Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, leader and scholar
The General of the Society of Jesus elected to follow Fr Pedro Arrupe, Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, died last Saturday in Beirut, aged almost 88 years.
Fr Kolvenbach was born in the Netherlands. As a young Jesuit, he was missioned to Lebanon, learning Arabic and eastern culture, eventually specializing in the Armenian language and literature. He became a professor at St Joseph’s Jesuit University in Beirut, and then appointed the Vice-Provincial of the Near East. He then found himself promoted once again to be Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome. Fr Kolvenbach was “bi-rite”, that is, holding a not-too-common dispensation to be able to celebrate the sacraments in both the Roman and Eastern Rites. He preferred the latter, and mostly began his day with an incense-filled Mass which lasted much longer than our Roman version.
In 1981, the General, Pedro Arrupe, had returned from a grueling trip to the Far East and suffered a stroke on the plane coming back to Rome. His condition deteriorated and he resigned from office – the first General not to hold that office until death. The canonical procedure would have been for Arrupe’s Vicar General and protégé, an American Fr Vinnie O’Keefe, to assume the reigns until a General Congregation could be convened to elect a successor. But Pope John Paul II was not keen on the Vicar General, nor on another Congregation which might propose even more directions and initiatives that would prove too progressive. So the Holy Father appointed his personal delegate and interim General of the Society, Fr Paolo Dezza, aged 80 years, who had at one time been his teacher and was a traditionalist (and thereby forestalled a General Congregation). It was an unsettling time for the Society, but the Jesuits remained loyal to the Pope’s decision, even though many were at odds with it. (Ten years later the Pope made Fr Dezza a Cardinal for his services.)
The 33rd General Congregation was eventually held in 1983. An absolute rank outsider, Peter Hans Kolvenbach, was then elected the 29th Superior General of the Society, a position he held for twenty-four years. Arrupe “was a hard act to follow”, as they say, but Fr Kolvenbach was just the man for the times, a steadying influence to ground all the charismatic initiatives of his predecessor. There were, in addition, somewhat tense relationships with the Holy See which he had to navigate and heal.
Fr Kolvenbach was a somewhat ascetic figure, living very simply. His Generalate office was bare, with no books or adornments to be seen. He is said to have once remarked that his office in Lebanon was bombed so often he could not see much purpose in collecting or decorating his room. His assistants were at first rather shocked when he scheduled their daily briefings before the sun was hardly up. However, the fathers successfully prevailed upon him to adjust his rhythms slightly. On his visits to Australia, Guestmasters of our various Jesuit communities where he stayed were surprised to find that his bed was never slept in – it could only be assumed that he slept in a chair or on the floor.
As far as our schools’ ministry was concerned, it was Fr Kolvenbach who launched The Characteristics of Jesuit Education, then some years later, The Ignatian Pedagogical Paradigm. These two seminal texts renewed and underpinned our current educational style. He wrote about and spoke on Jesuit education frequently and persuasively. It was he who introduced “the fourth C”, Commitment, to the other three descriptors of our formational focus: Competence, Conscience and Compassion.
Fr Kolvenbach often referred to the cycle of Experience-Reflection-Action which is at the heart of “our way of proceeding” (to use Ignatius’ pet phrase) in our pedagogical style. One of my favorite quotes of his – particularly descriptive of our service programmes and immersions here – is this:
Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering and engage it constructively. They should learn to perceive, think, judge, choose and act for the rights of others, especially the disadvantaged and the oppressed.
This is quintessentially Jesuit education
During his long generalate Fr Kolvenbach participated in many Synods of Bishops. He was also a respected and valued member of a number of Vatican Congregations: the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples, the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, and was a Consultor for the Congregation for Oriental Churches.
During the ongoing pontificate of John Paul II, Fr Kolvenbach petitioned to resign due to his age and deteriorating health, but the Pope declined his request. The entreaty was later granted by Pope Benedict. So he retired at a General Congregation in 1988. At the handover, Fr Kolvenbach waved goodbye to the Congregation, quietly packed up his few belongings and immediately returned to Beirut to the love of his Eastern studies. Accolades were not his style. He assumed the role of a librarian.
Fr Kolvenbach died in Beirut after a brief hospitalization. He was buried there this week with our new Fr General, Arturo Sosa, in attendance. A moving tribute was paid him by the Holy Father, Francis, who knew him well.
Requiescat in Pace.