A visionary leader and a gentle man

September 9, 2007 in General, News

Personal reflection on Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, by the late Gerard Bourke SJ, who spent many years as a missionary in Japan.


Several years ago, Fr Kevin Burke SJ, in his introduction to a small collection of Fr Pedro Arrupe’s writings, wrote:

He was the Superior General of the Society of Jesus when I entered the order in 1976 and in many ways – ways too numerous to count – he inspired, taught, encouraged, and formed me as a Jesuit. He was a hero to those entrusted with my early formation in the Jesuits and he quickly became my hero.More importantly, although I never met him personally, I count him among my spiritual friends and fathers in faith. I will be up front on this point: I side with those who consider Pedro Arrupe a great man. He ranks with the three or four greatest Catholic leaders and saints of the 20th century, people like Oscar Romero, Mother Teresa and Pope John XXIII. He was, of course, a human being and, as such, a person of his times and his own training, with shortcomings of temperament and experience, with passions, biases, and even peculiarities. But his life itself serves as a parable of contemporary Christian discipleship. I believe his visionary leadership represents a gift to us who, a generation or two later, long to follow the path he followed out of love for Jesus Christ and a fidelity to his gospel….

I did, personally, know Fr. Arrupe. And I could write almost the same words as my American namesake – even if he spells his name differently – Kevin Burke. I first came to know Fr. Arrupe 55 years ago, when he was Master of Novices for the Japanese novices in Hiroshima and I was a young scholastic in the Japanese Language School in Yokosuka, near Tokyo. He had come to talk to us about life on the Japanese Mission, and he spoke of his early experience of pastoral work in one of our parishes in southern Japan. I remember especially how he told us that not many people were coming to the Church in Yamaguchi when he was serving there. So, one day, he decided to betake himself and his fiddle to the central square of the town; he played and sang until a large group assembled to whom he could then speak about the Christian message.

In 1954, the year I returned to Ireland for the study of theology and ordination, he was appointed Superior of the Vice-Province of Japan, and, some years later, he became the Provincial of the newly-established Province. When I returned to Japan in 1958 and before beginning my tertianship in Hiroshima in 1959, I was assigned by him for six months to a parish in the same area where he had served – “an experience that will help you to recall your Japanese, and get to know the people of Japan.” Then, toward the end of my tertianship, he came to meet and give each one of us our appointments. I will never forget the gentle way in which he broke the news to me that I was to return to secondary school work in the same place where I had spent a year after my language studies.

“I know,” he said, “that you are not keen on spending your life teaching English to teenagers, but, right now, they really need an English teacher in Eiko Gakuen. A year or two of experience in that work will be of great help to you in whatever work you are assigned to later on.” It took eleven busy, but fruitful, years before I was released from that “year or two” teaching assignment! By that time Fr. Arrrupe had become Superior General of the Society of Jesus.

In 1965, Fr. Arrupe went to Rome with two other delegates, a German and a Spaniard, to represent our International Japanese Province at the 31st General Congregation (GC 31) that met to elect a new Superior General. On the morning of May 22, 1965, much to his surprise, the Congregation elected him to that position. In 1969, when I was at last given a ‘sabbatical break’ to return to Ireland, I visited Rome on my way home. I had been asked by our men at Sophia University to convey to Fr Arrupe news of the challenge that they were facing with student riots. After my visit with him, I said to the South East Asian Assistant, who happened to be an Irishman, that I hoped I hadn’t painted too black a picture. “Oh don’t worry,” he replied. “Maybe he will catch a glimpse of the reality!”

It was when Arrupe was Superior General that I was to have a further experience of his missionary zeal. In November 1977, most unexpectedly, I received a letter asking me to make a study of “the feasibility and advisability” of the Society of Jesus accepting an invitation from the Bishop of Honolulu to establish a ‘Newman Centre’ at the University of Hawaii. During the next six years, as the project developed, Fr. Arrupe manifested in many ways his own personal interest in the work, particularly because of the opportunity that it offered for the Society of Jesus to make a contribution to, and learn from, the dialogue that was going on between East and West at the East-West Centre on the campus of the University of Hawaii. He proposed, and it was agreed by the Provincials involved, that the development would become the responsibility not only of the Jesuit provinces of the United States but also of the provinces of South East Asia.

In May 1980, I was invited to be present with him at a meeting of the American provincials in Spokane, Washington, where it was agreed to support the Hawaiian project. Thanks to the cooperation of the Sisters of St Francis of Syracuse, the Centre was built on East West Road, and now flourishes as the Church of the Holy Spirit, a non-territorial parish of the Diocese of Honolulu.

The next time I was to meet Fr. Arrupe was in 1983 at the Curia infirmary in Rome, two years after he had suffered a debilitating stroke at the airport in Rome on September 7, 1981, on his return from a visit to Asia. His speech was severely impaired and he was partially paralyzed, but the message he conveyed to me by the smile on his face was, I felt, the one that he expressed in the message that was read to the delegates at the 33rd General Congregation in September 1983:

“More than ever, I now find myself in the hands of God. This is what I have wanted all my life, from my youth. And this is still the one thing I want. 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 His hands… His generosity towards me has been boundless. For my part, I have tried to respond, well knowing that all His gifts were for the Society, to be shared with each and every Jesuit. This has been my persistent effort.”

Yes, Fr. Pedro Arrupe was a great man, and it has been one of the blessings of my Jesuit life to have personally known him, and to have shared, in some way, in those many gifts