaning of diakonia is not only to serve at table but also to be the “go-between person.” He is the person sent by someone to do something for another person, and we are not right in dropping this connotation of diakonia. This meaning is still present in the use of the term diakonia in the Acts of the Apostles. When the Apostles no longer had time to serve at table they appointed deacons to bring the food from the apostles’ table to the people’s table.

     This meaning of diakonia is crucial to capturing the true meaning of the expression ‘Service of Faith’. We are not just serving at table, we are not just serving the poor, but we are serving the poor in the name of Someone who asks us to serve all these people, and that is repeated in the GC 34:


The Risen Christ’s call to us to join him in labouring for the Kingdom is always accompanied by his power (D 2, n. 7).


     Our service is not just any response to the needs of women and men of today; any response will not do. The initiative must come from the Lord labouring in events and people here and now. So that makes the ‘Service of Faith’ really a matter of being companions with the Lord. The initiatives come from him and the work is done according to his way of proceeding, as Father Arrupe never tired of repeating. It is a pity that this dimension, this connotation of the expression ‘the Service of Faith’ has been lost. When this happens you face difficulties because this service then becomes merely professional or philanthropic work. The work, the ‘service’ loses the link, the connection with the one who sends us to do this, and that is the Lord Himself, who not only spoke but did Justice. This about the Service of Faith.


The Promotion of Justice


     The last GC 34 expressed our mission by reminding us that “we are servants of Christ’s mission” (D 2, n. 1). The colonial and imperialistic tone of the term ‘mission’ may have been one of the main reasons why GC 32 never used the word ‘mission’. Let me now say something about the second part of the expression: ‘the promotion of justice’. As far as I know, the expression ‘promotion of justice’ is, as we say in German, a fremdkoerper, that is, a linguistic rarity. We are familiar with it because the word ‘promotion’ is used quite often in language of sales and marketing. If you go to a department store there are weekly promotions of, let us say, a soap, or of something else. At the time of GC 32, many asked themselves: what is the meaning of ‘promotion’ of justice? Combining ‘promotion’ and ‘justice’ appeared very artificial. Promotion also means putting somebody in a higher position. We say: ‘he has been promoted’. But what has this to do with justice? Why was this chosen? As such, it is quite a ‘mild’ expression.

     The reason was that the Congregation wanted to avoid a violent expression, though actually it should have been, in the terminology of John Paul II, “the struggle against unjust structures of human society.” And though we started a war against injustice in the world, the expression ‘struggle’ was not used.

     I know that in Latin America, the Spanish expression lucha por la justicia (struggle for justice) is much more frequently used than ‘promotion of justice’. I guess that the term ‘struggle’ was also associated with ‘class struggle’, suggesting a highly exclusive action, and thus the word ‘promotion’ was chosen instead. We should not forget that the term ‘promote’ has a positive meaning. To promote something can also mean a very well planned campaign to create a better and more just world. It was quite clear that the Congregation did not want to use words like charity, mercy, and love. Neither philanthropy nor sustainable development were used. And finally they came up with the word justice, a well-planned strategy to make the world just, and this in the light of the diakonia fidei, that is, doing it because we are sent to labour with him.

     I think it is good to say that the word justice is very ambiguous. Is it juridical justice, social justice, evangelical justice, the justice in the Letters of Saint Paul? I have the impression that GC 32 voted unanimously for the term ‘promotion of justice’ because of the ambiguity inherent in the word ‘justice’. For some it referred to socio-economic justice; others believed it referred to the ‘justice of the Gospel’. Both groups voted in its favour for different reasons. Thanks to a sort of linguistic ambiguity, a theme very important for my master Noam Chomsky, the term justice was approved.

     Let me touch briefly on the decision of the GC 32 not to use the term ‘love’. We should not forget that even Saint Ignatius was weary of using this word. Before his conversion he had read so many love stories that he was very careful in using the term ‘love’. The consideration on the three degrees of humility (Spiritual Exercises, 165-168) is in fact a consideration about three ways (degrees) of loving God.(3) Ignatius is so reluctant to use the word ‘love’ that he introduces the term ‘humility’. When Ignatius is constrained to use the word ‘love’, he explicitly states that he is not referring to some kind of feeling, a few beautiful words, but to concrete deeds (Spiritual Exercises, 230). He also used the linguistic construction ‘loving and serving’ (amar y servir) to emphasise that love, to be true, needs to be incarnated in deeds.

