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


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A Time of Transition (1985-1991)

A Time of Transition (1985-1991)

Henry Volken SJ

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 the bulletin!

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 Institute, New Delhi. 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 publication.

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.

Another 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 conferences.

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., 3).


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 October 1985. 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 evangelisation...

Reference 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...

That social analysis is a necessary condition for valid discernment is not accepted everywhere...” (Promotio Iustitiae 32, December 1985, 9-12).


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., 12).


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.

It would 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.

Regarding 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 1991, 3)


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 stable environment” (Ibid., 6).


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.

Underneath 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 Jesuit charism.

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: the man


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 1956.

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 1990, 8).


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 1991, 2)


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