FATHER PIERRE BELANGER, COMMUNICATION TEAM OF THE GENERAL CURIA OF THE SOCIETY OF JESUS – The Jesuits have never abandoned the idea of serving the people of China

– Marco Carvalho

The connection between China and the Society of Jesus is almost as old as the Jesuits themselves. China remains an important focus for the members of the religious order founded in 1534 by Saint Ignatius of Loyola. The Jesuits, Father Pierre Belanger guarantees, are still committed to serve the people of China, notwithstanding the difficulties that arose from the foundation of the People’s Republic of China. A Canadian-born Jesuit, Pierre Belanger is a member of the communication team of the General Curia of the Society of Jesus. He was recently in Macau and spoke with O Clarim on behalf of Arturo Sosa, the Superior-General of the Society of Jesus. In the Special Administrative Region, he was a witness to the jubilee  ceremony of Luis Sequeira, Gregory Koay and Ives Camus, companions of Jesus that devoted more than half of their lives to the ideals of Ignatius of Loyola or Francis Xavier. The future of the Society, Father Belanger claims, is to  reinforce the closeness to the poorest of the poor.

How important was this celebration, not only for them – who have turned one more page in a very long journey – but also for the Society of Jesus? We have witnessed the jubilation of a Sino-Malaysian priest, a Portuguese priest and a French priest. This is an almost perfect depiction of what the Society of Jesus has always been … How important was this celebration?

First of all, I would say that it has happened on the occasion of the Superior-General’s visit to the Chinese province: first in Macau, then in Hong Kong and a few days later in Taiwan. It is for him the opportunity to be with the Jesuits in different parts of the world. He does this several times a year, in different parts of the world. The Chinese province, which has Father Stephen Chow as a provincial, decided to take the opportunity of this visit so we could celebrate with the jubilarians. Within the Chinese province there are indeed Jesuits coming from several countries, but it is no exception. We are four, coming from Rome, and we are also coming from four different countries or even from different parts of the world. Our Father-general is from Venezuela, Father Magadia is from the Philippines, Father D’Cunha is from Índia and I am from Quebec, Canada. It is for us a way to insist on the fact that someone – like the three priests that we have celebrated here in Macau – do not enter a province of the Society of Jesus, but the universal Society of Jesus. We are at the service of the universal Society of Jesus. This celebration was an opportunity to underline or highlight this universality. It was one of the main reasons for having this celebration in Macau.

Macau has a special place, a special importance in the history of the Society of Jesus. It was one of the first doors to China. Is Macau still an important place to reach the Chinese Catholics? Is China still a sort of “Holy Grail” to the Jesuits?

China? Oh, I see what you mean. Since the time of Francis Xavier, China has been the focus of our attention. The Jesuits are not perfect, so they learn, which is a good thing. This is something that we do, even nowadays. Francis Xavier, himself, did not find a way to get into China, but very soon after him Matteo Ricci was really able to find the right door. And what was the right door? A door of exchange on the cultural level, a door that really meant to be with the people of China at his time. This has remained, I think, an important focus of the Jesuit presence in China at different moments of the life and of the journey of the Society. Even after the difficulties that were faced during the arrival of Mao Zedong and the Communist regime, the Jesuits have never abandoned the idea of serving the people of China. That has been done in different ways and it also being done at this time, within the possibilities of our time,  with the low key style that it is necessary to be able to serve. The principle is find always the right way to serve people in China who could profit from the experience or the knowledge that the Society of Jesus can bring under spiritual and under human levels.

You were focusing on the aspect of knowledge. The Society of Jesus was always different from the remaining orders, I would say, precisely because of that appeal of trying to know God, trying to know men through knowledge. Is this still an important aspect of how the Jesuits live their vocation?

Yes. The formation is still something of the foremost importance. It is true that usually Jesuits have a longer formation than most of the other orders. It is even more true if we are talking about the Diocesan priests, who do not have that vocation or that universal sense of their vocation that all Jesuits should have. Even if a Jesuit stays in his province, he has always to be ready to be sent anywhere else and to use all the tools that he received during his formation. More than that, I would say that during the last ten years, there has been a new insistence on the importance of the depth in which we are present in all fields of knowledge and in the world outside. Nowadays people are expecting quality in relationship with the religious aspect or the spiritual aspect of their lives. Piety is no longer sufficient for the vast majority of learned people in any country. So, in that way, the Jesuits could and should be more prepared, because they do not build their religious ways of living their lives only on practices of religion on pious ways, but they always try to give some roots in human knowledge, in different fields. Normally, in fact, we continue to have Jesuits interested in a large variety of fields, we advise them to have some kind of specialization to be able to serve in these fields.

