South Asian Jesuits stress inter-cultural identity

Leaders meet in India to discuss 'a new way of being Jesuits' based on greater cultural understanding and assimilation
South Asian Jesuits stress inter-cultural identity

About 200 Jesuit leaders from South Asia wear white hats popular in western parts of India as they attend a conference in Pune city, in the western state of Maharashtra, from April 25-28 to discuss the multicultural make-up of their missions. ( photo)

Jesuit leaders in South Asia have decided to seek a better understanding of their multicultural background in order to better serve their mission areas.

Some 200 Jesuits from 19 provinces and regions participated in an assembly on the theme of "Inter-culturality for Reconciled Life and Mission" from April 25-28 in Pune city in the western Indian state of Maharashtra.

They used "spiritual conversation," a method advocated by their founder St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), to foster greater understanding and strengthen their communities. 

The method encourages people to share their innermost thoughts without feeling shame, or harboring any fear of being judged. The Jesuits used this to speak about their issues with different cultures in order to try and gain a better understanding of the issues involved. 

It was "a rare fruit, a game-changer," said Father George Pattery, president of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia.

Attendees stressed how communities in South Asia nurture their own distinct cultures and suggested Jesuits should accept and celebrate these if they hope to be more effective in carrying out their mission. 

"The assembly presented a new way for us to relate to each other," said Father Prince Clarence from the southern Indian state of Kerala

The discussions challenged people to "come out of their comfort zones," he said. 

Several Jesuits said they had made new inroads by abandoning the food and language they had grown up with, and adopting the local garb, language and cuisine to bring them closer to the people they were serving. 

Father Melvil Pereira, the regional superior for Kohima, the hilly capital of the northeastern state of Nagaland, said even within India, Jesuits should be open to embracing the diverse cultures that fall within their mission areas.

For example the Jesuit region of Kohima, which covers seven states in this part of the country, includes several ethnic communities with strikingly different customs and characteristics.

However most Jesuits who work there come from the Mangalore area in Karnataka state, just south of tourist hot spot Goa at the opposite end of the country. The two regions have very different cuisines, cultures, and ways of life.

"Jesuits must forgo their traditional food and culture and adapt to the ways, food and music of the people where they preach. They should assimilate these new cultures," Father Pereira said.

Father Joe Arun, convener of the assembly, said the Society of Jesus is now focused on emphasizing "reconciliation and justice," based on an enhanced understanding of local cultures where its members are active.

He said Jesuit Superior General Arturo Soso had asked them to open their minds, and that their efforts moving forward would be characterized by a greater sense of empathy and inter-cultural understanding.

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Father Pattery, 68, said no resolutions were passed at the assembly, but leaders would deliberate "on a new way of being Jesuits" in the region, and find their own ways to assimilate better.

"There were no arguments; no fighting. Everyone was listened to, with deep respect for one another’s culture," he added.

Seven Jesuits from Sri Lanka cancelled their plan to attend the assembly after the serial bombings at churches and luxury hotels in and near Colombo on Easter Sunday.

The assembly sent messages of condolence to the families of the victims, as well as to the Sri Lankan Church and the Jesuits of Sri Lanka.

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