A Time of Transition
Fernando Franco SJ
am not the best person
to write about Fr. Henry and the seven years he spent in the Curia as Secretary
of the Social Justice Secretariat and editor of Promotio Iustitiae.
I lived out those years far away from Rome and the concerns of the Secretariat. I
seem to lack the most essential of credentials: I was not a regular reader of
In spite of these obvious drawbacks I have
decided to write this article on Henry because I feel deep down a certain
affinity with him. He spent some of the most active years of his life in rural India and worked at the Indian Social
I happen to share these two features; and the thought that he may have gone, as
I so often did, for a walk in the Lodhi Gardens to lighten his mind and rekindle his
heart was motivation strong enough to make me sit down and compose these lines!
They are written with affection for someone I never met but one who is not
difficult to understand across distance and time. Let me admit that I
unexpectedly derived enormous satisfaction from reading through the 18 issues
of Promotio edited by him.
I do not intend to sketch an elaborate
analysis of his work, much less evaluate his contribution. I simply attempt to
paint a broad canvas of the interests that moved him inasmuch as one can glean
them from the articles he selected and the themes he chose to emphasize.
Reading these past issues I have been moved by the persistence of certain
themes and by his perspicacity in foreseeing the future. I hope to lure the
reader to go back and read the original articles and think of the past as
something that continues to unfold in the present.
A time of transition
Let me start with his first editorial.
Embedded in his simple and straightforward style I sense the diffidence of a
newcomer to the Curia. With a little hindsight I can imagine the sparse
facilities of his office and the humble manner in which he took up the job of
editing PJ, as he frequently called the bulletin.
“The readers of Promotio Justitiae
will have to be indulgent in a special way with this issue, and understand
the ‘limit situation’ of a new editor. This number of P.J., apart from being
smaller than those of the past, is unduly selective and partial. Unfortunately
I had to start walking on more familiar ground in using the material at hand. With your collaboration I hope to do better in the future” (Promotio Iustitiae 31, February 1985, 2).
It is not surprising that in the same
editorial, and just before he starts his work, he describes with some
hesitation the difficult position faced by the bulletin. He acknowledges the
contradictory reports he has received regarding the continuation of PJ,
a concern, I suppose, not unfamiliar to any of the editors who have had to face
epochal transitions and changes. We may recall that Fr. Henry takes up the
responsibility of the Secretariat after Fr. Kolvenbach
was appointed General of the Society. One era, Fr. Arrupe’s
era, was gone, and a new one was beginning.
Though some referred to PJ as the
“most read bulletin coming from the Curia”, others doubted its impact, thought
its readership was limited to the already ‘converted’, and challenged its
cultural and political sensibilities regarding new countries, for example, Africa. In spite of these negative opinions Fr.
Henry was finally moved by arguments defending the continuation of the
In that first editorial he outlined his
most profound convictions and the guidelines that would frame the future development
of Promotio. In the context of the painful transition described above,
he draws attention to three inter-related issues: a lack of corporate
solidarity and union among Jesuits, the opening of the Society to global issues
and a more conciliatory approach shown by the social activists.
“Among us Jesuits the most notable feature
of this period of transition seems to be the new search for a corporate
witness, integrating the core insights of the past three General Congregations.
It is becoming evident that solidarity with the poor, if it is to be adequate
in the sense of the Gospel, also requires solidarity and unity among us sharing
a sense of direction.
positive change in the life of the Society is the fast increasing commitment of
Jesuit groups, institutions and provinces to global justice issues and peace.
The international character of the Society makes possible significant new
initiatives of collaboration with other organisations and Episcopal
There is a
new development also among Jesuits in the justice ministry. In the past P.J.
has rightly aimed at supporting in a special way these front-liners who had
helped other Jesuits become more aware of the massive violation of basic human
rights and the depth of human suffering resulting from it. Among them there are
signs of transcending feelings of anger and aggressivity
normal in such situations, yet blocking at the same time communication with
other Jesuits, especially those in institution-based apostolates.” (Ibid.,
In this same editorial Volken raises
the question that serves as the title of this article: “are we in a period of
transition?” – clearly a reference to the changes that
were taking place in the world outside and to our way of understanding them.
