To mark his 70th birthday in 1977, Superior General Pedro Arrupe conducted a brief interview with the Vatican Radio Station (operated since its establishment in 1931 by the Jesuits). In the text appearing below, Arrupe explains why he remains an “incorrigible optimist,” what changes might be necessary given the decrease of Jesuit vocation, and what “salient features” he sees in the “postconciliar era” of the Catholic Church (which to the latter he replied: “the breakthrough of the Spirit of God in history”).
For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.
Question: Father Arrupe, in your life there are some more or less symbolic coincidences that seem to have shaped your personality for the future. You were personally on the scene at the tragic dawn of the atomic era, you were elected Superior General during the Second Vatican Council…. Moreover, I don’t know if you are aware that you are reaching your 70th birthday on the same day as Leonid Sedov, one of the leaders of Soviet space research who recently received the Guggenheim Award of the International Academy of Astronautics. Tell us, please: at this moment when you complete 70 years, what do you think of most: the past or the future?
Arrupe: Evidently, the future. The past is past; it is important only insofar as it can influence the future. The future, however, is yet to come … and in this time to come “eternity” begins, something that is so important that it is “imponderable.” The past makes itself felt in as much as it is the source of responsibility (with its positive or negative implications, according to circumstances). But, take my word for it, I think it is a very light burden because, however much I find to regret and mourn, I know that Our Lord is, before all else, merciful, and he lightens the burdens. The future is important because it is filled with responsibilities, and on one who is so weak this “burden” weighs rather heavily, but not so much as it might seem because of the “not I but the grace of God in me” of St Paul; grace can do so much. Eternity, as future, is a source of great joy, because I think I have at least some ground of hope … and that life must be “marvelous;” so that it not only does not burden one, but grows lighter and attracts.
Question: You have the reputation, Father Arrupe, of being an optimist. Some might even say an “incorrigible optimist.” You cannot even appeal to the “alibi” of ignorance, in line with that cynical definition of a pessimist as one who is only an optimist that is better informed. One supposes that the General of the Society of Jesus knows a mountain of details about the state of the Society and indeed of the whole Church. Among other things there are a significant number of departures, some of them particularly painful, a general crisis of vocations, a certain disorientation with regard to the new manner of living a consecrated life, a galloping process of secularization…. How do you manage to keep on being an optimist?
Arrupe: Very simply. It is the theology of history or, more simply if you wish, it is faith and trust that not even a leaf moves in the world unless God permits it…. We are in good hands. “All things work to good for those who love God.” Certainly today there are many unpleasant things, many failures, many infidelities (as has been true more or less always), but by knowing how to read these “signs of the times,” what they mean or, even better, what God wants to tell us through them (insofar as they are God’s signs), we can discover in all of them a message that, in the midst of its negative aspects, conveys a positive sign, and one that is in the long run constructive. There are historic moments (and a postconciliar era is always such) in which the breakthrough of the Spirit produces such an impact in the world that it becomes like a city after it has felt an earthquake or a tornado….; those houses with weaker foundations collapse, but that makes it possible to rebuild the city along more beautiful lines. These first years after Vatican II have left the impression in the Church of a “typhoon” that swept up everything in its path that was weak or obsolete. The typhoon of Pentecost, which was capable of destroying walls as strong as those that existed at that time between Jews and “gentiles” and that made possible the creation of a Church that was universal and holy, continues to register its tremors down the pages of history. One of those moments came when, in the words of John XXIII, the Church threw open its windows…; the Church has been aired out, has been invigorated, and we can look to the future with great joy and breadth of spirit. The Lord does not leave us alone; on the contrary, more than in the latter preconciliar days, he today shows himself truly generous and enlightening. There you have the reason for this “incorrigible optimism” of which you “accuse” me in the beginning…. As long as you maintain your trust in God you have an “alibi” for being always an optimist, although it could seem that everything is collapsing and turning out bad….
Question: The general crisis of vocations, which has coincided with the postconciliar period, has produced a noticeable decline in the ranks of active members of the Society, a development that will begin to be particularly noticeable in a short time when those who have not entered should normally, after their formation, have been incorporated into the works of the Society. What structural changes will begin to be effected in the Society in order to lessen to the greatest extent possible the “price” of this reduction in active personnel?