     On this score, GC 32 was in the line with Ignatius’ intuition and coined the expression ‘promotion of justice’ as a concrete incarnation of love. This was also the feeling of John Paul II. Father Arrupe may have gone a bit too far when, at one moment, he said that justice was the sacrament of love because, thanks to its incarnated expression in an action for justice, love becomes a reality, it acquires a real presence. John Paul II also stressed that using only the word justice is dangerous, because we can be ‘just’ in ways that can be very unjust. Let me remind you that the inhabitants of this city, Rome, know already the expression summum jus summa iniuria” (the most outreaching justice can become unjust). If we speak about justice we should not exclude the Justice of the Gospel but neither should we exclude socio-economic justice. We need to keep the linguistic ambiguity in the terminology of justice.


The pitfalls of dualism


     I want to touch on an interesting issue arising from the expression ‘service of faith, promotion of justice’ that GC 32 coined. In linguistic terms, the expression is known as parataxis, the juxtaposition of clauses or phrases without the use of coordinating or subordinating conjunctions.(4) The use of this linguistic form may give the impression that we are talking about two parallel ways of living our charism. This made it even more difficult for the Holy See to approve the document (D 4). It could be interpreted to mean that the Society of Jesus was moving in two different ways, living a ‘double life’: the life of faith and the life of justice. If I remember correctly, the long text was finally voted and approved by a tired assembly. Many amendments were accepted to express the same thing in different ways like ‘faith through justice’ or ‘faith in justice’. These expressions underline the holistic approach and avoid considering the two expressions as parallel.

     I must also confess that later on it became clear that the problem was not a linguistic one. A, let us say, ‘radical’ implementation of GC 32 stressed the dualistic approach. At one time, a large province was divided in two vice-provinces: one vice-province was committed to the service of faith with schools, colleges, retreat houses, and parishes; and the other vice-province was committed to the promotion of justice. Scholastics were sent only to the second vice-province and not to the first. We have to realise that this division has existed among us. All this may also explain the reaction of the Pope. Some even said that we would be better off as a secular institution rather than a religious order. As a secular institute we could dedicate all our energy to professional, and technical work without all this ‘superstructure”, to use Marxist terminology, of Faith and Justice.

     We need to acknowledge that the problem was real; that the implementation of Decree 4, was, at times, incomplete, slanted and unbalanced. I believe we have overcome this situation and this is a grace though some may feel that we have watered down the radical impact of GC 32. I also think that in the Society there really was a tension between two groups. On the one hand, there were those who felt that ultimately our life as Jesuits should always be concerned with what happens in the next life, that is, in heaven, and that we should not be too busy with getting things right on earth. Others, on the other contrary, believed that what is expected of us is reflection and analysis of the social, economic problems of the world. Once we have a better world, according to this second group, we will think about the service of Faith.


Looking at the future


     We know where we stand today by studying all the postulates that have reached Rome from the various Provincial Congregations all over the world. It is a sign of a real social awareness in the Society when we discover that more than 65% of all the postulata are outward-looking and do not deal with inward problems of the Society of Jesus. They are concerned with the needs of the world today; they feel that in some way or another we are challenged by what is going on in the world today, and by what is expected from us as Jesuits in our actions with all our partners. The list of people we are supposed to help according to the wishes of the Provincial Congregations is quite long: outcasts, refugees, indigenous people, people on the move, and so on.

     It is interesting to compare this list with the one of the first Jesuits, which can be found in John O’Malley’s book.(5) Let us remember that if we speak about all these categories of people, we need to make painful choices. With all that we have received from the Lord in the form of experience, of possibilities (and they are important), our means are still limited and so choices have to be made. This is a very painful operation and it will have to be made at the next General Congregation.

