In December 1978, Pedro Arrupe was interviewed by Enrique Maza for the Mexican publication PROCESO. A version of that exchange appeared in the December 25, 1978, issue of PROCESO, a version that was later edited for a volume published by Jesuit Sources. That edited text, which added references to Scripture and other sources, appears below. Maza asked Arrupe for his meanings of Christmas, of sharing, and “of the love proclaimed by Jesus as essential to his message.” “Christmas is the first step in the road God himself traveled when he became man,” Arrupe observes, “but man in utter poverty and destitution.”
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Rome, Borgo Sancto Spirito 5, residence of the Superior General of the Jesuits; a mere stone’s throw from the Vatican. Pedro Arrupe’s office is large; next door is a little chapel with no kneelers or chairs but only a simple mat on which the General of the Society of Jesus prays, reflects, reads, thinks for hours on end. My conversation with him takes place in his office, in the corner across his desk, on austere arm-chairs. Pedro Arrupe smiles and remembers the Christmas he spent in a Japanese jail.
Question: What is for you the meaning of Christmas?
Arrupe: For me Christmas means above all that “the Word is made flesh.” It is the visible manifestation of the Word made flesh for our sake. A mystery so great that, after telling it Saint John exclaimed in wonder: “No one has ever seen God; but his only Son, who is one with him and enjoys his intimacy, has made him known.”
Equally important, however, is the way in which God chose to make himself man: in poverty, among the poor. Jesus was born as he died, owning nothing, humble, rejected.
This is and has always been true, but became for me a deep personal experience the Christmas I spent in a Japanese Jail, alone, accused of every conceivable crime, reduced to a most wretched condition. Then it was I experienced the Christian meaning of being poor, despised, condemned to death. Christmas is the first step in the road God himself traveled when he became man, but man in utter poverty and destitution.
There is no doubt that a personal experience, even minimal, in one’s own flesh, of something of that sort opens our interior eyes to learn what can be understood neither in books nor learned intellectual or political elucubrations. Ever since that experience Christmas has retained for me an unspeakably deep and personal meaning. Experience is, no doubt, the road the Spirit has chosen to reach the very depths of man.
Question: What is the meaning of the poverty of Christmas?
Arrupe: It seems to me that the fundamental meaning.is that of “kenosis,” self-emptying, out of love. St Paul explains it very well: “He had the very nature of God but did not cling greedily to his equality with God. Instead, he humbled himself to the point of becoming nothing, taking the condition of a slave and the likeness of man.”
This means that Jesus accepted poverty consciously and willingly with the purpose of being as closely as possible like the majority of men. But the meaning of his poverty in Bethlehem does not consist only in his being born from a poor mother to a poor family, or in his defending the poor later on, but in that Bethlehem is the first step in a life that leads up to the poverty of the Cross, through Gethsemane, his feeling abandoned by the Father, hung from a gallows like a criminal; the scum of society. Jesus is not only a person who loves the poor but God himself who being rich made himself poor for our sake, to save us through his own poverty.
Here lies the great paradox, the mystery, of the Christian solution: it works and achieves its purpose from a cross. True, it does not consist in glorifying suffering or poverty in themselves. The Bible condemns and rejects poverty as a scandal. God gave the earth to all men for its exploitation. They must be masters of the earth, not slaves. And the Messiah, says the Psalm, “shall save the poor when they cry and the needy who are helpless.” Freedom from poverty is an important feature of the Kingdom, since the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are made clean, and the hungry are blessed because they will be satisfied. Yet, in order to save the world, God made himself man; not only that, he made himself a poor man.
Question: Is there any difference between the poverty of Jesus and that of Latin America? Which and why? I can think of two differences. One is voluntary, the other imposed. One is to take up the human cause, whereas the other blocks the access to human dignity.
Arrupe: Yes, the poverty of the masses in Latin America, like that of so many other countries, is an evil that degrades man and offends God. To a great extent it is the effect of selfishness, whether individual or collective. It offends God because, as you say, it blocks the access to human dignity, and God is himself the author of this dignity. It is an unjust poverty, imposed by others, the result of abuses and the avarice of man. Its roots are to be found in unjust relations at all levels: greed, oppression, robbery, fraud, extortion, exploitation of man by man. It is really tragic how man can through his selfishness become like a wolf to his brother man. And this happens under all the various ideological and political labels. No one will be saved unless he succeeds in overcoming selfishness and aspires to build up his human relations, individual and social, based on the foundation of justice. I would even say: on a love like the love Jesus showed us in Bethlehem, Nazareth, Golgotha.
Question: Was Jesus born to ratify the situation of the poor in the world, or out of solidarity with them, to take up their struggle against poverty, to uplift the poor? That is to say, does he ratify the division between men, or does he identify with the poor—and with humanity in the poor—in order to proclaim a universal brotherhood that may end these divisions?
Arrupe: Of course, Jesus was not born poor to ratify the condition of the poor in the world today. On the contrary, as you well say, he made himself poor to proclaim from his poverty the brotherhood of all. The ideal proposed by Christianity is not a society where poverty is glorified, but the realization of justice and brotherly love. St Luke shows it very well in the Acts of Apostles when he describes the sharing of the early Christians, a sharing that eliminated poverty from their midst. He says: “There was no one in the group who was in need. Those who owned fields or houses would sell them, bring the money received from the sale, and hand it over to the Apostles and the money was distributed to each one according to his need.” It is to be noted that this brotherly sharing was for the early Christians the logical and immediate result of their sharing in the Eucharist and the possession of the same Holy Spirit. It is a supremely important example for us today.
