As I write this, I am hard at work on a major presentation to be given at the request of the Social Justice Committee. I am calling it “Jesuits and Social Justice 101.” In it, I am trying to explain why, for Jesuits, their lay partners, and their institutions (including parishes), the promotion of justice (through both hands-on service and justice education) is inseparable from the service of faith. Rather, the two are to be seen as opposite faces of one and the same coin.
The simplest explanation, as with most things to do with Jesuits and others who follow the Ignatian spiritual path, is Jesus. Jesuits and their lay colleagues aspire to be “companions” of Jesus, just as the twelve apostles were, or the pious women who followed Jesus. Friendship with Jesus is discovered and grows in and through the “Spiritual Exercises” by spending regular quality time in prayer “contemplating” the Jesus of the Gospels. And the Jesus of the “Exercises” (and the Gospels) is a man on a mission – one who moves about teaching anyone who will listen and reiterating the Good News of the Kingdom by healing the sick and liberating the oppressed. So while the “Exercises” generate greater personal knowledge and love of Jesus, they also generate apostolic zeal – a desire to serve others in need, just as Jesus did.
Despite their reputation for being intellectuals, Jesuits (and their lay friends) are united by an affective spirituality, i.e., a spirituality of the heart based on relationships. In fact, throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, the most basic understanding of “justice” is “right relationships” – between humans and God, between humans and other humans, between humans and the rest of God’s creation.
At creation, God imposes divinely-willed order on primeval chaos; God categorizes creatures and assigns them to their rightful place in relation to other creatures. Sadly, very early on in Genesis, Adam and Eve – tempted by the “Father of Lies” (Satan) – violate the divine order and unleash suffering and death into human existence. But God does not abandon his fallen human creatures, but rather, tries time and again, in many and various ways (as the Bible recounts), to communicate his love for humans and to invite them to love in return. The appropriate human response from God’s viewpoint clearly involves the practice of forgiveness and charity, and the treatment of all people as children of God who are brothers and sisters to be cared for.
The incarnation of Jesus only heightens the message. In him, God clothes himself in human flesh and walks with us. He is born into the human condition – by his choice – not with riches and power, but in poverty and obscurity. And when he begins his public ministry at the age of 30, he preaches primarily to the poor, the marginalized, the abandoned and the forgotten. He exhorts his followers, after the coming of the Spirit, to continue his mission of preaching, teaching, and healing; they are to care for the lost and the least, to bring good news to the poor, to extend compassion and forgiveness and liberation to all.
Ignatius Loyola would have known all this when the Society of Jesus came into existence in 1540. Recall that his founding vision was “apostolic” (in the sense of “modeled after the apostles”) – Jesuits were to wander the world in service of the Church Universal, “helping souls.” They (and their lay colleagues) were to bring the Good News of salvation in Jesus Christ, and to reinforce the credibility of that message by extending compassion, acceptance, respect, and reconciliation to all – especially where the need was greatest, and where no one else could or would go.
Thus, from very early on, the Jesuit house in Rome was known to provide food for the needy; and Ignatius spearheaded the creation of a home for unwed mothers and their children. In their foreign missionary work, Jesuits became known in many instances for respecting native languages and cultures, and for defending the human rights of indigenous peoples. And the practice of charity and care for the poor and needy was taught and encouraged in the growing network of Jesuit colleges from the earliest beginnings.
At the 32nd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1975, under the leadership of Superior General Pedro Arrupe, S.J., the assembled Jesuits from around the world wrote and adopted “Our Mission Today: The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice.” That document has become seminal and definitive for Jesuits and their lay colleagues ever since. It decreed unequivocally that “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”
By now, 38 years later, it is very clear that Ignatian “companions of Jesus,” whether Jesuit or lay, cannot claim to follow the Ignatian spiritual path without practicing concern for their sisters and brothers in need. The 34th General Congregation reminded us that Jesuit parishes are no exception: “In its service of the faith, a Jesuit parish is called upon to develop strategies to promote local and global justice by means of both personal conversion and structural change. Networking with other Jesuit apostolic works as well as other ecclesial and civil organizations, it opposes all forms of discrimination and contributes to a genuine culture of solidarity which transcends parish boundaries.”
So I urge you, sisters and brothers: have a closer look at that Lenten Cross project sponsored by the Social Justice Committee near the entrance to our church; and consider volunteering for the Parish Day of Service on March 23. As the apostle James reminds us in his epistle: “If a brother or sister has nothing to wear and has no food for the day, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, keep warm, and eat well,’ but you do not give them the necessities of the body, what good is it? So also faith of itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (2:15-17).
©2013 Fr. Daniel M. Ruff, S.J.