His sense of the main changes within the Society is indeed made up of elements
that characterise the social apostolate in this period of transition: a search
for greater union among Jesuits and an example of corporate unity.
The preferential option for the poor
Among the issues dealt with in the pages of Promotio,
the preferential option for the poor promoted by GC32 has been, and probably
remains, a critical issue in the Society’s understanding
of its mission. The theme attracted much forceful debate and was brought into
focus by a meeting of Moderators of Provincial Conferences in Rome from 30 September to 4
Many of those who attended GC35 may find the following lines familiar. Let us
remember they were written 23 years before the last Congregation. For some participants,
“the language of Decree 4 and of [the]
preferential option for the poor has emerged from a Latin American experience
and it does not mean much in our situation ... Jesuits in Europe and some
East-European provinces perceive the key problem in terms of ‘spiritual
malnutrition’ and of the obstacles a secularised culture creates for
was made to a tendency among some to rest content with a mere charity approach
to poverty in the ‘Quart Monde’ and the Third World
... Some Jesuits proceed to decision on the basis of analysis without
discernment, others practice discernment without analysis...
social analysis is a necessary condition for valid discernment is not accepted
everywhere...” (Promotio Iustitiae 32, December 1985,
Voices at that meeting called for a more professional and
scientific approach to the manner in which provinces analysed their situation.
A long section of the document called for the use of the Spiritual Exercises to
achieve a personal conversion and to participate in the struggles of our time.
The article ends with a call for unity and notes that one of the Moderators,
referring to his provinces, said:
“Faith-Justice and preferential option
have caused great suffering in our efforts to live up to this ideal. Now there
is greater acceptance in the hearts of the Jesuits, but we still do not know
what to do to really to give genuine service in a country full of injustices” (Ibid.,
Conscientising the non-poor
Many argued that the preferential option for the poor was being
interpreted to mean that Jesuits had to work exclusively with the poor.
Jesuits, the argument runs, are called also to conscientise
the non-poor, and to influence the centres of decision-making. Proponents of
this view argued that the insistence of social activists on the preferential
option might have helped to promote a one-sided interpretation of our mission.
The argument was forcefully put forward by Johnny Müller
SJ, director then of the Institute of Social Sciences at the Jesuit Faculty of Philosophy in Munich.
“I think it is very important for us to
reflect on the issue of ‘conscientising the
non-poor’. First of all, this compels us to acquire the proper knowledge that
enables us to enter into a real dialogue with experts which goes beyond a mere
moral appeal. Secondly, there are many ‘persons of good will’ whom we can win
over for the option of the poor if we meet them with a positive attitude
instead of judging them.
indeed be very questionable if we as Jesuits would choose to withdraw entirely
from addressing important and controversial issues of intellectual and
political relevance. It is all the more important that we as Jesuits render
this specific service at the moment when we observe trends in the Church which
insist on moral demands without providing proper arguments and enlightening
motivation. I guess there is also a temptation to avoid this challenge by
finding meaning only in direct social action at the grass roots, which quite
often gives more emotional satisfaction, even though with us in Germany the
bigger temptation probably is in the opposite direction.
higher education at the university level, Jesuits in German-speaking countries,
and perhaps in the whole of Europe, still are facing a lot of difficulties in
integrating social issues in their academic work” (Promotio Iustitiae 47, June
Reading the GC35 decree on mission today in the light of this
quotation I experience two strong movements: the first is the joyful
realisation that we have moved forward in looking for an
integration between social research and action; the second is the
disturbing recognition that the response from Jesuit institutions of higher
learning continues to be cautious and half-hearted.
