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Jesuit Father Michael Kelly is a media professional with 40 years of experience in writing and reporting, editing and publishing, TV and broadcast radio production in Asia and Australia. For 10 years he led Asia’s leading Church media organization - UCA News. Currently, he is the English language publisher of the respected Jesuit periodical La Civilta Cattolica.
Jesuit Father Michael Kelly


What brings a Jesuit pope to Asia?

The seeds of the pope's interest in the region and his missionary zeal were sewn by the former head of the Order, Pedro Arrupe

Published: November 23, 2017 04:08 AM GMT

Updated: November 17, 2022 08:13 AM GMT

What brings a Jesuit pope to Asia?

One of the biggest influences on Pope Francis remains relatively unexplored — Pedro Arrupe, the Superior General of the Jesuits who appointed Jorge Bergoglio as Provincial of the Jesuits in Argentina at the fairly tender age of 36.

Though he described the appointment as "crazy," the now pope, who served as Provincial from 1973-79, was set on a path of leadership by someone who was to shape his imagination in ways that almost daily are reflected in his ministry as the Bishop of Rome, including the priority he gives to Asia. 

Bergoglio's own devotion to Arrupe, who led the Jesuits from 1965-83, is signaled by his repeated visits to the site of Arrupe's grave in the Gesu, the main Jesuit church in Rome, where Pope Francis always pauses and prays on any visit to the "mother church" of the Jesuits.

Pope Francis called the appointment crazy because he had little experience of anything that his new job required. It was also a time of conflict and division in the Jesuits and the wider Argentinean society.

But he got the job for several reasons: there was a gaping hole because the candidate expected to take the job was killed in a car accident some six months before he was due to take over; and his appointment followed a pattern of appointments when popular superiors of communities of young Jesuits (Bergoglio was Novice Master) were made Provincials. It was also in the context of division within the ranks of Argentinean Jesuits who were caught up in the social and political conflicts that led to a military coup in 1976 and an end of democratic rule.

Bergoglio was appointed by Arrupe as a spiritually mature young man who would be a steady pair of hands to carry the Province and the hopes of its younger members, as it was falling apart and dozens were leaving the Order. During his tenure, he had a close relationship with Arrupe and was part of what has become the fountain head of inspiration for Jesuits today — the 32nd General Congregation in 1975 — that redefined in contemporary terms what the Jesuits' mission was in a post-Vatican II church.

That this policy was underway was verified by Arrupe making him rector of the Jesuit theological college outside Buenos Aires after he had served as the Provincial. Earlier, as Provincial, Bergoglio had hidden people targeted for death by the military junta that ruled until democracy was restored in 1983.

But the connection with Arrupe began in the early 1960s. Before he became General of the Jesuits, Arrupe had been Provincial of the Jesuits in Japan. It was his practice to travel widely — including to Argentina — to attract Jesuit recruits and raise money for the Jesuit ministries in Japan. It was at that time that Bergoglio volunteered to go as a missionary to Japan, a country that remains dear to his heart, but could not because of ill health. The present Provincial of Japan is an Argentinean who had the missionary spirit stirred in him when Bergoglio was Provincial in Argentina.

Asia has always loomed large in the imagination of the Jesuits from the Order's earliest days. The culturally accommodating early missionaries to China, Vietnam and India – Matteo Ricci, Alexandre de Rhodes and Roberto di Nobili — are in the pantheon of Jesuit greats and a reference point for all subsequent generations of Jesuits who wonder just what the Order is. It was, and remains so, for Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis.

Arrupe and his advisers in the 1960s believed the Jesuits were over-ripe and, despite their apparent successes and abundant numbers (36,000 when he became General in 1965), they needed a spring clean to accommodate what Vatican II called on all religious congregations to do – not rest on their laurels, but rediscover their founding inspiration and contribute that to the renewal of the church as called for by the Council. 

Arrupe's vision and practice were both spiritual and world embracing as he left the comfort of his native Spain for the "otherness" of Japan. He had a profound understanding of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the founding spiritual experience of the Jesuits. On his journeys, Arrupe experienced everything, including the mystery and diversity of  other religions and cultures.

He also experienced firsthand one of the defining horrors of the 20th century when the Americans dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima in 1945. He was then Novice Master for the Japanese Province and lived outside the city, which was reduced to rubble. As someone who had all but completed a medical degree, he rushed to assist those ravaged by the radioactive catastrophe.

The 1960s were also the time when people in Europe and the USA – including the popes and theologians —  discovered what a mess colonialism had made of the economies and societies of what came to be called the Third World. In response to this distressing challenge, the church's social magisterium developed quickly and the Jesuits bought into the challenge by defining the Order's mission as "the service of faith and the promotion of justice" which it saw as two sides of the same coin.

Some Jesuits reduced this mission to engagement in politics. Bergoglio, long a sceptic in his assessment of all ideologies, Catholic ones included, did not support this reduction of mission and for it was attacked by some Jesuits as going soft on the abuse of the poor. As his subsequent work and writings display, there was no truth to the allegation.

For the informed Jesuit, there is absolutely no surprise in anything Pope Francis says or does, especially including his missionary impulses. Anyone familiar with the Spiritual Exercises, the 32nd General Congregation and the history, tensions and struggles of the Order since then will hear their echo in Pope Francis who is the most visible fruit of that journey of faith over the last 50 years by many other Jesuits.

Father Michael Kelly SJ is executive director of ucanews.com and based in Thailand.

#popeheartofasia #PopeFrancis

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