Pope Francis (seated at right) at the Chiesa Del Gesu' (Jesuits' Church of Jesus) in Rome on January 3, 2014. Francis is the first Jesuit pope. (Photo by Alberto Pizzoli / AFP)
Pope Francis is intent on ending resistance to changes that came with the Second Vatican Council that includes a Church that is open to all and building a society that cares for the environment, says the president of the Jesuit Provinces in the Asia-Pacific region, Fr. Mark Raper.
The fundamental difference between Pope Francis and his predecessors is that he is "not just talking to the converted … he is talking to everyone," Fr. Raper told ucanews.com.
"Fifty years ago the Vatican Council promoted a fundamental change of attitude towards secular society with its concern for the common good and freedom of conscience. The Church was opened up to the world," said the 73-year old Jesuit.
"While many people in the Church have been trying to live this approach, there has often been resistance, even from within the Church,” said Fr. Raper. “Now Pope Francis will not tolerate resistance to this change of approach."
Fr. Raper pointed out that Pope Francis is determined to speak to as many people around the globe as possible and cited the encyclical Laudato si’ (Praise be to you — On Care For Our Common Home) that was addressed to every person on the planet.
"It is a tremendous gift. It is not just a boost to those who consider care for our environment important. It is insightful in new ways. He has brought together solid science, deep theology and a quite radical view of the place of human life in creation. It is most inspiring," said Fr. Raper.
The Jesuit priest said that many people consider that the encyclical was addressed to world leaders in the UN Climate Summit to be held in Paris in November, asking them to take responsibility for climate change and steps to control it.
"Now it is urgent that we mobilize support in preparation for this. It calls for a big change of heart and of consciousness regarding the questions of our human habitat," Fr. Raper said.
"We do this through our educational institutions, in our preaching, writing and through many other means, joining with others. Of course, Paris is a milestone and the question is a long-term one. But there is no time to lose," he said.
Fr. Raper, who heads one of the six conferences that coordinate and facilitate the mission of the Jesuits around the world, also talked about what it meant having a pope who is also a Jesuit.
"Certainly we Jesuits may have felt like we were under a bit of a cloud at times. Jesuits were asked by different popes to keep pushing the boundaries. But when we do, we can be misunderstood," he said.
"Now we have a Holy Father whose way of thinking corresponds with how we were educated. On the other hand, he is not a young man and his time will not last forever."
Fr. Raper’s conference covers Jesuit life and service in Australia, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Myanmar, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, Taiwan, Thailand, Timor Leste, Vietnam, and the countries of the Pacific, notably Micronesia.
The conference serves to help bring an international perspective to and on local initiatives.
"We have a number of priority commitments — care of vulnerable migrants, a focus on the environment, dialogue with Buddhism and Islam," Fr. Raper said. "The Jesuit mission is to promote a faith that does justice in dialogue with cultures and religions."
There are about 1600 to 1700 Jesuits in this conference. That does not include the more than 4,000 Jesuits in the Indian subcontinent.
But Raper voiced concern about the declining number of Jesuits in Indonesia and the Philippines, the two biggest provinces of the order in the region, where he said that numbers are contracting slightly each year.
Asked for the reason, he said: "I cannot give one coherent reason for this, but I was talking to a Buddhist monk recently in Chiang Mai and he had the same message. He sees a decline in vocations to the monkhood, especially in the cities.
"He gave similar reasons to what I have heard among our religious, such as an increase of consumerism, rise of secularism, the culture of the cities and what our superior general calls the 'globalisation of superficiality'. Also, of course, families are smaller, opportunities are greater and there are more distractions."
On the upside, Jesuit numbers are rising in Vietnam, Cambodia, Timor-Leste and Myanmar.
Fr. Raper pointed out that Catholics in Asia have a disproportionately larger impact than its percentage of the population across Asia would suggest. He said this is because of the Church's involvement in education, health and social services that serve all.
"We seek to learn from others. But because we often cooperate with many others, our presence can be quite discrete," he said.
The Church's education, health and socio-economic programs have highlighted respect for human dignity, safeguarded human rights as seen with its campaigns for reconciliation, peace and justice and concern for marginalized groups such as the Montagnards in Vietnam and the Rohingya in Myanmar.
"We do not take public roles of advocacy in every instance. There are times when it may be more appropriate to ensure that those who have real leadership roles are heard," Fr. Raper said.
For instance, someone like Cardinal Charles Bo in Yangon is in a better position to speak publicly and to dialogue with authorities about the need for justice in Myanmar, he said.
Also, having a popular pope, the first Jesuit elected to that office, does make the job for Jesuits both easy and difficult at the same time, Fr. Raper said.