Category: Jesuit


The Holy Name

AMDG

859744_10151803274681496_264154740_oYesterday was the Titular Feast of the Society of Jesus. ‘The most Holy Name of Jesus’.  The Jesuit ‘mother-church’ in Rome is the Church of the Gesu.  Originally here in Manchester the founding fathers of the mission wished to call our church the Gesu – but the bishop of Salford, Bishop Turner, rightly  intervened and said it would sound a bit weird.  We have to remember that in 1870′s Catholicism was only just re-emerging into British public life and there was an acute sensibility to how we would be re-established.  So following his advice, the Gesu became the Holy Name.  Yesterday Pope Francis celebrated the feast of the Holy Name with Jesuits in the Gesu. It was a great occasion – and a double celebration of the Holy Name and the canonisation of the Jesuit Peter Faber.

In his homily, Pope Francis praised Faber’s “restlessness” to his brother Jesuits: “This is the restlessness that Peter Faber had, a man of great dreams.” He was, said the Pope, a “modest man, sensitive, with a deep inner life and endowed with the gift of making friends with people of all kinds…… However, he was also a restless spirit, indecisive, never satisfied…He was a man of great desires, and he took charge of his desires, recognized them….. An authentic faith always implies a deep desire to change the world. Here’s the question we must ask ourselves: Do we also have great vision and momentum? Are we too bold? Do our dreams aim high? Does our zeal devour us (cf. Ps 69.10) or are we mediocre and are satisfied?”

1601218_10151803281286496_1118849445_nAt the end of mass a gift (seen on the right)  was presented to Pope Francis by the postulator of the cause of St. Peter Faber, Father Anton Witwer, SJ, and the Vice-Postulator Father Marc Lindeijer, SJ. It is a facsimile of the Final Vows of St. Peter Faber in 1541.  Final Vows represent the full incorporation of a man into the Society of Jesus – often taking place 20 or so years after you entered as a novice.  Every Jesuit takes simple and perpetual vows after two years in the Novitiate. One way of looking at it that at First Vows, you accept the Society; at Final Vows, the Society accepts you, “for better or worse.”  Final Vows included a Fourth Vow of obedience to the Pope – to be available to be sent anywhere on Mission.  At end of the final vow mass – the now fully professed Jesuit will take 5 Private Vows in the Sacristy – surrounded by his fellow Jesuits.   These vows show how well St. Ignatius understood human nature and are described very well by James Martin –   First, there is a  vow never to change anything in the Jesuit Constitutions about poverty–unless to make it “more strict.”  Second, a vow never to “strive or ambition” for any dignity in the church, like becoming a bishop.  Third, never to “strive or ambition” for any high office in the Jesuits.  Fourth, if we find out that someone is striving for these things, we are to “communicate his name” to the Society.  (A friend calls this the vow to rat out someone, but it’s another indication of how much Ignatius wanted to eliminate ambition, as far as possible, from the Jesuits.)  Finally, we take a vow that, if we are somehow made bishop, we will still listen to the superior general.

Debating Atheism

AMDG

The lecture theater filling up

The lecture theater filling up

I was invited today by Manchester Students Debating Union to oppose the motion ‘This house would not believe in God‘.  Speaking for the motion was the Philosopher Helen Beebee, and another atheist philosopher who I forget his name.  Opposing it was myself, Writer and Columnist Peter Hitchens and a professor of Biblical Studies…..  we lost (boo hoo!) … overwhelmingly, it seems that atheism is the new cool.  Anyway for what it is worth I am posting up my speech.  It is interesting to note that 250 students attended – sitting in the aisles – so the question holds great interest to them 

Thank you for inviting me to speak today – I strongly commend the Debating Society for organising this debate.  To believe in God or not to believe in God is one of the most important decisions you will make in your life.  My speech has two parts – 1. God as a concept  …… 2. How useful or dangerous is faith?

1.   God as a concept

I studied philosophy at Edinburgh Uni, before I even considered the priesthood.  We looked at a lot of analytical philosophy, discussions about what could be said and what could not be said.  Famously a school of philosophy called the logical positivists had said that the statement ‘ God exists’ was cognitively meaningless – i.e. saying God exists didn’t tell us anything meaningful about what we can know of the world out there.  Why was it meaningless?  ‘God exists’ could not be empirically tested, nor did it contain its truth within itself, like an analytical statement would e.g. 2+2=4.  It was therefore meaningless…..