Non-violence and social justice
The post-Arrupean years seem also to
consolidate the opinion that the struggle for justice and peace go together. In
an interesting interview to Bishop Francisco Claver SJ of the Philippines
regarding the accusation that they took too ‘cautious’ a position vis-à-vis the
Marxist left he had this to say:
“There is no question
of the Jesuit tradition of dedication to justice in the Philippines. But there is no
question either that is a tradition of real discernment. As a consequence the
Jesuits have not been touched by the deep polarisation that marks many a
religious order in the Philippines ... Right or wrong, successful or not, we
have been aware for some years now that in the work for justice we are not in a
popularity contest ... The non-violent approach to the struggle for justice, I
guess for the simple reason that one cannot espouse it without a big dose of
faith, makes us most conscious of the space we must give the action of God” (Promotio
Iustitiae 33, June 1986, 5).
The movement linking justice and peace has advanced steadily
over the last twenty years. The separation of violence from the struggles of
justice seems to me one of the most fundamental achievements in our
understanding of the justice of the gospel. It finds a central place in the
mission decree of General Congregation 35.
Emerging or recurrent issues
The articles collected in Promotio by Fr. Henry during
these years cover many areas. Worth mentioning are his illuminating report on
his visit to the US (Promotio Iustitiae 34,
October 1986, 9-14), the analysis and reflections on the publication of the new
encyclical ‘Sollicitudo Rei
Socialis’ (Promotio Iustitiae 37,
April 1988, 3-4; Promotio Iustitiae 41, June
1989, 2-5), a moving report on the visit of Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach
to San Salvador after the death of our martyrs (Promotio Iustitiae
43, February 1990, 2-5), and a few lines on the death of Fr. Arrupe (Promotio Iustitiae 46,
February 1991, 2-4). Keeping in mind the present interests and preoccupations
of the social apostolate I have chosen to mention in greater detail a few
themes appearing in the pages of Promotio.
The article on AIDS by Fr. E. W. Rogers is
probably the first one of its kind in Promotio. He writes from Zimbabwe about a meeting of the Pontifical Council
for Pastoral Assistance on AIDS in Rome (13-15 November 1989) attended by six
Jesuits. It is interesting to note the words of an expert: “the problem of AIDS
is reaching pandemic proportions in USA, the Caribbean and Africa” (Promotio Iustitiae
43, February 1990, 12-14).
The issue of environmental justice finds
place in an article written by Peter W. Walpole SJ on ‘A basic commitment to
environmental justice’ (Ibid., 6-8). I find
illuminating these prophetic words that already lay the foundation for linking
ecological deterioration with its effects on the poor.
“Since moving around the country [Philippines] I now concentrate on a few locations and
issues ... To the amusement of my fellow Jesuits I spend much time searching
the mountains for the forest, only to look down eroded valleys to the coast.
When talking with communities along the way the issue is generally logging,
erosion or sedimentation, but always the concern is a less diverse, fertile and
The question of the relationship between justice and culture
emerges forcefully during a meeting of 35 Jesuits representing Jesuit Social
Centres held in Rome from 12 to 16 May 1987. The controversy originates in an
introductory paper read at the conference by Fr. Francisco Ivern,
at that time director of Centro João XXIII in Rio de Janeiro. The misinterpretation, as Fr. Ivern argues, is caused by a communication sent to the
social centres of Latin
America by Fr.
Juan Hernandez Pico, at that time director of CIASCA, Managua. In defence of his position Ivern writes:
“Referring to my paper Juan seems to think
that I had affirmed that the problems of today’s world are more of a cultural
than of a socio-economic and socio-political nature, and that hence our
analysis should be focussed more on the cultural than on the economic and
political. In reality I had simply affirmed that the present world crisis
requires that socio-economic and socio-political analysis be complemented by an
analysis of a cultural nature.
socio-economic and socio-political structures there are some values which can
be adequately analysed and explained only by a study or analysis that is of a
historical, philosophical religious and cultural in nature ... I simply wanted
to stress that it is imperative for the Social Centres in their analysis also
to allocate space to the socio-cultural dimension of reality.” (Promotio Iustitiae 37, April 1988, 10).
