“Exposure to Poverty,” Pedro Arrupe (1979)

Pedro Arrupe had the following interview with the director of the Jesuit Central Social Secretariat in the summer of 1979. Questions focus on the need for exposure to and experience with the poor and why Arrupe believes it to be so important for Jesuits to identify with the poor. Arrupe provides details of how Jesuits should “experiment” with exposing themselves to poverty as well as what results they should expect. The tables are turned in the Superior General of the Society of Jesus at the close of the interview when he is asked what his Curia has done to “teach more by example than by word” on the topic.

For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.


Question: Father General, in the ex officio letters for 1979 you asked for information on two specific points: contact with non-believers and exposure to or experience of poverty. Why did you ask this second question and what sort of information were you looking for?

Arrupe: I asked the question because I think it touches on a point we still have difficulties with. GC 32 put much emphasis on the fact that “too often we are insulated from any real contact with unbelief and with the hard, everyday consequences of injustice and oppression.” In spite of obvious exceptions and some new initiatives, I think this observation still holds true for most Jesuits. In much of the work we do, especially if it is within institutions, there is a constant danger of being cut off from the outside world or at least losing interest in wider problems. This means that our apostolate as a whole also runs the risk of becoming limited or confined to issues that, while valid in themselves, do not perhaps answer more serious priorities. St. Ignatius gave much importance to the universal dimension of our apostolate and the need to seek always the maius Dei obsequium. Today more than ever this means keeping in close touch with a world that is much more complex and changing so rapidly.

There is also a second reason. Even those of us who do remain in touch often have only a conceptual knowledge of the world and its problems. We see things from a distance, often through our TV screens or the press. Consequently we become detached and problems seem unreal, remote, less urgent. This is why GC 32 insists on “real contact” and “experience.” I believe there are many who do not yet understand the need for this, who undervalue experience as a genuine source of knowledge and inspiration. As a result, some don’t know what is being asked or why it is being asked. Others don’t know how to set about it or to whom it applies. By putting this question in the ex officio letters, I hope to have promoted some reflection and discussion on this matter.

What type of information am I looking for? Above all, I want to know what is being done in the different Provinces of the Society as a result of this request by GC 32. I asked the regional secretaries to note the replies from each Assistancy and make a summary of them. Then we made a synthetic report of the summaries and spent some time discussing it at our recent biannual working session in Villa Cavalletti. I now have a much more accurate picture of how the Society stands in this matter and what we need to do to improve.


Question: GC32 said that an experience of living with the poor for at least a certain period of time will be necessary for all. In your final address to the Congregation of Procurators, you returned to this point, even speaking of a certain annual percentage of Jesuits who should “identify with the poor.” Why did you give so much importance to this and what have been the reactions and practical results?

Arrupe: I insist on this point because I think it is a fundamental one. In the Address to the Procurators which you mention, I stressed that the conversion needed by the Society today is a spiritual one, but not only a spiritual one. “It includes a process of ‘conscientization’ and on-going education to help us open up to the outside world and cross the mental barriers which shackle so many of us.” This is one of the main reasons for insisting on exposure or insertion experiments. They enable us, at least for a time, to get away from a world in which we feel secure, perhaps even comfortable, and experience in our own flesh something of the insecurity, oppression and misery that is the lot of so many people today. Without such an experience, we cannot really claim to know what poverty is. Still less could we seriously maintain we had made a preferential option for the poor. To some this may seem novel and difficult, even though throughout our history many Jesuits have been and still are closely identified with the poor.

Reactions have differed widely, ranging from enthusiastic acceptance to rejection and strong criticism. Some think too much emphasis is being given to questions of poverty and justice, and not enough to questions of faith. Others recognize the need to do something, but don’t know what to do. Some complain about excessive guilt feelings, while others feel that too much is being asked. A few argue that such experiments go against “our way of proceeding” as Jesuits. There are also objections to the terminology used and a fear that any insertion experiment is bound to be artificial.