How does religion talk about God? Often the starting point is through its sacred texts – e.g. The Bible / The Koran.  Believers call this revelation – revealed truth.  If we don’t accept the idea of revelation then in many ways the Logical Positivists are right – language reaches its meaningful limits when we start talking about God.  This is called the problem of religious language.  Faced with this problem we have two options –either the existence of God is meaningless – which is tantamount to saying God as a concept is irrelevant  (first way) -  or the second way is that we are humble in front of the mystery of our limitations – i.e. just because we don’t know – it doesn’t mean we have to dismiss it.

wittgensteinAt this point in my studies I discovered the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein who would become a hero of mine. What I love about Wittgenstein is his philosophy is based on a deep engagement with the world.  He wasn’t just living in an Ivory Tower – He was a stretcher bearer in the First World War – he taught young children in a rural school.  He published 2 major works  –…. The first one the Tractatus is a masterpiece in Analytical Philosophy – and he gets to that impass I just described, the limits of language and opts for the humble approach. The famous last statement says Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.  He was humble in front of the mystery of what we don’t know.

 The second major book was the Philosophical Investigations and he changed his views radically.  He realised the analytical approach was limited. Because we think in words – We have no access to our own minds, non-linguistically. The meaning of words is formed by what we do, Language acquisition is how we learn to act as we are growing up ….. In the same way we have no access to God, independently of our life and language or ‘language games’ as he called them.  So talking about God only makes sense within a religious language game.  So to answer the question about the existence of God is not about analysing a word or an idea, the existence of God becomes a question of how credible that language game is.

So we can debate God as an idea – it may be intellectually stimulating – but we will never convince each other with way – but maybe very congenial over a couple of glasses of wine…… If we are serious about this question we need to look at how people of faith live and judge that – and I think that becomes much more fruitful.

2. Faith is it useful or dangerous?  

My answer to that is both – there is good faith and bad faith. For me it’s quite simple good faith encourages you to love more – bad faith increases hate and sectarianism.   It’s best if I stick to my faith.  I am 39 years old. When I was 23 I left my girlfriend who I was deeply in love with and started training to become a priest – you know Catholic priests can’t marry.  It was a big sacrifice – and one I made grudgingly. But we both knew that I wouldn’t be fulfilled unless I tried this out.  I joined an order of Catholic priests called the Jesuits –  we are known for our long and rigorous training. Pope Francis is a Jesuit. The first two years I was a Jesuit novice – it is a probationary period.  I was sent to work in Brixton Prison, Teach in a comprehensive School in London & live with Gypsys in Ireland.  The heart of these two years is a thirty day silent retreat called the Spiritual Exercises.  Before then I nearly quit especially during the work in the prison.  During the 30 days of silence I had the most profound experiences of my life – Ever since then I am convinced that God exists. Because of this after my two years as a novice I took perpetual vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

I have never yet regretted that decision – not once.  In fact I think I have learnt the meaning of Joy since then, and I have studied 4 more degrees in theology, psychology and education.  I have worked in incredible places. In Tanzania teaching Aids Orphans, in India with the untouchables – training teachers, in North London working with gangs, and in the shanty towns in Manila.   At the heart of this has been my faith in God – God is real to me not just an idea. So it is up to you – to decide whether I am mad or delusional.  But I have seen with my own eyes – on a planet of 7 billion people  religion is increasingly important for the vast majority of them.   Now of course there is good religion and bad religion.

So to conclude – if you want to keep this debate at the level of ideas then we won’t really get  anywhere fast -  its important to realise what a huge influence religion has for good and bad in the vast majority of peoples lives on this planet – and you can judge how important my faith is to me by the decision I’ve made in my life – the experiences I’ve had.  I am a very committed religious person – its up to you to decide whether I am mad or wasting my life.

