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India’s diversity, poverty set Jesuit course

Mumbai, India

It was in January 2000, or close to it, that the number of Jesuits in India surpassed for the first time the number of Jesuits in the United States. At that time -- at the dawn of the new century -- the Jesuits of the South Asia Assistancy became the largest assistancy in the world.

In 2001, there were 3,973 Jesuits in South Asia: 2,211 priests, 1,455 scholastics (students), and 307 brothers. Among them, 269 are novices filling out the assistancy, which covers India, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

While there were no official celebrations, the new tallies have brought noticeable new pride in this part of the world. When one talks about the shift, leading Jesuits here often see significance in these new trends that go beyond the numbers.

As elsewhere, India’s Jesuits are still best known for their educational apostolate, with 181 primary and secondary schools, 18 technical institutions, 32 universities and 8 seminaries. Loyola College in Chennai is perhaps the best science college in India; St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai is known throughout India for its arts and science programs.

But increasingly, the Jesuits of India are getting into radically new social apostolates, working with and helping to empower the “untouchables,” or dalits, as well as impoverished women and children. Following the lead of the 34th Congregation of the Jesuit order, they are increasingly becoming active in social justice-related activities, including environmental causes, throughout India and elsewhere. They have a “friends of the trees” program in Bihar, are involved in watershed development activities in Maharashtra, Orissa and Madhya Pradesh, and are working to solve ground water problems in West Bengal.

At the South Asian Assistancy Assembly in October 2001, the Jesuit leadership identified specific goals for their mission, including solidarity with the poorest of the poor -- the dalits, tribals and women. To gain greater leverage, they agreed to network with like-minded agencies, promoting a “culture of dialogue” to participate in community life that went beyond traditional ministries.

“Being first or largest brings its own sense of satisfaction, and the Jesuits of South Asia are not immune to it,” Fr. Lisbert D’Souza, president of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, said recently. “Nevertheless, with this feeling of contentment, there is also a heightened sense of responsibility for the universal society and its mission.”

Traditionally, India has seen an influx of foreign Jesuits, mostly from Europe and North America. Today, that is changing. “There is now a realization and an acceptance of the fact that we must now be contributors in a big way to the mission of the church beyond our countries,” said D’Souza.

When the major Jesuit superiors gathered in September 2000, many were quick to seek personnel for short- or long-term service from the Jesuits of South Asia. In the past two years South Asian Jesuits have gone to work in Africa, Cambodia, Guyana, Russia and Japan.

These new responsibilities come at a time when the demographics of the local provinces are shifting. “While there is no dearth of numbers seeking admission to the society in South Asia, questions need to be asked about the capacity of recruits for some of the specialized services that have been the hallmark of the Jesuits down through the centuries,” D’Souza said. He noted a shift among those entering the society from the middle class to the socially, economically and academically less advantaged tribal and dalits who now jointly constitute nearly 60 percent of the new candidates.

D’Souza said the society needs to “evolve patterns and strategies that will prepare these young men for the distinguished service Ignatius requires of Jesuits -- and this not only for South Asia but for the whole world.”

Fr. Cedric Prakash is the director of Prashant, a center for human rights, justice and peace in the state of Gujarat in western India. He expressed both clear purpose and pride in his work and the place of the India Jesuits in the world today. He said India is blessed with a rich diversity in cultures, languages, backgrounds and religions, and the Jesuits are constantly involved with these cultures, especially with the poor and the marginalized. It is India’s diversity and poverty that is setting the society’s course today.

In a couple minutes, Prakash rattled off names and places where Jesuits in Gujarat are working to empower the poor and bring greater dignity to their lives. One cannot work with the dispossessed, he said, without standing up for human rights and social justice.

Fr. Joe Antony, editor of the Jesuit South Asian magazine, Jivan, as well as the Catholic newspaper, The New Leader, said, “One realizes the importance of respecting and learning from other faiths.” Dialogue is the pathway to counter sectarian politics and religious fundamentalism, he said.

If the work of the Jesuits here is increasingly measured by their commitment to the poor, the heart of what they are telling the world has to do with lifestyle and spirituality. Fr. Francis de Melo, provincial of the Jesuit’s Bombay province, speaks about India and Asia’s rich spiritual heritage. He noted that even as the West becomes “postmodern,” it is also entering an age that longs for “the deepest experiences of life and the powers of the universe.”

De Melo said that the eastern way of thought matches many of Ignatius’ insights. “Where the West plans and strives to ‘get what one wants when one wants it,’ the Eastern way is to flow with life and the unexpected that life continuously brings,” he said. He finds this notion very close to the Ignatian idea of indifference and obedience, he said, that of flowing wholeheartedly with God’s Providence.

“Where the West sets a high goal and struggles to reach it fast, there is the Eastern way of kaizen, the continuous, natural growth that doesn’t struggle to a target, but enjoys the process of allowing life to expand, naturally like a tree, always putting little shoots at the tips of each of its thousand branches -- no stressful grabbing at a pre-fixed target, just natural growth, not slow, not fast, leading to results that usually exceed planned targets,” de Melo said.

He likened this to the continuous reaching out for “God’s greater glory.”

De Melo said the Jesuits of India could contribute through their own mission and lifestyle this vision of the East to the world. He said they are now challenged to be Asian Jesuits rather that simply Jesuits in Asia.

Janina Gomes is communications manager at the Indo-Italian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Mumbai, India. She contributes regularly to the “Speaking Tree” column of the Times of India, a column devoted to philosophy and religion.

Related Web site

Bombay Jesuit Society

National Catholic Reporter, November 01, 2002