     Two issues seem to be new themes in the coming Congregation: the importance of culture and the theme of ecology. The last General Congregation spoke about inculturation, about the need to bring the message of the Faith according to the existing cultures. The crucial role of culture extends today to all our apostolates including social service and action. We have become aware that some international organisations, while designing development programmes, also impose a certain pattern of meaning and thinking which goes against the culture of the people whom they are supposed to serve.

     The issue of ecology came up in GC 34. Ideas at that time were not very clear; as a result the Congregation followed the normal procedure in these cases: ask the Superior General to write a letter about it; and the Superior General wrote a letter presenting a document to the whole Society.(6) It is clear to us that we approach this topic in a different spirit from that of Saint Francis. He spoke of loving the birds and God’s creation, whereas we see the issues affecting the environment as a social issue, in the sense that the effects of ecological imbalances affect primarily the poor, and future generations. We are eating up the energy that our children will need in the future.

     In a way, we have always known that we live in a ‘broken world’, but we have become more aware of the urgency and seriousness of this brokenness. We also feel that by bringing all these postulates, Jesuits are asking that we change our life-style, our spirituality and our way of proceeding. It will not be easy to formulate all this in a concrete manner. Your help in this matter is most necessary. I would not be very happy if we end up with a beautiful declaration about environment without saying anything about its implications. We all complain about climate change but we are not ready to do anything. Well, I have come across an example: the Anglican Bishops had to go to Germany to celebrate a commemoration for Luther and they preferred the train to the plane for ecological reasons. I can see that some of you are smiling and thinking that thanks to the Eurotunnel they were able to do it! For us, the question remains: will the concern about the environment be translated into something practical? Will it really affect our lifestyle, or our way of working?

     Let me add that the coming General Congregation will also face the strong theme of globalisation. Postulates have insisted on the negative impact: rising inequalities, insistence on excessive profits, development that makes the rich richer and poor poorer. I do, however, believe that for us Jesuits the positive impact of globalisation is very important.

     The coming General Congregation will certainly be asked to clarify once more the option of the Society: the Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice. It will also take up the task of providing a more clear understanding of our mission, a mission in the name of the Lord, because we are sent by Him.

     Social commitment and social conscience are the constitutive dimension of the Society of Jesus. Through an incarnated spirituality like ours, and an inculturated intellectual apostolate such as ours, both have integrated today, more peacefully than in the past, the social dimension of our mission.

     The main issue remains: the implementation. So many Provincial Congregations have said that ‘we don’t need more documents; we need to implement’. But I am sure once more that a large document will come out from all the themes we have.

     The needs are so numerous and overwhelming that they can easily paralyse our best intentions, and that is also one of your difficulties. Our means to face all these needs are limited. We can have only some impact on the ‘structure of evil’, according to the expression of John Paul II. The General Congregation representing the universal body of the Society is called to accomplish the objective of making a choice. One more reason to prepare it well in meetings of this kind as you have done during these days – days for which I am, in the name of all the Jesuits, very grateful.

     Thank you so much!




1) John W. O’Malley, The First Jesuits (1993: Cambridge Massachussets: Harvard University Press), p. 166.

2) Ibid. p.168. Chapter 5 mentions the “pluriform character of Jesuit engagement with the works of mercy” and lists the following: peacemaking, hospitals and prisons, ministry of the dying, ministry to prostitutes, Jews and new Christian Confraternities and the Marian Congregation [Editor’s note].

3) Esercizi Spirituali, Pietro Schiavone SJ, p. 138

4) As in It was cold; the snows came.

The Dictionary of the Royal Spanish Academy of Language defines ‘parataxis’ as “Coordinación de elementos del mismo tipo gramatical o igual función sintáctica” (coordination of elements of the same grammatical type or similar syntactic function) [Editor’s note].

5) The list comprises peacemaking, hospitals and prisons, ministry of the dying, ministry to prostitutes, Jews and new Christian Confraternities and the Marian Congregation. The First Jesuits, op cit. p. 168 [See footnote 2. Editor’s note].

6) “We live in a broken word.” Reflections on Ecology. Social Justice Secretariat, Promotio Iustitiae 70 (1999).