AMDG

Icon of Pierre Favre by Fr. William McNichols

Icon of Pierre Favre by Fr. William McNichols

There have been many whispers but today it seems to be confirmed in the Italian Press.  Pierre Favre, the first Jesuit priest (he was already ordained when he joined with the group of men who were gathering around St Ignatius in Paris) is to be declared a saint in December.   This is a great joy for many of us Jesuits, he is often quoted as being one of the favourite first companions but relatively unknown outside of the Society of Jesus.  It seem that Pope Francis shares his fellow Jesuits affection for this great man.  In the interview he gave to Jesuit magazines including Thinking Faith  in October the Pope said this about Favre,

“[His] dialogue with all, even the most remote and even with his opponents; his simple piety, a certain naïveté perhaps, his being available straightaway, his careful interior discernment, the fact that he was a man capable of great and strong decisions but also capable of being so gentle and loving.”

Pope Francis PrayingPierre Favre (or Peter Faber) was highly esteemed by St Ignatius as the companion he trusted the most to give the Spiritual Exercises.  He had a remarkable skill in what we call ‘spiritual conversation’. a great preacher, and a remarkable ability to reconcile warring factions, particular families that were divided.  This ‘spiritual skill set’ which would be valuable at any time was especially needed in the spiritual fractious times of the Reformation.  He was sent by St Ignatius to be a ‘periti’ (an expert) at the Council of Trent.  His reputation grew so fast that the he was missioned directly by popes and sent into flash points in Germany such as Speyer, Mainz, and Cologne,  where Catholic Bishops were teteering towards Lutheranism.

Antonio Spadaro who gave the interview to Pope Francis provides this commentary As Pope Francis lists these personal characteristics of his favorite Jesuit I understand just how much this figure has truly been a model for his own life. Michel de Certeau, S.J., characterised Faber simply as “the reformed priest,” for whom interior experience, dogmatic expression and structural reform are intimately inseparable. I begin to understand, therefore, that Pope Francis is inspired precisely by this kind of reform.

Already beatifed, Pope Francis is following a  process for Favre’s canonization called “equivalent canonization” – when he omits the judicial process and ceremonies involved and orders the new saint to be venerated in the Universal Church.  John Paul II, decreed 3 such canonizations, Benedict XVI decreed 1Here is a link to the report http://vaticaninsider.lastampa.it/en/the-vatican/detail/articolo/favre-gesuita-santo-30065/

Unblocking Romero

AMDG

Statue of Oscar Romero outside Westminster Abbey

Statue of Oscar Romero outside Westminster Abbey

We had a special night last Thursday here in Manchester hosting the Romero Trust and Fr Timothy Radcliffe OP. Fr Timothy gave an engrossing talk entitled the Disturbing Truth, Oscar Romero, The Church & the Poor – he spoke with a compassion and authority that kept the packed church of 400+ gripped. Oscar Romero was the Bishop of El Salvador who was killed in 1980 for his commitment to the poor.  We were reminded how this quiet, ‘bookish’ bishop was ‘converted’ to the cause of the poor, when he looked on the bullet ridden body of his friend the Jesuit Rutilio Grande who had been assassinated by right wing paramilitaries.  Romero spoke out fearlessly against the repression of the poor from that point on – till it became inevitable that he would have to be silenced.  He was shot dead during mass in his Cathedral, and it was shocking to find out that when they prepared his body for burial they discovered that the inside of his trousers was coated with salt.  It is probable that he saw the assassin at the back of the cathedral before he was shot – and that the anxiety caused an excessive sweating – but he would not abandon the prayer of the mass.

 Timothy Radcliffe lecture 31 10 2013 (6)People came from all over the North of England to hear Fr Radcliffe – and it was clear that there is a great love for Romero. So it is heartening to hear that Pope Francis has unblocked his cause for canonisation.   Timothy argued that for Romero, the fundamental moral choice was between dialogue and violence. Patient dialogue is not about negotiation but transformation. The deepest truths are only attainable through patient exchange, building friendship, transforming our hearts and minds. It is the very opposite of violence. Britain at one level is more tolerant than El Salvador was in the 80’s however a more subtle dynamic of violence is at work.  In modern Britain, the contempt for the poor often takes the form of contrasting the so-called good, hard-working poor, and the imagined multitude of ‘skivers’, parasites devouring benefits.  The uncomfortable truth is that the vast majority of poor people in this country work but simply are not paid enough.  Romero had to be assassinated because he refused to collude in the myth of the wickedness of the poor.