What have the results been? The replies to the 1979 letters suggest that, though there has been some increase in concern for poverty with visible effects in the lives of some individuals and communities, the importance of a genuine experience of exposure/insertion has been understood by few and acted upon by less. I think this is an accurate assessment. A few excellent experiments have been undertaken. But they have usually been isolated examples and certainly not yet sufficient to indicate any significant results on a wide scale. The “Horizons for Justice” program, for instance, is well planned and carried out. But so far it has only reached a little over 100 American Jesuits, far too small a number to have much influence on the remaining 5,000 or more. However, experiments that have been carried out on an individual basis have often been very successful in changing the attitudes and values of the person involved. So, in spite of some progress, overall results have been meagre and a lot more remains to be done.


Questions: Do you think, that such experiences or experiments are necessary or even possible for all Jesuits and in all countries?

Arrupe: Mathematically speaking, obviously not everybody either can or should undertake such an experience. Allowances must be made for health, age, mental state and occupation. However the person himself is not always the best judge in his own case. I would certainly like all Jesuits to discuss this matter with their Provincial during their annual account of conscience.

I think myself many more Jesuits than might at first seem possible both can have such experiences and profit from them. Reasons against are often more apparent than real and can be overcome on reflection and prayer.

There will also be some Jesuits who don’t really need a new experience since they will have already had in their lives or work sufficient contact with poverty and injustice to remain well aware what they mean. For example, in my own case I can look back and reflect on the following experiences: being expelled from Spain, working among Puerto Ricans in New York, working among the poor in Tokyo Settlement, helping the sick and dying in Hiroshima after the atom bomb was dropped, being imprisoned in Yamaguchi jail and accused of spying. These experiences are still alive in me and influence the way I think and feel.

You ask also about different countries. Obviously there are many, especially in Africa, India or other Third World regions, where Jesuits are in daily contact with extreme poverty. Many lead lives full of hardship and poor—at least, if they are missionaries, by the standards of their home country. But I would like to emphasize that the mere fact of being in a poor nation or region is not the same thing as actually going out and trying to share the life of the people and learn from their experience and culture. It would be wrong to think that in some places what GC 32 has to say about insertion or exposure simply does not apply.

The same consideration also holds for Jesuits living in countries where austere conditions or other repressive measures are imposed from without. Many have no other choice than to live among and just as ordinary people and are therefore only too well aware of what they have to put up with. But even in these countries, it is not impossible to become cut off and insulated from the rigors of every day life. I conclude therefore that, if not 100%, at least a high proportion of Jesuits can and should benefit from some experience of exposure or insertion.


Question: How or under what conditions should these experiments be conducted? What results can be expected from them?

Arrupe: It is hard to draw up a list of requirements that would be valid everywhere. Also, as I have already said, these experiments are something new and not yet sufficiently widespread to draw general conclusions regarding either methods or results. However I will take the two parts of your question separately and try to give a few indications drawn from experiences and models already tried.

How to conduct these experiments:

— Careful preparation should precede the experiment. For the participant this means, in addition to willing acceptance, a determined effort to overcome mental limitations and prejudices so as to be more open and receptive to other people and unfamiliar situations.

— If the experiment is in a foreign country, language study and background reading on culture and customs may also be necessary.

— This preparation should be accompanied by the sort of prayer suited to the contemplations of the second week of the Exercises and the meditations on the Kingdom and the Two Standards.

— Though some elements of artificiality are unavoidable, every effort must be made to ensure that the exposure/insertion is as complete as possible. A minimum requirement for this will be a change from ordinary working/living conditions.

— The participant must be convinced he will profit from the experiment to the extent he is able to observe and listen to those he meets. He must be persuaded he has much of value to learn from them.

— For this reason, he should not normally, at least during the experiment, be in a situation of working for or helping other people, unless he is serving them in a purely subordinate and humble capacity. Otherwise people will be looking up to him and this will create distances.

— For the same reason, the experiment should be carried out normally alone or, at most, with one other. A larger group could shield the participant from experiencing directly the helplessness and insecurity of the poor.

— The participant must be ready to accept some physical hardship and to experience real poverty.

— As far as possible and especially in its final stages, the experiment should be accompanied by prayer, reflection and discussion.

— When feasible, the experiment should be concluded by an evaluation session, also accompanied by prayer and discussion.

