‘Our Little Path’: Pope Francis with the Jesuits in Thailand and Japan

Pope Francis

 Pope Francis / Pope Francis / Published Date:5 December 2019/Last Updated Date:27 April 2021

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Pope Francis met a group of 48 Jesuits from Southeast Asia during his apostolic visit to Thailand and Japan.      Immediately after his encounter with the members of the Bishops’ Conference of Thailand and the Federation of Asian Bishops’ Conferences at the Shrine of Blessed Nicolas Bunkerd Kitbamrung, Francis moved to an adjoining room where the religious were waiting for him.     

He was welcomed by Fr. Augustinus Sugiyo Pitoyo, superior of the region of Thailand, which is composed of 33 Jesuits (17 priests, 14 students in formation, a brother and a novice). Also present was the Apostolic Prefect of Battambang in Cambodia, Enrique Figaredo Alvargonzález, a Spanish Jesuit.[1] He stayed in a conversation with them for about half an hour.

Entering the room the pope chose to greet all those present one by one, and then he said:

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“Good morning! Good to see you! You’re young. I’m glad to see the average age of those present here, it is promising for the future! I’ve been told we don’t have much time, so ask me the questions you want right away.

In the Asian context there are many situations of tension and suffering. We could make a list of them. My question is: how do you balance, on the one hand, the need to denounce situations and, on the other, the prudence that suggests you sometimes keep quiet for the greater good, or not to complicate situations further?

There’s no recipe. There are principles of reference, but then the path to take is always a small path (senderito) that must be discovered in prayer and discernment of concrete situations. There are no rules that are definitive and always valid. The path unfolds when you walk with an open mind and not with abstract principles of diplomacy. You look at the signs and discern the path to take. In this regard, too, it is important to allow yourself to be guided by the Lord. Sometimes, more than highways, small paths work better; these are the routes through the peripheries that nonetheless get you to your destination. They’re not rigid, big or obvious, but they’re effective.

In particular, we Jesuits are asked to open our eyes to our reality, to stand before the Lord with that reality, to pray and to find our little path. Sometimes, however, when we want everything to be well- organized, precise, rigid and always defined in the same way, then we become pagans, even if disguised as priests. I think Jesus spoke a lot about pharisaic hypocrisy in this regard.

We must seek our little path through prayer, contemplation of reality, discernment and action. And, of course, commitment and courage. When we are committed we figure things out. In short, we need the virtue of prudence, which is also a virtue of government. But beware! Do not confuse prudence with simple balance. Those who are prudent in balance always end up washing their hands with their detachment. And their patron saint is “Saint” Pilate.

How are the Church and the world receiving your encyclical Laudato Si’ ?

Great expectations were placed on the COP21 meeting in Paris in December 2015. A big effort was made there to facilitate the meeting of world leaders in order to seek new ways to address climate change and safeguard the well-being of the Earth, our common home. This meeting in Paris was really a step forward.

But then the conflicts began, the compromises between what was hoped for and the “wallet,” the economic interests of certain countries. And so some countries withdrew. But today people have become much more aware than before of the need for the care of the common home and its importance.

Many movements were born, especially those animated by young people. This is the road to walk on. Today, it is young people who understand with their hearts that the survival of the planet is a fundamental theme. They understand Laudato Si’ well, with their hearts. It is a promise for the future. “The future is ours!” they say. We must continue to work to ensure that the fundamental message of Laudato Si’ is shared worldwide. The encyclical is made to be widely shared. What you say has been accepted by many. And there is no copyright on the care of the common home! It’s a message that belongs to everyone.

I work for JRS, the Jesuit Refugee Service. There are many refugees in Thailand and there are problems. How should one live this ministry of hospitality?

For the Jesuits our work with refugees has become a real “theological place.” That’s how I see it, a theological place. Pedro Arrupe right here in Thailand in his last speech reaffirmed the importance of this mission. Arrupe was a prophet to me: his “swan song” was the foundation, right here in Bangkok, of the Jesuit Refugee Service. Then, during the flight to Rome from Thailand, he suffered a stroke.

