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50th Anniversary of SJES

  • 11 September 2019

The fiftieth anniversary of the founding of what is now the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES) of the Society of Jesus is being celebrated with an international congress in Rome from 4-8 November 2019. Paul Chitnis, Director of Jesuit Missions (JM) and Br Geoff te Braake will be attending as representatives of the British Province.

This Province has a link with the early years in that Michael Campbell-Johnson was Director of what was then the Social Secretariat between 1975 and 1984. The secretariat is there to promote work for social justice and care for our common home among Jesuits and collaborators. This work has taken various forms, including the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), JM, communities of insertion in deprived areas, the prophetic life and work of individual Jesuits, school engagement with social justice, parishes engaging with the effects of social injustice on a daily basis in those who come to their door, or in more intentional ways such as participation in UK Citizens .

During another relatively recent social justice-related anniversary, the fortieth anniversary of the publication of Populorum Progressio in 2007, I noted with sadness that many of the injustices that Pope Paul VI wrote about in 1967 were still problems and some had gotten worse.

Concern for the earth and the creatures with whom we share our common home is one area that is becoming more degraded and is affecting and will adversely affect many people, let alone other species in the years ahead. The secretariat was renamed to reflect this important dimension of life on earth.

Even though some problems are getting worse “we” know what needs to be done towards resolutions in many cases. For example, it is widely accepted that, ‘If you want peace, work for justice’ (Paul VI, World Day for Peace, 1972). The recent United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report on The State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture after describing means for improving biodiversity in food and agriculture for four hundred pages concludes that ‘the next step is action’.

The how to reach these goals, the means of achieving them are often contested. Many of “us” experience this complexity and unknowing as confusing and sometimes paralysing. However, the complexity of the systems is such that there is no single right answer (so do not wait for it) and the solution such as we are able to find it will be made up of many parts (start with something). This allows for comparison between different approaches in different or even similar conditions and over the long term to find preferable approaches from experience. There will be advantages and disadvantages to any approach, the balance of pros and cons will not be the same and they cannot all be known at the start.

In the Ignatian tradition discernment is a favoured way of learning what and how we should live. It seems to me that one of the major challenges to taking action is that of looking for God’s word and then when it comes failing to do it. There are a couple of examples of this in the book of Jeremiah. Although, probably not that well known, I find them a big challenge to ask myself how ready and able I am to follow the results of a discernment.

King Zedekiah asked Jeremiah “for a word” (Jeremiah 38.14) about what he should do about the advancing Babylonians. The word to Zedekiah was that he should surrender to the king of Babylon and the city and royal family would not be destroyed (Jeremiah 38.17-18). Out of fear of retribution from Jews who had defected to the Babylonians Zedekiah did not surrender and the city was captured and his family mostly killed and he himself was blinded and deported (Jeremiah 38.19-39.7). Not long afterwards the people left in the land after Zedekiah and the rich and powerful had been taken to Babylon asked Jeremiah what God was asking them to do (Jeremiah 42.1-6). The word to them was to remain in the land, rather than fleeing to Egypt because God would rebuild them (Jeremiah 42.7-22). However, they thought he was lying and they never did return to the promised land (Jeremiah 43.1-7).

Failure to follow the word received from the Lord may be a false discernment, but it may also be that the change required is unimaginable or seems too fundamental. The phrase I most frequently quote from Laudato si’ is that there is an ‘urgent need for a radical change in the conduct of humanity’ (#4, 175), a sentiment echoed recently by the UK government’s chief environment scientist. There are powerful forces against these changes, which sometimes calls for the raising of prophetic voices (Evangeli gaudium # 218). All of us, but especially the prophets, have to face the personal forces against change include feelings of having insufficient time, skills, knowledge, vision etc. to begin to lead a radically different life.

I believe that this change can be reached by active asking, seeking, knocking (Matthew 7.7-8) such that individually and communally we start taking small steps and continue taking them, building on the answers, discoveries and open doors (or windows) until we end up making radical change, far beyond what could be envisaged at the beginning. Please God, these steps will lead to finding the pearl for which I/we are willing and able to make radical change (Matthew 13.44-46).

SJES is the office within the global Society of Jesus that has tried to encourage us in this process. The congress in Rome is an invitation to reflect on and give thanks for the action taken towards social justice and to consider and pray for the steps and graces needed to continue to act. In Laudato si’ Francis of Assis is described as one who ‘shows us just how inseparable the bond is between concern for nature, justice for the poor, commitment to society, and interior peace’ (#10).

Therefore, there is an invitation to particularly pray for this process on his feast this year, 4 October – a month before the congress. We might pray in thanksgiving for all the work done and for personal conversion undergone and for the graces and blessings to continue the work according to God’s call all of us and to each of us (Spiritual Exercises #95).