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


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The Birth of the Social Secretariat

The Birth of the Social Secretariat

Francisco Ivern SJ



t the end of 1948, when I was still a youthful 19 years of age, my superiors sent me to India to do my studies in philosophy. In 1952 I left India and didn’t return there till ten years later, in 1962, after I had obtained my licentiate in social sciences at the Gregorian University in Rome, completed my master’s and doctoral degrees in Social and Political Sciences in the University of Louvain, Belgium, and also finished my theological studies in Toronto, Canada. In 1962, upon returning to India, I joined the Indian Social Institute in New Delhi, which was the Society’s inter-provincial social centre in that country. From 1966 to 1968 I carried out a study on Church activities in the social and health fields in the region of Chotanagpur, Bihar. In 1968 we received the visit of Fr. Arrupe in Ranchi, at the heart of Chotanagpur. I say “we received” because he came to visit the office where I was working, along with a team of ten other researchers. On that occasion Fr. Arrupe, whom I already knew personally since I had met him in Rome in 1965 shortly before his election as general, invited me to go to Rome and set up in our General Curia a secretariat for promoting the social apostolate in the whole Society. The next year, 1969, I moved to Rome. Since the offices on the Via dei Penitenzieri were under construction, I set up the Secretariat in two empty rooms on the first floor of the main building of Borgo Santo Spirito, beside the library and almost directly above the Jesuit Guest Bureau. The two rooms were literally empty, having no furniture or equipment of any kind. I had to buy everything with a $10,000 donation I received. Later on we moved to the new offices on the Via dei Penitenzieri, where the Secretariat is now located.

The decade of the 60s was still the decade of “development”. In the Church, however, and above all within the Society, there was already some talk of the promotion of justice as a requirement of faith, but such language was still not common. As a result, the Secretariat was born with the name JESEDES, an acronym for Jesuit Secretariat for Social and Economic Development. The bulletin we published at that time also bore the same name. Naturally we were concerned with the kind of development that gave priority to the most needy persons and that was “integral” at both the individual and collective levels. That is to say, it was development that developed “the whole man and all men”, as Paul VI proposed in his encyclical of March, 1967, Populorum Progressio. That concept of integral development, which would later be called sustainable development, began to expand and take on substance.

At the end of the 60s, however, and above all in Latin America, the influence of liberation theology, which was gaining ground, and the growth of the “Christians for Socialism” movement, which included several Jesuits, opened up new perspectives. There began to be open discussion of the need for structural changes to eliminate the oppressive conditions that were affecting the poor majorities of that continent. Some were advocating an at least limited use of a Marxist analysis of reality. Years later Fr. Arrupe sent a later to all Jesuits on this topic. Others were speaking of the need for a revolution, but for a revolution “in freedom”. These words appeared on the cover of one of our journals, and even though the discussion was about a revolution “in freedom”, such expressions did not fail to provoke strong reactions in the more conservative strata of the Church – and also of the Society, though to a lesser degree. They were difficult times, with many tensions.

Immediately prior to GC32, in 1975, there were about a dozen social centres in Latin America, known as CIAS (Spanish acronym for Center of Social Research and Action). They were all actively flourishing, with more than a hundred people, Jesuit and lay, working in them. Another hundred Jesuits were being trained in the field of economic, political and social sciences in order to reinforce those centres. The well-known Decree 4 of that Congregation defined “Our Mission Today” in terms of “the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement”. That decree opened up new horizons and buttressed the hope and the commitment of the many Jesuits involved in the struggle for a better world; at the same time the decree aggravated the already existing tensions, both within the Society and outside it. In some countries those tensions produced open conflicts within the Society itself, among Jesuits and Jesuit institutions, especially between the social and the educational sectors.

Decree 4 had solid theological foundations and could cite in its favour the Church’s magisterium of the years preceding GC32: not only the magisterium of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), but also that of the Episcopal Synods of 1971 (on justice in the world) and of 1975 (on evangelization of the contemporary world). The language of the decree, however, was still not very nuanced, and in some ways even a little one-sided. Furthermore, there was lacking a gradual, pastoral “translation” or “application” of the decree, which would enable its teachings to be integrated into the concrete, heterogeneous reality of the Society on the different continents. We had to wait for GC33 and GC34 to clear up some of the misunderstandings and correct some of the erroneous interpretations which Decree 4 inadvertently provoked.