The Church, as a universal entity, faces a crisis of vocations. Or at least the so called “Old World”. Does the Society of Jesus face the same sort of problem? In terms of vocations, are there still many young people willing to follow the steps of Ignatius of Loyola or Francis Xavier?

Is there a crisis of vocations? There are maybe less vocations of priests, of people  following the traditional ways of entering the religious orders or even priests in many parts of the world, but we believe that, in fact, we are living in a new age in the sense that it is the time to share their responsibilities with a large number of people who have the vocation of serving the Church in different ways, even if they are not a part of a religious order or if they are not priests. I am talking about men here. But now, at this age of equality between men and women, the vocations should not be equaled too strongly to the vocation of priests and religious figures in the traditional sense. I think that there are less people who take that path, but there could be many more vocations, in fact of serving in the world and in the church, through the spirit of the Gospel. In the Society of Jesus, yes, there are less people entering. In general, all over the world, the diminishing of Jesuits continues at a slow rhythm. I think that it depends on the parts of the world we are talking about but, generally speaking, what the Father-general says is that this is not his main concern. His concern is that the Jesuits could be there to encourage young people to enter into their own vocation and that could be different from ours.

That’s one of the challenges. What are the other challenges that the Society of Jesus faces, concerning the future? You were saying that to offer knowledge is  no longer enough. How is the Society of Jesus modernizing itself?

The proximity with the poor will be an important sign in the future. For a long time, the Jesuits have been identified as those who were forming the elites in different parts of the world  and they had schools that were recognized as the best. Well, nowadays the best schools, the best Jesuit schools are those where all those that come out of those schools do not get the best salaries, do not get necessarily on the highest, biggest companies, but are those who are able to get into service in different ways, who look at the world considering the challenges that we currently face – economic inequality, environmental challenges – and want to do something about it. So, the challenge for the Society of Jesus is to make sure that we are no caught in the past, in some kind of images of Jesuits who were kind of higher than others, being also part of a kind of higher society. No. In fact, we will be really what we are meant to be – accordingly to Ignatius and to Jesus, that we are the companions of, we are the companions of Jesus – if we are able to be with the people.

Does the fact that Pope Francis is a Jesuit reinforce the position of the Society of Jesus?

Well, we appreciate that. We did not expect that at all, so  it’s a grace that we are grateful for. The Pope does not, at all, hide the fact that he is a Jesuit, but at the same time, he doesn’t boast about it. I would say that he is showing that he is living the Ignatian spirituality in the way he uses discernment to do what he does, but also in his prayer, in his catechism, in a way. This Ignatian experience and spirituality comes out clearly, but he doesn’t boast all the time: “I am a Jesuit, I am a Jesuit.” We, at the Society, we easily see in what he does and in the way that he talks our spirituality and so, we are really encouraged in bringing this spirituality to the world because, at the moment, we have the chance of having a leader of the Catholic Church which is going in that direction: the attention to the poor, the interest for the environment. That has also been an extraordinarily strong statement for the whole world, not just for Catholics. The attention that he has been giving to the problems of migration and refugees is also something new for a Pope and it  is something that is very close to the work of the Jesuits, especially the Jesuit Refugee Service that has been serving all over the world and in a special way in Asia.

Pope Francis was also the first Pontifex to try an approach to China. I am obviously talking about the agreement that was signed in the end of September last year. Could this agreement mean a return to China for the Jesuits? The Chinese province, as you were saying, includes Macau, Taiwan and Hong Kong. I know that the Jesuits are still present in China, where they keep a very low profile. Is there a tangible possibility of the Society of Jesus to return to China? How would that move be seen by the Society?

What I would tell you is that you have some Jesuits here in Macau that would provide you with better answers than I can. I work from Rome, I travel all around the world and I try to know a number of things about different provinces, but I don’t know enough to answer that question. I would just say that we are with the Pope and with the Vatican in their efforts to rebuild the fabric of the relationships with China in general, and specifically, with the Chinese Government. What I can tell you is that the Jesuits here, in this region of the world, in the Chinese province, will evidently be participating and they will do their best to collaborate with this.

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