Result to expect

— Those who have had exposure experiments are unanimous in stating that what is learnt cannot be adequately communicated. It has to be experienced personally.

— This is because it concerns more an understanding of the heart than an increase in knowledge, what GC 32 calls a “deeper sensitivity.”

— It should however show itself in a keener awareness of the sufferings and vulnerability of the poor and also of their riches.

— Conversely it should also lead to a new critical awareness of the participant’s own cultural background as well as of the disorder in individual and social relationships at national and international levels.

— This double awareness should, in turn, bring about a conversion that expresses itself in new attitudes and values.

— These will hopefully lead in practice to a greater dedication and commitment to the poor, a closer solidarity affecting all aspects of the apostolate.

— Even though it cannot be fully communicated, a visible change in attitudes and commitment will be the most effective way of sharing this experience with others and encouraging them to undergo something similar.

— Finally, because the fruits of such an experience need to be strengthened and renewed, it will be helpful to maintain contacts with others who have also had it. Nor must it be thought that one such experience can necessarily last a lifetime.


Question: The decrees of GC32 give much importance to formation. How can these experiments be integrated into the different stages of our training?

Arrupe: It is true that the period of formation is especially suited for these types of experiments. They are an essential part in the training of today’s apostle if he is to preach a gospel that meets modern problems. Thus no formation program can be considered complete unless it includes some direct experience of poverty, injustice or powerlessness among slum-dwellers, rural peasants, immigrants, the abandoned, or any other group of underprivileged people.

However these experiments should be even more carefully planned than the general ones already mentioned. A priest engaged in formation should either accompany them himself or direct them so closely that his guidance is always available to those taking part. Special attention is to be paid to the prayer and reflection that should accompany all stages of the experiment so that it can become a truly positive and integrating factor in the participant’s life. Only in this way will the experiment be “free of illusions and productive of an inner conversion.”

Not all experiments will be suited to all stages of formation. Care must be taken to draw up a balanced program that does not conflict with other aims in formation, spiritual, academic or religious. For example, the young Jesuit must be helped to realize that the priority given to prayer and spiritual growth during noviceship and tertianship or to a solid academic grounding during studies cannot be waived in favor of some exposure or insertion experiment that could easily jeopardize one or the other. In fact the opposite should take place. The experiments should confirm his desire for spiritual and intellectual growth since he will see these not only as necessary for himself but also as means to make his very solidarity with the poor more real and effective.

There will also be certain formation period more suitable for experiments than others. The noviceship and tertianship make special allowances for them. At other times, much use can be made of vacations and weekends. If all these opportunities are taken and fitted into some coherent plan, I believe our training will be greatly improved. In this way too we will be able to avoid imprudent exaggerations or a one-sided approach that leads to extremism.


Question: Father General, one final question. You have often said that the leader of today needs to teach more by example than by word. What example is your own Curia giving in this whole matter? And what do you hope from Major Superiors?

Arrupe: A good question! And one I can’t avoid because, as you rightly point out, I agree with what Paul VI said in Evanaelii Nuntiandi: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” I am sure Jesuits are modern men in this respect!

We have certainly given much thought to this matter in the Curia. I myself am convinced that, in spite of the sui generis nature of our work and existence here, much more can and should be done than has been the case so far. This was also a decision we came to during. our recent study session at Villa Cavalletti. So we are now considering ways of putting it into practice and members of the Curia are being encouraged to suggest concrete projects to the Superior. Hopefully we will soon see some results.

What do I hope from Major Superiors? First of all, that they take this matter seriously and give it due importance in their Provinces. This means not only discussing it in accounts of conscience, as I have said above, but also actively encouraging the Jesuits in their charge to undertake such experiences and making it possible for them to do so. In some cases it might help if they set up machinery or a specific program to facilitate this. This has already been done, for example, with some success in the United States. And, of course, I would hope to see the Major and Local Superiors themselves setting an example, in so far as they can.

I believe if this matter is approached with good will and generosity, then excellent results can be achieved capable of changing a whole Province and renewing the spirit of its apostolate.

Original Source:

Justice with Faith Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—II, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1980, “Exposure to Insertion Among the Poor,” pg. 307–315.