The years that followed GC32 were dynamic and hopeful, and at the same time very painful. We lost many brothers, especially in our social centres (CIAS) in Latin America. A fair number of Jesuits were discouraged when they realized that, both within the Society and outside, the social changes for which they were striving were not coming about as quickly or as effectively as they had hoped. There were numerous conflicts with the hierarchy, provoked at times by our own impulsiveness and imprudence, but deriving also very often from a lack of understanding on the part of members of the hierarchy who had still not assimilated either the spirit or the letter of Vatican II, nor that of the Synods that followed.

In any case, the name we gave the Secretariat in 1969, JESEDES, no longer corresponded to this new reality, which could not be expressed purely in terms of development, not even “integral” development. We had to speak now of social justice and the structural changes necessary to make justice ever more a reality. The Secretariat began to be known simply as the Social Secretariat of the Society, and its bulletin was no longer called JESEDES, but Promotio Iustitiae.

That change of name and orientation became effective at the end of GC32, when Fr. Michael Campbell-Johnston was appointed to head the Secretariat. A few months after GC32 I was named by Fr. Arrupe as one of his six General Counsellors. Although as a General Counsellor I continued still to be responsible for the Social Secretariat, I could not attend fully to the growing number of requests for aid that were reaching us. It was necessary that someone else assume the responsibility of administering the Secretariat. In July 1975 I went to British Guyana to interview Fr. Michael in order to get to know him better and to see if he would be willing to go to Rome and assume that responsibility. He seemed to me to be the ideal person for the job. Some years before that he had founded in Georgetown a social centre called GISRA (Guyana Institute for Social Research and Action). It was not easy for him to leave Guyana and move to Rome, but his arrival in Rome was a blessing for the social apostolate of the Society.

As General Counsellor I continued to be Father General’s advisor regarding social questions, among other responsibilities, and I still had the ultimate responsibility for the Social Secretariat. In fact, my office and Fr. Michael’s were practically side by side, separated only by our secretary’s office, but he was the person who was really running the Secretariat. He was a great communicator and gave new life to the bulletin Promotio Iustitiae; he contributed much to promote the social apostolate in the Society during the years when he headed up the Secretariat.

I spent eleven years in our Curia in Rome, six of them directing the Social Secretariat which Fr. Arrupe had asked me to set up. They were enriching years, full of challenges. They were years of change both within the Church and without. Despite the inevitable misunderstandings and tensions, the social dimension permeated ever more deeply the works and institutions of the Society. The Social Secretariat constituted a point of reference for the Society, and it provided a forum where Jesuits working in the social area could share their ideas and experiences. During those years we created an international commission that was composed of Jesuits of all the continents and met periodically. Its aim was to advise Father General regarding the social apostolate and to provide us with guidelines to orient our work in the Secretariat.

As Director of the Secretariat and also as General Counsellor, I had a chance to learn about the activities of the Society in the different continents; above all, I had the opportunity to know personally so many of the marvellous Jesuits who dedicated themselves heart and soul to the social apostolate. For some of them their commitment to social causes cost them their lives. During all these years it was Pedro Arrupe who inspired us all, and he inspired me personally and gave me strength to continue forward. He too, however, ended up paying a price for his daring decisions and his prophetic vision – there were many people who were still not prepared for them. Like every person, like all of us, Arrupe could not help but have his limitations, and we who worked closely with him could not help but be aware of them. Thinking about those years, though, such limitations vanish from sight. Today Pedro Arrupe appears as the prophetic figure he always was, a man who inspired so many people, both inside the Society and beyond it. The idea of the Social Secretariat arose out of his initiative, just as some years later he would decide to create the Jesuit Refugee Service. It is impossible to think of the social apostolate in the Society without thinking of Pedro Arrupe.


Francisco Ivern SJ

Pontifícia Universidade Católica

Rua Marquês de S. Vicente, 225

22453-900 Rio de Janeiro, RJ – BRAZIL



Original Spanish

Translation by Joseph Owens SJ