Jesuits focus on lay partnership

The numbers of vowed members of religious communities may be diminishing, but the Australian Jesuits have found a way to include in their growing congregation the almost 2,000 lay people who work with them.
The provincial of the Jesuits for Australia

Cecily McNeill

The numbers of vowed members of religious communities may be diminishing, but the Australian Jesuits have found a way to include in their growing congregation the almost 2,000 lay people who work with them.

The provincial of the Jesuits for Australia and New Zealand, Mark Raper SJ, was in Wellington recently discussing collaborative ministry with the Archdiocesan Pastoral Services team.

In his three years as provincial, Fr Raper has realised that rather than focusing on the 150 Jesuits in Australia (some of whom are New Zealanders), and the fact that the numbers are falling by about five a year, it was better to look more positively at the teachers and other lay leaders who work in the province.

This presentation as 2,000 people cooperating in the ministries of the province ‘has given us all a greater sense of mission’.

The Jesuit way of governance is to be fraternal, spiritual or discerning, and apostolic in what they do.

‘To be apostolic means you’re looking always for what the need is, what you can do next. It means that we can organise ourselves in quite different ways and still be moving into new areas.’

Fr Raper gives as an example the appointment of two lay women as directors of the Jesuit centres of spirituality which run retreats. This enables the province to look at new approaches to spirituality and the giving of the Ignatian Spiritual Exercises which is an essential part of its mission.

‘The reason we can continue … is because there are many lay people … willing to share [our] mission.’

These people assume leadership roles according to their own vocations as lay people.

‘Religious are more ready and open to enter into partnerships today in order to continue the services of others that we discern to be urgent and needed. In our complex world many skills are needed to deliver effective service. We may have started this collaboration because our numbers were declining. But we continue it now because we have learned the rich benefits that flow from our complementary roles.’

Fr Raper learnt in a most practical way about collaboration while working with and accompanying refugees as head of the Jesuit Refugee Service in the 1990s.

Being in front-line situations with Vietnamese boat people, Cambodian refugees and in Ethiopia, Liberia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Somalia, and Colombia, taught him the value of walking with people in need and this often led to a change of heart.

‘In this experience Jesuits learned a new methodology for guiding our responses to those who suffer poverty and injustice.

‘During the seventies as a religious body, we had undertaken a strong commitment for ‘a faith that does justice”.’

However, an intellectual approach tended to lead to ideological discussion over definitions of poverty or injustice which often clouded real understanding.

But the 1980 initiative of the then superior-general, Fr Pedro Arrupe, in launching the JRS led many Jesuits into direct contact with refugees.

‘We were not too distracted by ideological disputes … we were moved instead by the refugees themselves, by our contact with and service among them. That moved us to reflect on why they suffered such injustice, to analyse the causes and to seek appropriate responses.’

In Burundi Fr Raper met a young woman in hospital having had her Achilles tendons cut to prevent her running away. Many attackers immobilised their victims like this until they could kill them with machetes.

‘This beautiful young woman had escaped that finality, but she was now crippled for the rest of her life. The story is ghastly, but I only tell it in order to give you some sense of my anger, and of the feelings of our whole team, and of our consequent resolve. We felt what Jesus must have felt when he was moved to ask his Father for the power to achieve a miracle. Moved by what we saw, we set up a base in Burundi for our work in Central Africa which still continues.’

When discussing the role of religious orders in the future of the Church, Fr Raper says he prefers to talk about a variety of vocations and of cooperation and partnership.

‘Because I think the vowed life has a contribution to make in this partnership [with priests and lay people] and should be asserted, in doing that you also assert the vocation of other people, too, because it’s clear just in our various institutions that people want to keep these charisms and vision …’

In schools the Jesuits want to look at how mathematics or geography can be taught in an Ignatian way.

This is a professional and technical task which can be done by qualified lay people committed to the Jesuit mission.

‘So we live with a tradition that’s many hundreds of years old and we want to … work with people in promoting it. The cooperation is a reality in the sense that it’s a partnership … which asserts the role of lay people as well which the documents [of Vatican II] speak so strongly about.’