Author Fr. John Padberg, SJ, director of the Institute of Jesuit Sources in St. Louis, gave a talk at the University of San Francisco, which also appeared in the British journal The Tablet, "The Conversations and Questions of Jesuits," from which this article is excerpted.
Any change generates questions. Good questions generate conversation. Most of the 450-year history of the Society of Jesus has been a series of such conversations. Simple, friendly, informal conversations were the earliest and chief means Ignatius employed in helping people.
Right from his conversion in 1521 Ignatius wanted, to use his own words, "to help souls. "He talked to men and women, young and old, rich and poor, professor and student, about things that really mattered to them and to him, about how God loved them and how they might return that love. Such simple talk, such conversation, was the beginning of the life and works of the Society of Jesus. The word conversation in its most obvious sense refers to talking with someone and, by so doing, exchanging sentiments, observations, opinions, and ideas. Ignatius had that meaning in mind, but he also intended the older and more inclusive meaning of turning toward someone, to live with, keep company with, and even to help oneself and the other person toward new experiences and new interpretations of them.
The Society's members have carried on a great variety of such conversations with, to cite only five general areas, the secular world; with other religious groups, Christian and non-Christian; with the tradition and practices and personalities of the Church; with itself among each generation of its own members; and, finally, with God.
First, there have been conversations with the world in its most general meaning, with secular realities such as art and geography, science and dance, astronomy and politics and pharmacy, mathematics and architecture.
Explorers applauded the knowledge disseminated by the geographical exploits of Marquette. Scientists expressed appreciation for the mathematics of Christopher Clavius, the man greatly responsible for our present-day Gregorian calendar. Puzzlement or approval or disagreement has come to the Society from its involvement with the arts, such as ballet in the work of Menestrier in the seventeenth century. Voices of praise or protest have sounded at the diplomatic missions of the Italian Possevino at the Swedish and Russian courts or the recent political career of Robert Drinan in the United States Congress.
The Jesuit Journal de Trevoux, a monthly magazine of review and commentary on the intellectual and cultural contributions of the age, greeted the appearance in 1751 of that great modern work, the Encyclopedie, by Diderot and the other philosophes, with praise and good wishes and a careful critique. Contemporary Jesuit journals of opinion such as America in this country, La Civilta Cattolica in Italy, Stimmen der Zeit in Germany, and others in a dozen languages around the world continue that conversation. Especially in its work of education, through schools and scholarly research, the Society has tried to be part of an exchange with the men and women of today and tomorrow.
To some, the Jesuits have seemed too busy about too many things. At the Enlightenment as now, too, voices have regularly inveighed against such conversation. For the philosophes then and today at times for thoroughgoing secularists, the Jesuits have been the Janissaries of an authoritarian, superstitious relic, the Church.
For the Jansenists then and today for the right-wing rigorists of the Church, the Jesuits have been worldly; they do not attend to the things of God; they embrace the spirit of the age; they betray the Gospel. Especially in the last quarter-century, with their official emphasis on the service of faith of which the promotion of justice is an inalienable part, the Jesuits have come under heavy fire.
Sometimes that is gunfire. More than two dozen Jesuits have been killed in those years in upholding the rights of the oppressed. The tension inherent in trying to be fully a part of a culture and also a countercultural witness has always been present in these Jesuit conversations.
While members of the Society have erred both by adaptation and by negation, they have tried to take seriously this world as valid in itself and at the same time as the only place in which, even if at times with great difficulty, we can discern God visibly at work.
Second, with other religious groups, both Christian and non-Christian, the Society has also engaged in conversations. At the Jesuit beginnings in the sixteenth century, when the Reformation also began, it was sometimes on both sides of that Christian divide a dialogue of the deaf. In England and later in English-speaking lands the conversations had a special character. The rallying cry of "No Popery" was for long directed against all manifestations of Catholicism, and it was most vociferous against Jesuits, the supposedly blind defenders of Rome.
At the other side of the world, even from its earliest years the Society engaged in conversation with the religious traditions of the Far East. They early on had their farthest-reaching influence in China. The entry of Matteo Ricci into China in 1582 began for the first time a great, prolonged conversation between a Christianity couched in the terms of Western philosophy and theology and a marvelously self-conscious, sophisticated civilization that had developed wholly outside the Western ambit.
Third, the Jesuit conversation with the traditions and practices and personalities of its own Church have sometimes been the most difficult of all, perhaps because questions create tensions. This began with Ignatius himself. Even as he sought to serve the Church, he had to reply to doubts about an innovative vision of religious life that was regarded not only as dangerous but totally incompatible with Church tradition.
There is no doubt that Ignatius wanted to serve the Church and the papacy. But to that truly warm devotion, Ignatius added a clear eye on the state of the Church and on the character of the popes, and he was not reluctant to make clear how he thought he might best serve the Church. Ignatius's early companion, papal theologian at the Council of Trent and second general of the Society, Diego Laynez, happily acknowledged that the Jesuits were papatissimi, "fully papists"; but he added that they were so fundamentally for the sake of the Lord and the good of the Church as a whole.
Obedience and initiative were not contradictory for them, and they have not been so for later generations of Jesuits, even though the tension has brought about misunderstandings enough. It is also true that there have been such conversations in the Church in which some Jesuits have been right and others spectacularly wrong, as in the Galileo case, where there were Jesuits on both sides.
Fourth, within their own ranks Jesuits through the centuries have engaged in conversations among and about themselves. The more honest and forthright those conversations have been, the better for the body of the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits were fortunate enough to engage in several very important conversations about themselves, their life, and their work in the light of Vatican II. In 1965-66, during the council, and then in 1974-75 it held general congregations, meetings of its supreme legislative body.
At the first of these, General Congregation 31, the Society was inspired by the council both when it sought to return to its authentic traditions and when it clearly affirmed that it associated itself with "the joys and the hopes, the griefs and anxieties of the people of this age, especially those who are or in any way poor and afflicted, "in the words of that great opening statement of the document of Vatican II The Church in the Modern World.
The council enabled the Society to imagine in new ways its life and mission in all of its works from education to social service to spiritual ministries. Nine years later in 1974-75, at General Congregation 32, the Society was able to look at how in practice its incipient renewal had worked. Ultimately the members came to an overwhelming consensus about what their mission was in the present world and the present Church. A phrase from the beginning of a central statement, "Our Mission Today," sums it up:
"The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another."
Those sentences engage contemporary Jesuits in ever more wide-ranging conversation with the world and with the Church. Most recently, just six years ago at their last congregation, they made clear to themselves that faith and justice were to be served concomitantly with a dialogue with other religious traditions and a sympathetic engagement with other cultures.
Fifth and finally, the decisions and activities of the Jesuits throughout this history involve a conversation with God in and through Jesus Christ. And in that conversation in the sense of turning toward another, God in Jesus Christ turned toward us and the world has never been the same. To be a Jesuit made sense in the past and makes sense today only if that person believes that Jesus Christ, in his life, in his death, in his very being, has something to say of supreme importance to men and women of today, as of the past and on into the future. One does not arrive at that conviction by reason. It comes only through the gift of faith, but a faith that continually asks "What does this mean? What ought I do? How can I best know and love and serve you and the men and women of this world all of whom you love?" At the core of the being of every Jesuit and of the Society of Jesus itself is that conversation