Theological dialogue with Islam 'impossible,' top Jesuit says

New York

Covering a church with more than 2,000 years of history, one doesn’t get the chance to use the word “unprecedented” very often. In early January, however, something will happen in Rome that is (almost) a complete novelty: The Society of the Jesus, the largest and most influential religious order in the Catholic church, will elect a successor to its Father General while the current occupant of the office is still alive and in good health.

When Dutch Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, 79, was elected to the position in September 1983, he too replaced a living Father General, Pedro Arrupe. The difference, however, is that Arrupe had suffered an incapacitating stroke in 1981 and was unable to continue leading the society; Kolvenbach, on the other hand, remains as alert and agile as ever, and is stepping down in order to allow new leadership to take the reins.

While handicappers from around the world speculate about who might emerge as the new “black pope,” the traditional title of the Jesuit leader, Kolvenbach took a rare step into the public spotlight this month with a lengthy interview in the Jesuit journal Popoli, looking back at his 24 years at the helm. The following are brief excerpts from that interview, translated from Italian by NCR.

Of particular interest are Kolvenbach’s comments on Islam at the end of the interview. It’s an area in which he has special expertise; not only are many of the Catholic church’s leading experts on Islam members of the Society of Jesus, but Kolvenbach spent long years living in Lebanon, where he served as Jesuit provincial during that nation’s civil war.

In recent years, the Society of Jesus has seen a drop in candidates for the novitiate. What are the reasons?

Sometimes we forget that a religious family is, in a happy expression of the Second Vatican Council, ‘a gift of the Spirit to the church.’ The church can’t be the church without clergy and laity, but it can be church without religious life in its present form. The church lived for centuries without the Jesuits! … Religious families are born and they disappear, not because they did something wrong, but because the church requires other gifts to meet other needs of the people of God. The simple fact that today a young man who wants to put himself at the service of the church doesn’t necessarily have to choose between the seminary and the novitiate, but can also find his mission in one of the new ecclesial movements that are also a gift of the Spirit, changes the whole context of consecrated life.

What do you see today for the church in Europe?

I think about something Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Boy Scouts and a man who wasn’t himself particularly religious, once said: ‘I like my religion the same way I like my tea – boiling.” If the parish, ecclesial life, isn’t strong, fervent, and warm, it won’t generate vocations to the religious life or the priesthood. This is evident not only in Europe, but also in Latin America, where the shortage of priests is tremendous. On the other hand, in areas where only priests and religious were once active, today laity are assuming new responsibilities.

Is there a risk of the laity becoming simply a remedy for the lack of Jesuits?

No, the change of perspective is radical: the laity aren’t just an indispensable form of help or a solution for ensuring the future of our works, but the Society of Jesus puts itself at the service of a shared mission with the laity, uniting itself with them in a kind of apprenticeship, serving together and learning from one another, discerning together the apostolic objectives of a common mission at the service of the church.

What ‘flash’ of insight are you hoping for from the General Congregation that will open in a few weeks?

The ‘flash’ will be the quest for the greater glory of God, for apostolic service to the other which is ever more generous and complete, because mediocrity has no place in the worldview of Ignatius.

How would you define today the mission of the Society of Jesus?

As servants of the mission of Christ, the Jesuits desire to continue that mission among the men and women of our time, above all where Christ and his gospel are not know or are only poorly known. That implies a presence on frontiers which were at one time the geographic borders of Christianity, but which today are increasingly the frontiers between faith and culture, between Christian faith and science, between the church and human society, and between the ‘good news’ and an anguished and tormented world.

In addition to being ‘men of the frontier,’ Jesuits are also known for their ability as mediators. That’s an increasingly difficult challenge in world more known for polarization and superficiality.

It’s true, this capacity for mediation is rooted in the very composition of the Society: we’ve been international from the beginning, with a great respect for the different cultures. … This openness creates a vocation of not being at one extreme or the other, but to help people follow the path that leads to God. It can be said, I think, that an extremist could never become a Jesuit. This doesn’t mean, however, that a Jesuit is a diplomat. He seeks the absolute, but the absolute is God alone, and everything else is relative to God, to the human person, and to creation. … (pauses) … That’s a truly Jesuitical response!

Over the years, you’ve handled delicate relationships between some Jesuit theologians and the Vatican. What are the necessary limits, and what’s the space for welcoming a plurality of theological reflection in the Society?

[Theology] unfolds today in a nervous atmosphere of conflicts and polarization, in which everything is immediately classified as either ‘right’ or ‘left,’ as conservatism or progressive thought. Even a constructive critique by a theologian, based on deep competence, pastoral concern and discernment born in prayer, runs the risk of being taken up by the mass media in a partial fashion (either unwittingly or deliberately) in order to turn it into front-page news. On the other hand, the church can’t renounce its right, and its duty, to protect the faithful against errors or possibly erroneous interpretations of a given theological work, even if it’s valid in itself. In this context, which at first blush can seem discouraging, it’s important to be grateful for so many theologians – among them, not just a few Jesuits – who provide the church the indispensable service of positive, clear and creative theological reflection, which serves the greater good of the whole church in its socio-cultural diversity.

China is a priority for the church today. How does one offer a Chinese ‘reading” of the gospel, and not just a transliteration?