Timothy Radcliffe lecture 31 10 2013 (105) In giving a vote of thanks, Eammon O’Brien, the president of the Manchester Universities’ Catholic Chaplaincy, commended Timothy for inspiring a new generation of Catholics.  He pointed out that the Chaplaincy has just opened the first student-run foodbank in the country, and that his words would inspire them to deepen their commitment to the poor through the regular soup runs, and supporting a breakfast club at a local primary school.  They would challenge the globalisation of indifference and the denigrating language of the poor. It was great to have Bishop Brain of Salford & Bishop Rawsthorne of Hallam with us for the talk.

AMDG          (An edited version of this first appeared in yesterdays Manchester Evening News )

logoTwiplomacy‘ is the leading global study on world leaders on Twitter. With nearly 80% of presidents, prime ministers and leaders having a Twitter account – communication has never been so direct, theoretically it allows citizens access to their leaders.  Twiplomacy analyses how often leaders tweet, who they follow, how often they are mentioned, retweeted, listed etc.  You may be surprised that the most influential world leader according to them is @pontifex, Pope Francis. Although with over 10 million followers on his different language accounts (the Pope tweets in English, Spanish, French, Italian, Polish, Portuguese, German, Arabic and of course Latin!) he is second to Barack Obama (35 million) – Twiplomacy deem him to be the most influential leader as he is retweeted the most (over 22,000 times a day – to Obamas 2,000).

Commentators are talking about the ‘Francis Effect’.   His simplicity, how comfortable he is in his own skin, his authenticity. He is not a man to be led around by bureaucrats, yes men, spin doctors or dubious “advisors,” but instead follows his own heart.  Most Catholics are amazed that his honeymoon period continues.  As a Jesuit I was quite anxious when he was elected Pope, it is like a member of the family becoming Prime Minister, you are waiting for the flak to start flying – now we are all quietly proud of the job he is doing. It is a breath of fresh air for many Catholics, used to a certain siege mentality and being mistrustful of the media. In a cynical world it seems as though Francis has become a symbol of hope for many – this is a guy who practices what he preaches.

pope-francis-tweetTwo recent lengthy interviews have been caused a great stir in Catholic circles.  The first one – to a consortium of Jesuit Journals including the British on-line journal Thinking Faith caused headlines when he criticised the careerism and the court around the Vatican.  The second interview was to an atheist and founder of the Italian newspaper La Republica. Perhaps most significant in this interview is when Francis talked about a mystical experience he had at the daunting moment of his election.  In his own words ‘I asked if I could spend a few minutes in the room next to the one with the balcony overlooking the square. My head was completely empty and I was seized by a great anxiety. To make it go way and relax I closed my eyes and made every thought disappear, even the thought of refusing to accept the position, as the liturgical procedure allows. I closed my eyes and I no longer had any anxiety or emotion. At a certain point I was filled with a great light. It lasted a moment, but to me it seemed very long. Then the light faded, I got up suddenly and walked into the room where the cardinals were waiting and the table on which was the act of acceptance. I signed it, the Cardinal Camerlengo countersigned it and then on the balcony there was the ‘”Habemus Papam”.  Some commentators have suggested that this experience may explain both his freedom and his boldness.

As the endless blogs, commentaries and analysis goes on of this remarkable papacy.  One thing is for sure – Pope Francis has the desire and the will to reach out beyond the comfort zone of believers to speak to the whole world – and he is an effective communicator.  For the record – here are some of my favourite quotes so far.

On not following the crowd ‘If you swim against the tide you get strong heart’

On the futility of materialism ‘You never see a removal van following a hearse’

On reform  ‘The church that lives in the sacristy gets sick’

On the environment  ‘Right now, we don’t have a very good relation with creation’

On Vanity ‘Look at the peacock; it’s beautiful if you look at it from the front. But if you look at it from behind, you discover the truth’

On Himself …“I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.

Heroic Faith (2)

AMDG

Walter-Ciszek-SJFather Walter Ciszek is an American Jesuit who spent 23 years as a priest in Soviet prisons and doing hard labour in Siberia, from  1940-1963. His time included 5 years in the infamous Lubyanka prison in Moscow, and 15 years in a Siberia mainly working in and around the town of Norilsk.  He has written a mesmerising account of those years which has been recently republished by Ignatius Press, it is called ‘With God in Russia’.