It is interesting to see that culture, so important an issue in
GC34, is already being discussed at a meeting of social centres in 1988! We are
aware that the theme of ‘culture’, mainly under the guise of inculturation, will become an important dimension of our
The lukewarm response from the Eastern
European provinces to Decree 4 was an important focus of discussion. I was
particularly moved by an article written as early as 1991 by Adam Żak SJ in the last issue
published by Fr. Henry. This issue came up both in GC34 and 35. I would
recommend that all who are interested in this topic, young and old, read again
this short piece and especially the section entitled ‘Renewal through faith and
the renewal of faith’. It starts with a solemn affirmation:
“I do not think that
there are in the Society today serious doubts about the importance of Decree
Four. This does not mean that we have fully accepted it. In fact, much suggests
that we are only at the beginning. In a special way this applies to the
Provinces of Eastern Europe.” (Promotio
Iustitiae 48, October 1991, 6-9).
Henry Volken is
the only Secretary of the social apostolate who has departed from this world.
It seems appropriate therefore to end this article with a brief note on his
life. In sketching it I have borrowed freely from the excellent ‘Dedication’
written by Fr. Michael Czerny (Promotio Iustitiae 73,
May 2000, 3-5).
Henry was born in 1925 in Zermatt, Switzerland where he entered the novitiate in 1946.
Wanting to start his process of inculturation in India as early as possible, he left for India at the end of his novitiate. After
studying Marathi (the language spoken in Maharashtra and Mumbai) and doing philosophy and
theology in Pune, he was ordained in the same city in
After completing sociology studies in Paris we find him in 1962 at the Indian Social
Institute, Delhi. He pioneered the creation of a sister
institution, the Indian Social Institute of Bangalore. After 13 years at the
Institute in Bangalore he created a ‘Mobile Training Team’
(known all over as MOTT) that was present in many emergency situations. I
remember hearing about this team, especially during the 1978 floods in Orissa. He derived great satisfaction from this type of
work because it brought him closer to the poor.
During his years at the Secretariat, Fr.
Henry showed the same disposition to reach generously to all those in need.
According to Liliana Carvajal,
who joined as secretary of the Social Justice Secretariat during Fr. Henry’s
time, he was a person who had overcome all types of discrimination, and who
never subordinated the interests of the poor to other interests.
After completing his spell at the
Secretariat in 1992 Fr. Henry returned to his native Switzerland to serve as a pastor in St. Boniface, the
German-speaking parish in Geneva. He was decisively involved in advocacy,
pre-figuring the importance that this apostolate would take much later. At Geneva he played an important role at the United
Nations as president of the NGO committee and as the representative of the
Christian Life Communities.
I heard of his poor health at the Indian
Social Institute in New Delhi through messages sent by Stan D’Souza SJ from Brussels. On 3rd May 2000, before lunch, I received a message
saying he had expired. Before sitting at table I went to the chapel adjoining
the dining room and said a prayer for the great missionary and dedicated social
activist I had never met but about whom I had heard so much
Henry thought that the international
meeting at Loyola with Father General in 1990 was the most important event in
his years as Secretary of the social apostolate. There was a direct interaction
there among provincials and members of the Curia on burning issues of the
social apostolate. He wrote the following memorable lines about the issues that
remained unresolved at the meeting:
“Frustration is expressed because
seemingly we have so little impact on the global situation of injustice. In the
face of resisting structures and the dominant mentality, the burden put on us
by decree 4 seems overwhelming. How to turn this call from a burden to
something we do joyfully and peacefully? How to address with competence and
serenity the hard questions emerging from global analysis? How can the Society
of Jesus develop its international potential in the context of globalisation of
the world economy, of increasing cultural interlinking, and continue to
eliminate growing world poverty and victimisation of the powerless?” (Promotio Iustitiae 45, October
He ended his work as editor of Promotio in the same
humble manner and spirit with which he had begun.
“With this issue of Promotio Justitiae I take leave from you the readers. I thank all
those who during the past seven years have given me support, and even much of
their time to write for the bulletin.” (Promotio Iustitiae 48, October
A humble, generous and dedicated man with
a sense of the future – Fr. Henry Volken, sometime
secretary at the Social Justice Secretariat.
Fernando Franco SJ
Social Justice Secretariat
Rome – ITALY