The intuition of St. Francis Xavier remains valid today: China, in his vision, was the key for the evangelization of East Asia, including Japan. Today, China is important for the entire world. Fifty years after the death of Xavier, Fr. Matteo Rici succeeded in arriving at Canton, in the court of Peking. He didn’t transliterate the gospel, but created a Chinese reading of it. … We have to return to the path of Matteo Ricci, in order to understand the material and spiritual needs and aspirations of the Chinese people today. The hope, as well as the new element in the evangelization of China, lies in the numerous Christian communities that are already there. They themselves, the Chinese faithful, can craft a Chinese reading of the gospel much better than all the foreign missionaries. The recent letter of Pope Benedict XVI was intended precisely to prepare the church in China for this evangelizing role.

What’s the role of the Society of Jesus in Latin America today?
tIf our apostolic works – whether specifically social, or educational and pastoral – are faithful to the missions of faith and justice, if they’re able to transmit the preferential love for the poor which is the patrimony of the church, which was confirmed by the meeting of Latin American bishops in Aparecida in May – and if we try to form honest and competent people who aren’t interested only in making themselves rich, but who are motivated to improve their country according to the social doctrine of the church, we’ll be able to make our own small contribution. … My impression is that at this moment in Latin America, the priorities of the Jesuits are programs of political formation for leaders, in strict collaboration with the universities, social centers and grassroots apostolates.

In Africa, what efforts is the Society making in theology in order to present the faithful with a message that knows how to inculturate the gospel in local traditions?

Despite so much conflict and suffering, theological research goes on in Africa … these theological interests haven’t neglected the composition of liturgical music, for example, as in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, or of works inspired by traditional African art, such as the Via Crucis by the late Fr. Engelbert Mueng. There’s also a theological interest in realities such as illness, healing and witchcraft.

Islam is awakening in many Europeans fears of being overrun…

First of all, we have to clarify something: we speak too glibly of ‘Muslims,’ as if they’re all the same. In reality, there are fanatical Muslims and there are Muslims convinced that once they arrive in Europe they no longer need to follow the Koran because they’re outside the land of Islam. Islam is not monolithic: think about the difference, for example, between the Sunnis, the majority and the major pillars of Islam, and the Shi’ites, a minority (although today to mention the Shi’ites is to talk about many ‘hot spots,’ such as Iran, Iraq and south Lebanon.) We also can’t forget that Islam has always had its mystics, the Sufis. Much also depends upon nationality: a Muslim in Pakistan – a word that means “nation of the pure” – is very different from a Muslim in Algeria, which has lived for so long with the French.

That said, I can talk about the experience of Beirut, which is my city. The Jesuits there have chosen to be a bridge between Muslims and Christians. In part, the reason is geographical: the largest houses of the Jesuits in Beirut are on the so-called ‘Green Line,’ the border between the majority Christian area and the Muslim neighborhood. Our university is also there, because we always wanted everyone to be welcome. That’s cost us a lot. We’ve often been hit by bombardments. When I was the provincial in Lebanon, during the war, I couldn’t open the windows because there were snipers across the street. But the cost isn’t only material: some Christians say that our approach is wrong because we’ve trained Muslim lawyers, Muslim engineers, and so on. Some would prefer that the Muslims stay in a kind of ghetto, including an intellectual ghetto, in order not to lose control of the country.

On the strictly religious and theological level, is dialogue with Islam possible?
tI’m afraid that at a theological and dogmatic level, dialogue with Islam is impossible. Often in Beirut, Muslims would ask me: ‘How is it possible that an educated person, a professor, believes in three gods?’ Obviously, they were referring to the Christian dogma of the Trinity. That’s an example of the difficulties of dialogue. Some who are favorable to theological dialogue with Muslims forget that at a certain point, you have to choose. For Muslims, it’s very clear: God is one. They chant it five times every day.

At a personal level, however, it’s not only possible but beautiful to have Muslim friends. Indeed, in a climate of general religious transformation, especially in Europe, it’s important that truly believing Christians and truly believing Muslims meet one another. On so many points that touch us all – suffering, prayer, death – dialogue is possible. I believe, as the pope has often said, we have to promote a dialogue of life, partly to resist a temptation that’s so strong in the Middle East: the ghetto, separation.

Moreover, we have to make common cause for the good of humanity. Many Muslims today are sensitive to the theme of peace, and very committed. After September 11, everyone talked about Islam in terms of jihad, holy war, and violence. It’s true, one can find this in the Koran, but the Old Testament is likewise not all that peaceful in some passages … Today, many Muslims are firmly committed to the cause of peace. It’s a good opportunity to work together, in the interests of the entire human community.

During your 24 years as Father General, what aspects of the legacy of your predecessor, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, did you especially emphasize?

To tell the truth, I didn’t really have to do anything to keep the legacy of Fr. Arrupe alive. It’s impossible to forget Arrupe, who was so committed to the Second Vatican Council, especially in the area of religious life. He’s part of the Society today spontaneously, without having to try! That’s not something one could have predicted: it wasn’t the case, for example, with the two generals before him, Fr. Janssens and Fr. Ledochowski. Today the Society of Jesus, in its spirituality, simply ‘is’ Fr. Arrupe.

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