Reading the book is a testament to an incredibly tough guy – who also seemed to be blessed with a deep faith and outstanding pastoral skills.  His survival was a miracle in itself – enduring long periods of isolation and interrogation in Moscow.  Then the harrowing stories of him being transported to Siberia after being sentenced as a ‘Vatican Spy’ to 15 years hard-labour.  The conditions which he endured as they left Moscow which was under prolonged attack by the Germans.

With God in RussiaThe account is absorbing and well worth reading, told with clarity, without sentimentality, at times so crisply that it catches the breath – the terrible hardship and cruelty expressed in a couple of sentences.  Highlights for me include –

  • His faith in God’s providence that helped him beyond the limits of physical endurance, with never any hint of feeling sorry for himself (maybe twice in the whole book did he momentarily succumb to despair)
  • How when in solitary confinement – for months on end – he would order his day around the ‘ordo’ he remembered in the novitiate – from his Jesuit training, to keep him from going mad.
  • How his fellow prisoners, even the violent thieves, were keen to protect him as a priest in a savage world of survival.  How well organised he and the other priests became – and the remarkable ministry they were able to give in secret – sacramental, but also giving retreats!
  • His constant and varied scrapes with Death – Physical Torture, beaten and being injected with chemicals by KGB, Explosions in Coal Mines, Being fired on by Russian Soldiers during a prison revolt, Immersion in Freezing Rivers when logging, Surviving Scurvy from inadequate prison rations, Acute Food Poisoning, prolonged periods of starvation, Constant exposure to arctic conditions in inadequate clothing, Fumigation on two week barge journey etc etc!
  • The risks prisoners would take, even unto death, to hear Mass or go to confession – their courage of practising their faith in the face of brutal repression
  • And finally how he celebrated Easter and Christmas both in captivity and then when he was released on a limited permit.  When he was freed, he celebrated an Easter Vigil that finished at 3am – although communion was distributed from then until after 9am so big were the crowds. Right under the noses of the KGB.  It was such a success – with so much joy – with so great numbers greeting each other  ‘ Christ is Risen’ – ‘He is risen in indeed’ that he was forcefully deported to another town and banned from religious activities!

 

AMDG

imagesReading the wonderful interview that Pope Francis gave to Thinking Faith and other Jesuit journals last week – what comes across is the great freedom with which he speaks and also the humility with which he looks back on his past.  There is an interesting parallel between him and St Ignatius the founder of the Jesuits.  When we were Jesuit novices we had seminars on what is referred to as the ‘autobiography’ of Ignatius.  This was written towards the end of his life, somewhat reluctantly, Ignatius was wary of vainglory.  He had been urged by the young members of his new order to leave them an account of his life before he died, he seem to avoid it,  but eventually he submitted and dictated his memories to a young Jesuit – Goncalves de Camara.

autobiography-st-ignatius-loyola-paperback-cover-artAt a time when saint’s lives where often written after their death by their adoring followers, the literary style was usually hagiographic.  Emphasising their virtues, downplaying or ignoring their vices, often from a desire to inspire devotion – the result was that the Saints lives didn’t seem very human, or distant from what many of experience in normal life.  Ignatius is determined in his autobiography to do the opposite – he wants to show young Jesuits and also those who read about his life, about his mistakes and how God has worked through them and transformed him.  Some historians even think that de Camara ‘toned’ down some of the passages, particularly of Ignatius as a young man in order not to cause a scandal.

Pope Francis’s interview comes across in a similar tone.  He speaks frankly, and without excuses or self pity about the mistakes he made as a young Jesuit.  He was put in as a provincial in his thirties, a very young age, and in his own words ‘My authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems’ How refreshing it is to hear the Pope talk in such ways.  Francis talks about a period of ‘great interior crisis’ in Cordoba– – again mirroring Ignatius who went through great spiritual turmoil in Manresa after his initial conversion and overly zealous ways.  I am convinced that in life we often learn more about ourselves through failure than success – as long as we are supported through our failures in a loving environment.  Both Francis and Ignatius give testament to this, and theirs is the ultimate loving environment – an regular, deep and intimate prayer life.  This is  how grace works through weakness. This is easy to forget when we have an education system that is obsessed with measurable success.  

If you have a bit of time – read the Pope’s interview – and if you are too busy, make time!!