But I am of the opinion that we ought to be clear and objective. Poverty can be a great chance to identify oneself with Christ poor when it is accepted. On the other hand, we must aim at correcting it with an evangelical spirit. For it can also be an occasion for attitudes which are contrary to the Gospel when it is brandished with some of the radical selfishness that is hidden in rich and poor alike. It surfaces in some countries, formerly poor, which after coming out of their poverty, practice exploitations and injustices as bad as, if not worse than, the ones they had fought against. In some way they resemble the unforgiving servant of the parable. There is no other solution than that all be poor in spirit, because it is possible to be materially poor and, at the same time, attached to riches, ambitious and selfish.
Question: What is the meaning of sharing?
Arrupe: It can mean many things; but in many cases it means insertion and solidarity. I think that in today’s Church there is a new awareness of what religious poverty, willingly accepted, must be. Not only an ascetic life, in imitation of Christ poor, but an imitation of the Christ who identified with the poor to save and free all men. This new awareness has brought about experiments and efforts, on the part of priests, religious and Christian laity, to experience as far as possible and in some way the lot, the conditions and even the injustices suffered by the poor. True, much remains to be done. As we Jesuits said in our recent General Congregation, “the personal backgrounds of most of us, the studies we make, and the circles in which we move often insulate us from poverty, even from the simple life and its day-to-day concerns. We have to be aware of this, aware of the fact that we have skills and abilities that most people lack. It will therefore be necessary for a larger number of us to share more closely the lot of families who are not well-off, who make up the majority of the population of most of our countries, and who are often the victims of injustice.” “Jesuits will be unable to hear the ‘cry of the poor’ unless they have greater personal experience of the miseries and distress of the poor.”
For me, this eagerness to get closer to the poor and share their life is a very positive sign in today’s Church. It is only this way that one can achieve a personal experience and an intimate understanding of the Gospel doctrine on poverty, interior freedom and the value of the human person, even—and above all—the humblest and most dispossessed of every other value.
Question: Does the consumerist and materialistic custom of Christmas presents have a meaning? Or is it a way of suppressing the deeper Christian sharing, removing its universality, reducing it to a merely material generosity and to the near ones?
Arrupe: I wouldn’t go as far as saying that the Christmas presents have no meaning whatever. Making a present can always be the sign and expression of love, and as such it has a value in itself. But it is also true that unfortunately Christmas is increasingly submerged in a real tide of materialism and consumerism. Then it loses all its meaning. In this respect we Christians have a special duty to give a counter-testimony. I have often spoken of the frugality and austerity we need in the modern world. This is not limited to a privileged few, called by the Spirit; it is a condition for the survival of the entire human community.
Question: The coming of Jesus has made it possible to call God our Father. Is it possible and does it make sense to call God Father even in the Liturgy, if one is not disposed to be a brother to men?
Arrupe: If such a disposition is entirely lacking, and this is due to a conscious and deliberate decision, then such attitude is not Christian at all. Then, a celebration, even a liturgical one, would be a contradiction. Jesus himself told us that if a brother has something against us, we should leave our offering on the altar, and rush and make peace with him first. But which of us can and has the right to judge the interior disposition of another person? There is a grave danger here of assuming a role that is God’s alone; he is the only judge able to know what is most intimate in man to search his heart. Prayer and the Eucharist are not only signs of brotherly union and love, but also efficacious means to achieve them in a society which is and remains sinful. Up to a point we could so as far as saying that the need of celebrating the Eucharist is all the greater when union and brotherly love are lacking. We cannot expect the perfect society of the future to come about by our own efforts. As Christians, we know that we need the help of God even to begin the task of building it up from now.
Question: Can we be brothers if we do not seriously endeavor to end divisions among men? In what does it consist to be brothers of one another?
Arrupe: Today, to be a brother means ending these divisions. I am more and more convinced that the poor do not seek only charitable gifts but effective action against every form of oppression and injustice. Our eucharistic commitment calls us to a form of solidarity, to a deeper identification with the needy. But I want to emphasize that it is no question of a class struggle in the marxist sense, but of a confrontation based on and carried out through means that do not contradict the Gospel, taken in its totality. As a group of Asian Bishops has remarked very well recently, conflict is inevitable where there are conflicting interests. An effective promotion of justice has to face the reality of that conflict. But for the Christian, conflict does not mean violence and must not be opposed to Christian love. It can and must be integrated in that love of the neighbor which is the essential core and specific characteristic of the Gospel. The call of the Christian, and hence also his strategy to build up a just world, cannot be other than to love all men as Christ has loved them, that is to say, to the point of giving his life for them, even if his death be the greatest injustice perpetrated in human history. His “forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do” cannot be understood without this love for all men, his enemies included.
Question: What is the meaning of the love proclaimed by Jesus as essential to his message?
Arrupe: I have already referred to the love that Jesus proclaimed as the essence of his message. Now I would like to ask to what extent we are convinced that this love is the only force capable of making man really free, the only solid and effective foundation to build a just world. Here we touch the very core of his teaching. Vatican II puts it this way: “The new command of love is the basic law of human perfection and hence of the world’s transformation. To those, therefore, who believe in divine love, Christ gives assurance that the way of love lies open to all men and that the effort to establish a universal brotherhood is not a hopeless one.”
The deepest meaning of Christmas is to be found in these words. The solution of all the injustices of the world is to be sought in the love of Christ for all men when he made himself poor for our sake.
Justice with Faith Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—II, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1980, “The Meaning of Christmas,” pg. 275–281.