The phenomenon of refugees has always existed, but today it is better known because of social differences, hunger, political tensions and especially war. For these reasons, migratory movements are intensifying. What is the answer the world gives? The policy of waste. Refugees are waste material. The Mediterranean has been turned into a cemetery. The notorious cruelty of some detention centers in Libya touches my heart. Here in Asia we all know the problem of the Rohingya. I must admit that I am shocked by some of the narratives I hear in Europe about borders. Populism is gaining strength. In other parts there are walls that even separate children from parents. Herod comes to mind. Yet for drugs, there’s no wall to keep them out.

As I told you, the phenomenon of migration is compounded by war, hunger and a “defensive mindset,” which makes us in a state of fear believe that you can defend yourself only by strengthening borders. At the same time, there is exploitation.

We know well how the Church – and how many nuns are engaged in this field! – is working hard to save girls from prostitution and various forms of slavery. The Christian tradition has a rich evangelical experience in dealing with the problem of refugees. We also remember the importance of welcoming the foreigner as the Old Testament teaches us. But there are also many little customs and traditions of hospitality, such as leaving an empty chair on a festive day in case an unexpected guest arrives. If the Church is a field hospital, this is one of the camps where most of the injured are found. It is these hospitals that we need to go to most.

Return to the “theological places.” Arrupe’s witness gave a great boost to working with refugees, and he did so by asking first of all for one thing: prayer, more prayer. The speech he made here in Bangkok to the Jesuits who were working with refugees was not to neglect prayer. We must remember it well: prayer. That is to say: in that physical periphery do not forget this other one, the spiritual one. Only in prayer will we find the strength and inspiration to engage fruitfully with the messy consequences of social injustice.

We have divorced and remarried Catholics in our communities. How are we to behave pastorally with them?

I could answer you in two ways: in a casuistic way, which however is not Christian, even if it can be ecclesiastical; or according to the Magisterium of the Church as in the eighth chapter of Amoris Laetitia, that is, journey, accompany and discern to find solutions. And this has nothing to do with situation ethics, but with the great moral tradition of the Church.

Now I see that time is up, but let us take time for another brief question…

What do you like best about the Church in Thailand and how can we work to make it better?

Let me tell you something: a few months ago I had a very nice experience. A French missionary who works in the north of the country visited Rome. Forty years ago he went there as a missionary. He came to me with about 20 of his parishioners whom he himself had baptized. He also baptized the children of those he had previously baptized: people get married young there, and he was the first evangelizer in that area. Look, I dream of a young Church, very close to the people, fresh. Of course, I am well aware of and concerned about the problems you have to deal with, such as exploitation linked to sex tourism. You Jesuits must do everything possible to raise the level of society. Work for the good of your country and for the dignity of the people!

So, it’s time to finish. I’m just sorry that our conversation was so short. Thank you for what you do! God bless you! Pray for me!

After the blessing, greetings and pesentation of some gifts, the meeting ended with a group photo.

* * *

Pope Francis dedicated the last day of his Japan trip, November 26, to a visit to the Sophia University in Tokyo, run by the Society of Jesus.[2] Before speaking to the students and professors in the Auditorium, he celebrated Mass with the Jesuits of the community and then stopped with them for breakfast. During the Eucharistic celebration he gave a homily we transcribe here. The Mass and the Gospel passage from Luke 9:57-62 (Hardships of the Apostolic Calling) were those of the Memorial of St. John Berchmans, a Jesuit.

Luke’s text speaks simply of three encounters with the Lord. Meetings in the present. The three men who meet Jesus wish to be with him. An encounter with Jesus always arouses hope. He anoints us to become men of desire, men who have listened to Jesus preaching and who want to be with him, even committing their lives to him.

And at the moment of the encounter with Jesus we sense the desire, but perhaps we do not evaluate well the conditions that this desire entails. But it’s a generous wish. The first of the three men, for example, says, “I’ll follow you wherever you go.” The second, “I want to follow you.” The third, “I want to follow you.” But the second and third set out a condition. They want to leave everything in order. They want to look back and leave everything in order. And the Lord condemns that look to the past. No, not like that. Don’t go back to die. Don’t turn back.

