‘The Logic of the Inexplicable’: Pope Francis in conversation with the Jesuits of Greece

Antonio Spadaro, SJ

 Antonio Spadaro, SJ / Mission / Published Date:16 December 2021/Last Updated Date:27 January 2022

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On Saturday December 4, 2021, at 6.45 p.m., at the conclusion of the first day of his apostolic journey to Greece, Pope Francis returned to the Nunciature, where waiting for him was a group of seven of the nine Jesuits working in Greece, that is, the members of the Athens community. Theodoros Kodidis was part of this community until being appointed archbishop of Athens in September. The pope entered the hall of the Nunciature, greeting those present personally. Then, when they were seated in a circle, a spontaneous conversation began that lasted an hour. Everyone introduced themselves, telling their stories and starting a brief dialogue with Francis, who asked to be questioned in his usual free and spontaneous manner.

The superior, Fr. Pierre Salembier, recalled that the community is now part of the Province of France and French-speaking Belgium, whereas in the past it was linked to the Province of Sicily. He introduced himself personally, reminding the pope that they had been together at the Congregation of Procurators held in 1987.[1] He had been a professor in Bordeaux, and then he was asked to move to Athens. After him, a Jesuit brother,[2] Georges Marangos, who plays the organ and is the bursar, introduced himself. The pope intervened saying:

I’ll make a confession: When I was provincial and had to ask for information which would allow me to admit Jesuits to priestly ordination, I found that the best information came from the brothers. I remember once there was a student of theology who was finishing his studies. He was particularly good, intelligent and likeable. But the brothers told me: “Be careful, send him to work a little before ordination.” They “saw under the water.” I wonder why the Jesuit brothers have the ability to understand what is essential in a life. Perhaps because they know how to combine affectivity with the work of their hands. They touch reality with their hands. We priests are sometimes abstract. The brothers are practical and they understand conflicts and difficulties well; they have a good eye. When we speak of the “promotion” of the brothers, we must always consider that everything – even studies – must be thought of as instruments for a vocation, which goes far beyond the things that they know.

La Civilta Cattolica

Next to speak was Fr. Pierre Chongk Tzoun-Chan, from  Korea , a Jesuit for 21 years and currently pastor of the parish of the Heart of Christ the Savior. He also  works with the Arrupe Center, an institute for refugee children that he himself founded, and is still involved in this work.  Francis commented:

Two things. First, you speak very good Greek! You’re a universal Korean! Second, you said something very important. You have founded an organization, the Arrupe Center. You are a “founding father,” you have expressed your creativity, and you know well what this center is and its nature and purpose. You say that you are no longer in charge. This is a very good thing. When one starts a process, one must let it develop, let the work grow, and then withdraw. Every Jesuit has to do that. No work belongs to him, because it belongs to the Lord. Thus he expresses creative indifference. He must be a father, and let the child grow. The Society of Jesus entered into a crisis of fruitfulness when it wanted to regulate every creative development with the Epitome.[3]

Pedro Arrupe[4] became General and did the opposite. He renewed the spirituality of the Society and let it grow. This is a great attitude: to do everything well and then withdraw, without being possessive. We need to be fathers, not owners, to have the fruitfulness of the father. Ignatius in the Constitutions says something wonderful: that the great principles must be incarnated in the circumstances of place, time and persons. And this through discernment. A Jesuit who acts without discernment is not a Jesuit.

Fr. Sébastien Freris introduced himself next. He is 84 years old and has done various types of pastoral work in parishes and with young people. He told the pope that the community was once numerous and very active, giving much to the country. Many of their works were of a cultural and intellectual nature, of openness to dialogue. One of these activities was the publication of a journal. Now the situation is one of weakness. The Jesuits are doing what they can with the few forces at their disposal. The pope commented:

One thing that calls for  attention is the diminution of the Society. When I entered the novitiate, we were 33,000 Jesuits. How many are there now? More or less half. And we will continue to diminish in number. This situation is common to many religious Orders and Congregations. It has a meaning, and we must ask ourselves what it is. In short, this decrease does not depend on us. The Lord sends the vocations. If they do not come, it does not depend on us. I believe the Lord is giving us a teaching for religious life. For us it has meaning in the sense of humiliation. In the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius always points to this: to humiliation. Regarding the vocational crisis the Jesuit cannot remain at the level of sociological explanation. This is, at most, half the truth. The deeper truth is that the Lord leads us to this humiliation in terms of numbers in order to open to each one the way to the “third degree of humility,”[5] which is the only Jesuit fruitfulness that counts. The third degree of humility is the goal of the Exercises. The great scientific journal no longer exists today. What does the Lord mean by this? Humble yourself, humble yourself! I don’t know if I have explained myself. We have to get used to humiliation.