AMDG

downloadJust finished reading an excellent book on the Pope called ‘Pope Francis - Untying the Knots’ by Paul Vallely.  Of all the books rushed out to capitalise on the widespread interest of a new pope – this seems to be the best so far in English. The title is well chosen because it refers to a painting of Our Lady – Untier of Knots that Bergoglio has a special devotion for, but also refers to the task that the author was facing looking at a complicated life of a Jesuit who has often found himself in leadership roles, often in very difficult circumstances, with a legacy that isn’t straightforward to tease out.  I think the author seems to do a fairly good job.  However what was fascinating for me – was the account of Bergoglio’s ‘intervention’ (speech) which made such a big impact amongst the other cardinals at the general congregation before  the conclave started.  Unlike many of the other speeches, which have been reported as being inward looking – this electrified the synod hall – because it was simple, spiritual, theological and most important from the heart.  

download (1)The only purpose of the Church is to go and out and tell the world the good news about Jesus Christ.  Evangelizing presupposes in the Church the “parresia” of coming out from itself. The Church is called to come out from itself and to go to the peripheries, not only geographical, but also existential: those of the mystery of sin, of suffering, of injustice, those of ignorance and of the absence of faith, those of thought, those of every form of misery.

When the Church does not come out from itself to evangelize it becomes self-referential and gets sick (one thinks of the woman hunched over upon herself in the Gospel). This self-referentiality, is a sort of theological narcissism. In Revelation, Jesus says that he is standing at the threshold and calling. We often assume that the text refers to the fact that he stands outside the door and knocks to enter. . . But at times I think that Jesus may be knocking from the inside, that we may let him out. The self-referential Church presumes to keep Jesus Christ within itself and not let him out.

mq1The Church, when it is self-referential, without realizing it thinks that it has its own light; it stops being the “mysterium lunae”.  The mystery of the moon is that it has no light but simply reflects the light of the sun.  When the church thinks it gives out its own light it gives rise to a grave evil, that of spiritual worldliness (according to Henri De Lubac, the worst evil into which the Church can fall).  To simplify, there are two images of the Church: the evangelizing Church that goes out from itself; or the worldly Church that lives in itself, of itself, for itself. 

Thinking of the next Pope: a man who, through the contemplation of Jesus Christ and the adoration of Jesus Christ, may help the Church to go out from itself toward the existential peripheries, that may help it to be the fecund mother who lives “by the sweet and comforting joy of evangelizing.”

The speech delivered in Italian – was short – just over 3 minutes, but it made a big impact.  Cardinal Schonborn turned to a neighbour and said – ‘That’s what we need’.  Cardinal Ortega from Havana asked Bergoglio later if he could have a copy to distribute.  It was only a few scribbled notes, but overnight Bergoglio transcribed from memory what he said and passed it on, giving permission for it to be put up on the website of the Archdiocesis of Havana in Cuba.  My version (above) is a mixture of Vallely’s, Sandro Magisters and my own translation.

700_dettaglio2_Paolo-dallOglioAMDG

Fr Paolo Dall’Oglio SJ has been a leader among Christians in Syria.  In 1992 he re-founded an abandoned ancient monastery in  the desert North of Damascus as a place for reconciliation and inter-faith dialogue.  It is becoming more and more famous as a pilgrimage site, attracting over 50,000 pilgrims last year, the majority being Muslims.  At the bottom of the post is a short documentary about the monastery ‘Deir Mar Musa made by an Italian NGO’.  Fr Dall’Oglio has received a prize from the President of Lombardy for his work for peace.  Since then – controversially – he has decided that non-violence is no longer an option in the face of what he has described as Assads ‘ethnic cleansing’ policy of Sunni’s.  In the face of this people have a right to defend themselves he claims.

_66206220_syria_damascus_raqqa_0313As his stance hardened he was told to leave the country by the Assad regime.  After he published an open letter to the UN and special envoy Kofi Annan, his local bishop insisted he heeded the threats and he went into exile.  As things deteriorated in Syria and Christian groups were targeted more and more – he gave this interview from Paris just before a Catholic priest was shot dead inside his church in June. The interview was given to a group called Syria Deeply.   Since the interview Fr Dall’Oglio has returned to Syria – and was kidnapped in the rebel held town of  Raqqa on 29 July by the militants of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, There are claims that he has been executed by the extremist group. The claims are not yet confirmed.