But here we must be careful and not make mistakes: it is one thing to want to manage the past and another thing to have memory of the past. The true desire to be with the Lord also has a memory, it must be a desire full of memory, a desire that is not a condition, but the memory of an entire road traveled, a memory of God’s great mercy toward each of us.

The Lord asks those he has called and allowed to walk with him on the way of life not to lose our memory of him, the memory of where he took us. The encounter with Jesus is always pregnant with memory. When you lose your memory, you lose your ability to be faithful. And you become a judge of others. The Lord had already said to David in the Old Testament: “I took you from the pasture, while you were shepherding the flock!” Paul says to his disciple, Timothy: “Do not forget your mother and grandmother!” This means the path you have trod. Our daily meeting as Jesuits when we come to speak with him must be full of memory, of memory full of gratitude, a memory like that of the Samaritan leper who leaves the other nine and returns to Jesus to say: “You cured me, you drew me out, you chose me!”

The first of these three men seems not to be interested in the past. He looks to the future. With his generosity he says: “Look, I will follow you wherever you go, I don’t put conditions on you, I will follow you.” Perhaps Jesus sees that he somewhat idealizes the way of the Gospel and decides to help him. They say in my land, lo baja de un hondazo, that is, he makes him put his feet on the ground, saying: “Foxes have dens, birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head .” The encounter with Jesus and the desire to serve him must not only be memorable but also realistic and concrete, engaging with what happens in life: poverty, failure, humiliation, our sins, everything. Our desire must be real. Jesus never, ever takes us out of reality, from the reality full of memory and from the reality of the present.

And what happens to the heart of a man or a woman who says yes to Jesus, knowing that anything can happen to him or her, even a failure in the present, and knowing every memory of the past? What happens? We feel peace and joy and this is the future. Paul says to the Philippians, whom he bore in his heart like his favorites: “Rejoice always in the Lord. Always rejoice. Rejoice because the Lord is close to each one of you. Don’t worry about anything.”

Live the day in thanksgiving. And the peace of God that overcomes all judgment will be the peace that will guard your hearts. This is the following of Jesus that is proposed to us today in the Gospel. A present, concrete time, with our concrete reality, without hiding successes or failures: concrete. A follow-up that is concrete in the present and full of memories of the past. A following open to great desires in joy, in peace, in the consolation that is our strength.

May Jesus accompany us on this journey of discipleship. Let us not lose the memory of everything He has done with us, with each of us. Let us not lose the joy that the continuous consolation and peace of heart will give us in the future. And we have an open heart in the face of the conditions placed on us in the present of every day, so that our fidelity may be better forged. We must not be afraid to sleep in the open air: animals have a refuge. We, however, do not know where to take refuge, but we must not be afraid.

We remain free from the temptation of wanting to turn back and say goodbye to the dead. The world of the dead is already buried, the dead pieces of our lives are buried by the mercy of God. And let’s not close the windows! Let us open them to look at the horizon with peace and with joy, doing what each of us can do. Jesus always accompanies us. He chooses us that way. May he grant us this grace.

[1] Jesuits in Thailand have a community in Bangkok, whose members carry out various pastoral activities in the universities, prisons, spiritual and social ministries, and take care of a church, the Xavier Hall Church; in Chiang Mai, where the Seven Fountains Retreat Center, a house of Spiritual Exercises, is active; in Samphran, where there is also a house of formation, the Loyola Formation House; and finally in Chiang Rai, where they run a school, the Xavier Learning Community.

[2] The province of the Society of Jesus in Japan has 162 Jesuits resident in 9 religious communities. In addition to their important work at Sophia University in Tokyo, the Jesuits also run the Elisabeth University of Music in Hiroshima. They also have works related to spiritual ministries, with four houses of exercises (Shinmeikutsu, Nagasaki, Seseragi, Kamakura), education with four high schools (Sophia Fukuoka, Hiroshima Gakuin, Rokkō Gakuin and Eikō Gakuene) and four parishes (Yamaguchi, Gion, Rokkō, Kōjimachi). The Provincial, Fr. Renzo De Luca, an Argentinean Jesuit, was the official translator during the apostolic journey.

This article was published simultaneously with La Civiltà Cattolica,