Arrupe: With the decline in the number of vocations and the increase in departures from the Society, we are obliged to reconsider our attitudes more than our works. That is to say: in place of changes in structures, changes of attitudes; for example, in the evaluation of our works, in the priorities that we have in our planning, in our relations with the bishops and with other religious, in our collaboration with the laity, in the distribution of our resources. Such a change of attitudes will involve (and already has involved) a series of structural consequences, whether in the government of the Society, or in the institutions themselves, or in our way of forming our young members, or in the need for ongoing formation. We are obliged to become more flexible, more interprovincial and international, in order to achieve the greatest collaboration and the best use of our active resources. A key point in this is collaboration with others, which permits us to maintain works with a smaller number of Jesuits, and at the same time to take on new works.
Question: Recently, you handed in to the Synod of Bishops a document on “Marxism and Catechesis,” in which you argued the need to introduce into catechesis a presentation of Marxism as a doctrine and movement that cannot be ignored. You also alluded to the need to go out to seek men and youth where they can be met, not limiting ourselves to awaiting for them inside the ecclesiastical structures which many do not enter. These interventions of yours seem to point to an acceptance of the challenge of the time, a rejection of a return to the catacombs that some prophesy as a consequence of current crises. Does it follow that you believe in the possibility of the conquest—or the reconquest—of the masses by the Church?
Arrupe: Certainly sooner or later (only God knows when) the Church will in over the masses. I don’t like very much the expression “conquer.” It is not a question of forcing anyone, but of presenting the truth, which is Christ, to these vast masses of men and women, who long for it and do not know how to meet up with it, but who, in so far as it is presented to them in a fitting way, grasp it immediately and accept it. The reason for this conviction of mine is simply that Jesus Christ is the truth and the absolute good and that in the presence of this truth and this good there is no one, in the long run, who can resist. You may say that I am very much of a simplist, and I feel this way still, but I believe that Our Lord is not complicated. We are the ones who make matters so complicated because we have the idea of a God like ourselves, something that in more difficult terminology is called “having an anthropomorphic image of God.” A god that neither existed nor exists…. It is to such a god that men refer when they speak of “the death of God.” Let’s not complicate life. When one sees the disillusionment of the masses about ideologies whose foundations are “purely natural” or about technologies that make man a slave of the machine, or about hedonisms that reduce man to the level of an animal, one understands this spontaneous turning of the man of the masses, who is basically good, towards something superior, spiritual, transcendent, towards Him whom we know to be a good Father, who loves man and is the only one able to save him.
Question: At the moment of your election as Superior General of the Society you became a man of the postconciliar era. What are the salient features of this post-conciliar period and what appraisal do you believe should be attached to them?
Arrupe: Features of the postconciliar period? As I said before, it all boils down to one thing: the breakthrough of the Spirit of God in history. That explains why we have features that are so different and even apparently contradictory: “how incomprehensible are the plans and thoughts of God!” The only way to understand this apparent confusion or “mish mash” is to look at the world through the eyes of Christ, with the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit; in this way all is understood and the features to which you referred are perfectly comprehended. Every feature is a manifestation of the Spirit of God, of the divine wisdom, omnipotence and love, but as they are also human, such manifestations may appear ambivalent or ambiguous; it is for this reason that one must analyze them carefully and discern them.
One of the general features of the world today is the deepening and enriching of the understanding of the Depositum Fidei: the concept of the person, of community, of freedom, of authority, of human rights, of justice, of equality, of the Church, of collegiality, of service, etc.: all that is an enormous wealth but we have not yet digested it…. We are like newly rich people who do not know what to do with a fortune that unexpectedly rained from heaven on them, who squander it, who use up their fortune with foolish childishness and throw away their money because they have no idea of what money is worth…. In this way, liberty is turned into license, the human person seems to possess nothing but rights and no obligations, justice would like, for its own advancement, to use means that are completely against the gospel spirit such as violence, community believes it can destroy the individual person, “national security” seems to claim the right to abolish the basic human rights of the human person, the right to enjoy life quickly evolves into gaining the right to abortion or to euthanasia, etc.
To put it briefly, in this moment of history the important thing is to discover God’s intervention: the features of this intervention we have to discover at times amid the ambiguity and ambivalence of events, through and with the light of his Spirit.
Justice with Faith Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—II, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1980, “At 70 Still an ‘Incorrigible Optimist,” pg. 269–274.