Fr. Freris intervened: “You are right, but my question is: What is our future? When we were young we dreamed of a dialogue with the Orthodox Church. Now, however, we see that by divine Providence we do something else and deal with migrants. And the dialogue with the Orthodox?” Francis replied:

We must be faithful to the cross of Christ. God knows this. With these feelings we ask the Lord what He wants of us, then we are creative in God: real challenges, real solutions. Of course, now the dialogue with the Orthodox Church is going well. This means that you have sown well with prayer, desires and what you have been able to do.

Fr. Tonny Cornoedus then introduced himself as a Belgian-Flemish Jesuit. He worked in Morocco in a community that no longer exists, then as a parish priest in Belgium; now he is in Greece because there is a need for a French-speaking priest to work with refugees. He spoke of his work and also of the misadventure of being arrested because he was mistaken for a human trafficker.

A beautiful humiliation! While you were speaking, I was thinking about the end of a Jesuit’s life: it is to arrive at old age full of work, perhaps tired, full of contradictions, but with a smile, with the joy of having done one’s work. This is the great weariness of a man who has given his life. There is an ugly, neurotic weariness that does not help. But there is also a good weariness. When you see this old age smiling, tired, but not bitter, then you are a song to hope. A Jesuit who reaches our age and continues to work, to suffer the contradictions and not lose his smile, then he becomes a song to hope. You reminded me of a movie I really liked when I saw it as a boy: The Soldier’s Return. A soldier came home tired, wounded, but with a smile at being home and having done his duty. How wonderful that there are Jesuits like you, with a smile and the assurance that the seed sown has borne fruit! As in life, so in death the Jesuit must give witness to the following of Jesus Christ. This sowing of joy, smiling, is the grace of a full, full life. A life with sins, yes, but full of the joy of God’s service. Go forth, and thank you for your testimony!

Fr. Marcin Baran is a 46-year-old Pole. He told the pope about himself, saying that he is in Greece because there is a large Polish community. In the past there were up to 300,000 Poles, but now there are 12,000. In Athens there are 4,000 and they need a priest who speaks Polish because the thousands of worshippers who attend the church are very faithful to their mother tongue. He is a doctor of philosophy, but now his work is with straightforward and simple people, workers… Francis commented:

The philosophy of every day! I was very struck by what you said. You did all your philosophy studies, and then the Lord sent you to Athens’ Polish community. This is creative indifference, which helps you to go forward! This is the Jesuit vocation: you go where God shows you his will and asks you for obedience. The Lord knows. The meaning of our apostolic life we do not see at the beginning, but at the end of our life with the wisdom to look back. Saint John of the Cross said: “At the end of life you will be judged only on love.” You have prepared yourself; you are a doctor… and now you are chaplain to the Poles in Athens. How do you understand this? By the logic of the kingdom of God, the logic of contradiction, of the inexplicable…

Finally, Fr. Michel Roussos intervened: “This meeting is Pentecost for me!” He introduced himself by saying that he had studied archaeology in Athens. His teacher was a friend of Albert Camus. His education was linked to the Mediterranean of Jerusalem, Athens, Cyprus and Rome. For 50 years he was involved in faith and culture, and ecumenical dialogue. He was in charge of the journal “Orizzonti aperti” and of the “Messaggero del Sacro Cuore.” Now he is responsible for the Apostolate of Prayer. The pope asks him how old he is. Fr. Roussos replies: “Eighty-three! And I pray: Lord, make  me a useful person, but not an important one.” The pope comments:

The Apostolate of Prayer is so important. Fr. Foros is carrying it out very well, in a modern way. Prayer is the center! I see that you are all “young” and joyful in what you do. Thank you for what you do in the name of the Church. For me it is edifying to know what you do. Now we can pray together…

Before the conclusion, the superior gave the pope a painting of young people from the Jesuit Refugee Service. Francis and the Jesuits prayed together,  reciting a Hail Mary and then a group photo was taken. The pope took his leave after greeting everyone again, one by one.

DOI: La Civiltà Cattolica, En. Ed. Vol. 6, no.1 art. 1, 0122: 10.32009/22072446.0122.1

[1] The Congregation of Procurators brings together delegates from each of the administrative units of the Society of Jesus, Provinces and Regions. The Procurators are elected in a Provincial or Regional Congregation.

[2] That is, a Jesuit religious who is not a priest. He embodies religious life in its essence and, because of this, is capable of manifesting that life with particular clarity.

[3] Here the pope is referring to a kind of practical summary in use in the Society and reformulated in the 20th century, which was seen as a substitute for the Constitutions. The formation of Jesuits in the  Society for a time was shaped by this text. For Francis, during this time in the Society the rules threatened to overwhelm the spirit.

[4] General of the Society of Jesus from 1965 to 1983. In 2019 he was proclaimed a Servant of God.

[5] “I want and choose rather poverty with Christ poor than riches, ignominy with Christ in great ignominy rather than fame  ” (Spiritual Exercises, 167).