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SD (Syria Deeply): Is that kind of reconciliation possible in Syria today, a country whose diverse ethnic and religious groups are being torn apart by the conflict?

PD: My position is we need to bring back all the sectors, all the facets of the Syrian population, in order to bring back this harmony that was the pride of the whole country. That so many communities were able to live together in the same society… it’s certainly one of the reasons why I fell in love with the country. And also because it was still outside the Western way of life, there was less consumerism, and traditions were so alive, such great hospitality, such an understanding of how to live together. Everything is lost now, and we need to rebuild on a solid foundation.

SD: Is this why you’ve chosen to risk sneaking back into Syria on two occasions now to meet with opposition activist groups?

PD: And I will go again. I hope to work with television to show and to help the civil society take root and grow.

SD: You’ve met with everyone from Kurds to Jihadists…

PD: I don’t like the word Jihadist. Jihad simply means ‘holy effort or struggle.’ There are Christians whose first name is Jihad, bishops with the first name of Jihad. I prefer to say ‘militarized extremists’.

SD: You met with militarized extremists who oppose the Assad regime.

PD: Yes, [the Syrian state news agency] then accused me of being imbedded with Islamist extremists and paid by Al-Qaeda.

SD: And for you, such meetings are all essential steps in a roadmap to peace?

PD: Absolutely, because at the same time we fight our fight for peace in Syria, we need to prepare the ground for reconciliation. Take the Alawite clan [Bashar al-Assad’s clan], they are not all criminals, there are very good people among them, but they are kidnapped by the logic of community solidarity to serve the regime. They too are victims of the regime.

SD: Your mission has clearly expanded far beyond furthering Islamic-Christian understanding.

PD: I am fully engaged in Islamic-Christian harmony building, but today I’m also in the service of Islamic-Islamic harmony building. We want next Ramadan to be a time for prayer and action for the reconciliation between Sunnis and Shiites.

SD: Are the types of causes you’ve taken up typical of a Jesuit?

PD: The Jesuits are an order of priests committed to the service of the gospel and souls, but not in an artificial way—we are very much for engaging and compromising in the society, by fighting for justice, for [community] development and human development, and for inter-religious dialogue and harmony building. Such has been my commitment… and in this I’m certainly very Jesuit.

SD: I’d like to understand what moved you to settle in Syria 30 years ago. What did you discover in the ruins of Mar Musa monastery in 1982, and what did you later try to build there?

PD: Simply, it’s a place of hospitality in the name of Abraham… In fact, traditionally, the Christian monastery in the desert is an organic part of the Islamic symbolic system, in literature, in relations between spiritual leaders, and in the massive flow of visitors—especially pious visitors. This began immediately after we opened our doors—up to 50,000 visitors in the year, the vast majority of them Muslims. Even now, in this difficult moment, this site is protected by the Muslim population.

SD: Were you able to function more or less freely for a time under al-Assad?

PD: The Syrian State is made up of people, yes it was kidnapped by the regime, but it still was a state with its ministries. So I worked with the ministries of agriculture on the environment, with culture on historic monuments and restorations, with tourism on development. The regime was always there watching, but I was in a sincere relationship with the state… But when we started to oppose corruption, then I was recognized as an enemy of the regime, and all my activities were shut down, game over. That was 2010.

SD: People had initially been hopeful about al-Assad as President.

PD: We had hoped that Mr. Bashar Assad would change his country, and free his people… The Syrian people who remembered the Hama uprising in 1982 knew this regime was capable of massacres, yet they hoped slowly there could be a shift to a new era of real democracy, even in small steps. They said, ok you stole all the money, fine enjoy it, but change the system. You have half the country for yourselves, fine, keep it, but let the people breathe. You have an enormous amount of power, fine, but start to share it. This was the hope. And it didn’t work. When our youth started the Arab Spring, they said enough is enough, obliging all of us to stand for freedom, and to stop this game.

SD: How has your perspective on Syria changed since you’ve been in exile?

PD: I’m really outside today, and being outside I find myself in the company of an entire people in exile. I meet with Syrians who have been in exile for 20 or 40 years, second generation expelled people. When you meet with a group of 15 Syrians outside the country, you have stories of years spent in prison and an incredible amount of suffering, violence and torture that has been witnessed—it is unbelievable. I want to raise up the voices of these people asking for freedom, democracy and justice.

