Arrupe: a universal Basque

November 9, 2007 in General, News, Pedro Arrupe SJ

Cristobal Jimenez provides a young Basque’s perspective of the significance of Pedro Arrupe, who was Basque in origin but always universal in perspective.

For the Japanese, Mount Fuji is a sacred mountain and a striking symbol of the sublime. “Arrupe was clear and tall, like mount Fuji,” said some of Arrupe’s former Jesuit novices who were under his care in Japan. Regarded as a modern-day prophet by many, Pedro Arrupe was a mixture of Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier – an ideal mixture of administrator and universal missionary. We Basques, from Arrupe’s home province, Loyola, have a special connection with the centenary of his birth. The Province has taken as its motto: “He taught us to have a positive view of the world”. From a communications point of view, it is not the snappiest of mottoes. But for us in the Loyola Province it really captures our feeling about Arrupe and his legacy.

This anniversary is above all a time of remembering and giving thanks for this “universal” Basque Jesuit who knew how to engage the realities of life with “eyes wide open” mysticism or spirituality. ‘Peru’, as he was affectionately known, firmly believed in the presence of God in his life and in the same presence in the lives of men and women everywhere. In a world of hate and destruction, the open smile and insistent optimism of this Basque from Bilbao helped to build a vision for justice, peace and solidarity.

In 1965 Arrupe began his term as Superior General of the Society quoting the words of the reluctant prophet Jeremiah who responds to being called by God thus: “Oh my Lord, I do not know how to speak”. The irony was that when Arrupe presented his resignation 18 years later, he couldn’t utter a single word because of the effects of a devastating stroke. One of his advisors had to read his final message to the General Congregation:

More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound spiritual experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands. My one desire and goal has been to serve the Lord and the Church.

Serving the Lord and the Church – this is a good summary of Arrupe’s life, a life nurtured through his faith. He would have resonated with God’s response to Jeremiah’s lament quoted above: ‘Don’t be afraid. I am with you”.

A few weeks ago the Bishop of Bilbao told a group of us Loyola Province Jesuits that he was always impressed with the depth of Arrupe’s faith. Everyone that met Arrupe was impressed with his trust in the Lord and his desire to find God’s will in all instances. When Arrupe was asked, “Who is God for you?”, in an interview with Italian Radio-television (RAI), he took a moment to reflect and responded with deep conviction: “God for me is… everything!”

Through his unique experience and moment in history, Arrupe was a bridge between the East and the West, between the pre-Vatican II and Post-Vatican II church. He intuitively recognised that the ‘signs of the times’ made a double demand on contemporary Catholics: to take a broad view of the world and its problems, and simultaneously to deepen their inner lives. Under his guidance, the 32nd Jesuit General Congregation was to radicalise Jesuit identity through a simple question: What does it mean to be a Companion of Jesus today? The prophetic response was to mark a sea-change within the Society: To commit ourselves beneath the banner of the Cross to the crucial struggle of our times – the struggle for faith and the struggle for justice which that same faith demands. The Society took up this ‘faith and justice’ challenge, in different ways and expressions, but it did mark a new direction. For Arrupe it was a source of joy to see a reshaped Society take up a radical discipleship in the footsteps of Jesus of Nazareth.

I have picked up, from Jesuits who lived with Arrupe in Rome during his governance, some stories which illustrate the man. One such story concerns his relationship with John Paul II who used to leave very early on Sunday mornings to visit parishes in the Eternal City. Arrupe would be in the doorway of the Jesuit Curia at the same time as the Pope’s Mercedes would go past, and he would kneel as a sign of respect and fidelity to the Pope. Not once did the Pope’s car ever stop to acknowledge him. It wasn’t that Arrupe’s faith was simply naïve; it was just his nature to be transparent and open with his faith and all that it implied.

A few weeks ago, a Loyola Jesuit told me another story of Arrupe in Rome. It was Arrupe’s habit to get up very early to celebrate mass and afterwards he would join in with other Curia masses celebrated in other languages. He would sit in one of the rear pews and wouldn’t receive communion as he had already done so earlier. One day during General Congregation 32, the Loyola Jesuit I mentioned was celebrating one of the Curia masses in Spanish. Arrupe unexpectedly came up from his seat during communion and drank from the chalice only. Apparently only hours before, Pope Paul VI had called him to the Vatican and given him a dressing down over the controversial issue of Jesuit Papal obedience. Apparently Arrupe had left in tears and the gripping words of the Gospel that day “Can you drink from the cup that I drink?” were what motivated his unexpected action. The same Loyola Jesuit remembers how, after this event, Arrupe was able to preach to the Congregation, unhindered and with a smile, on how obedience must be done with joy.

Arrupe will be most remembered, however, for his visionary stance in engaging the contemporary world and creating the Jesuit Refugee Service in response to its needs. He was a person who felt the need to reach out to those on the margins of society, to refugees and drug addicts, motivated by a love for Jesus that directed his prophetic faithfulness. His press conferences were legendary. They were always packed with reporters. But away from the cameras, he was a man of deep prayer, simplicity, and a great sense of humour.

Pedro Miguel Lamet, one of his biographers, always tells the following anecdote about his early time in Japan. When he was giving catechesis to Japanese adults, one old woman would stare constantly at him without batting an eyelid. She kept this intimidating stare up for six months, never saying a word. Eventually Arrupe decided to ask her what she thought of his teaching. The Japanese woman replied that she didn’t know as she was deaf and hadn’t heard a thing! She added however, that it was enough for her to look – she could tell that he was a truthful person who didn’t lie. “Whatever you believe, I believe,” she affirmed. There are few people like Arrupe, with such a degree of transparency, who can teach with only a look.