SD: What do you believe those supporting the regime are fighting to preserve—the status quo?

PD: Today the regime is using actors in different sectors, Muslim leaders, Christian leaders, journalists, and working to convince them that the regime, although not the best in town, is better than anything that could come after them. They don’t pretend to be good, but the theory is the alternative could be worse. They say, look at Afghanistan, at Iraq, it didn’t work. Somalia was a disaster. Look what’s happening in Libya. In Tunisia and Egypt the Muslim radicals are taking power. So why do we want change in Syria if it’s to be the same story?

It’s to the point that today, you have Marxist anti-imperialists on the extreme left who are for Bashar [al-Assad], and who go march for him in the street alongside the right wing Christian traditionalists… both out of Islamophobia.

I see these [Syrian] Christians as victims too of what’s happening, they’re trapped in the middle, unable to believe in the revolution, in democracy, having been educated from their early days to believe that democracy is part of a big conspiracy, a big lie of [Western] imperialism. So they go under the protection of the regime thinking without it they will be forced into exile.

SD: You were exiled soon after the massacre of Houla, was that a turning point in the conflict for you?

PD: Yes, in the sense that it was the moment when my calls to the international community to act in a nonviolent way to protect the freedom of the Syrian people in their pacifist protest ended in a failure, where the international community was unable to act. The regime chose to use more and more violent repression, until it reached the point of massacre.

SD: At that point you decided a violent response to this repression was justified?

PD: The moment came when I said people have the right to defend themselves. The soldiers that have left the army so that they won’t be forced to shoot their own people, they have the right and the duty to protect the people. And when a democratic civil society is pleading not to be destroyed by violent repression and torture, the international community should help

Simple Vows

AMDG

ign_image_17Today is the feast of the Assumption of Our Lady, where Catholics believe Mary was taken body & soul into heaven.  It is also the day that St. Ignatius chose as a historic day for the Jesuits.  Ignatius and his first six  companions, Faber, Xavier, Laynez, Rodriguez, Salmeron,  Bobadilla took first simple vows at Mass celebrated by Faber.  As James Brodrick wrote in his excellent book, – The companions repaired together at dawn to a little unused chapel half-way up the slopes of Montmarte, and there, unobserved except by God, burned their boats behind them during a Mass celebrated by Favre.  It was the quietest ceremony, that laying of  the foundation stone of the society of Jesus, so quiet that even the seven themselves had no inkling of what they had started.

Traditionally it became the day when many Jesuits took their vows – Why did these founding Jesuits choose to take their vows on this feast day?  It is day I and many other Jesuits privately renew our vows….  Why did Ignatius choose the feast of the Assumption?

9780300060799_p0_v1_s260x420It is clear that his devotion to Our Lady was intense even in an age when Marian devotion was becoming increasingly polemical due to the newly established Protestant sects. In Ignatius life as in the life of the Church it had acquired considerable popular force.  At Key moments in Ignatius’s mystical life Mary was very close, his vigils at Aranzazu and Monsteratt, his petition at La Storta that he may be placed ‘with the son’ . William Meissner, a Jesuit Psychologist, describes this as a  balance to an image of God that was being progressively masculinised. Mary could bring a mothers love and understanding to the inadequacies and anxieties of her children and plead their case before divine judgement.   She has become for many Catholics the idealised image of maternal concern.   So for Ignatius, this feast which emphasises Marys special place in heaven in the church is supplemented by their offering and making these simple and perpetual vows.  As Broderick says – they really have burnt their boats here – and they do so confidently under the mantle of the Assumption.

assumpWhen Pope  declared the doctrine of the Assumption as infallible in 1950,  Protestants were angry because it wasn’t in Scripture. The recently deceased John Edwards SJ pointed out with delicious irony that the (Anglican) Archbishop of York, standing beneath his cathedral’s 600 year old Assumption roof-boss, deplored it as an innovation. The position of the Orthodox was more nuanced: they believed it, of course, but were furious that the Pope had defined it.  Whatever the controversy – devotion to Our Lady is as strong as ever in world-wide Catholicism, and this day is celebrated with great joy as it was in the ancient church before we all started feuding.  It is in the spirit of this joy and wonder that some of us Jesuits renew our vows, that we can offer our own ‘little-lives’ in imitation of Mary’s incredible openness and generosity with God.

 

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