On May 22, 1965, Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., was elected superior general of the Society of Jesus, the first Basque to occupy this position since the founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius of Loyola. Comparisons of the two men, however, extend beyond their common homeland. In the 18 years of his service as superior general, Arrupe oversaw a renewal of the Jesuits so profound that he is revered by many as a “second founder.”
Arrupe’s belief that the gospel requires effective solidarity with a suffering world had roots in his early years as a priest. Before entering the Jesuits in 1927 he had studied medicine, but an experience of conversion had set him on a different course. After his ordination in 1936 he was assigned to Japan. On August 6, 1945, Arrupe was serving just four miles from the center of Hiroshima, close enough to be nearly blinded by the flash of the first atomic bomb and to feel the blast that sent the wall of the seminary crashing around him. The memory of that day and the suffering survivors to whom he tended in the following weeks was present to him in each Mass he celebrated for the rest of his life.
The compassion evoked by this experience developed over time into a conviction that ministry to the oppressed and suffering peoples must not remain on the personal level alone. It was necessary also to promote structural changes in the world to alleviate the sources of oppression and violence. Thus, Arrupe was a pioneer in urging the combination of pastoral concern, biblical reflection, and social analysis.
Specifically, Arrupe lead the Jesuits through their landmark Thirty Second Congregation, a meeting of representatives from all over the Jesuit world, held from December 1974 to March 1975. He was instrumental in promoting that famous “fourth decree,” which defined the modern mission of the Jesuits in terms of “faith that does justice.” In the words of this decree, “Our faith in Jesus Christ and our mission to proclaim the Gospel demand of us a commitment to promote justice and enter into solidarity with the voiceless and the powerless.”
Arrupe was aware that the Jesuits would suffer consequences for this new understanding of their mission, and he urged them to be prepared for criticism and even persecution. His concern was prophetic. Within three years, five Jesuits had laid down their lives in the pursuit of justice, and criticism was quick to follow. The Jesuits were accused of substituting politics for the gospel, and Arrupe was personally charged with leading the Society astray.
In 1981, after Arrupe suffered a disabling stroke, Pope John Paul II appointed a personal delegate to serve as interim superior of the Society. Arrupe’s own choice of vicar was passed over, a fact perceived by many in the Society as a criticism of their beloved superior general. Arrupe himself never expressed any resentment. Two years later, with the election of his successor, he tendered his official resignation. Unable to speak without difficulty, he prepared a farewell statement that was read to the assembled brethren:“In these 18 years, my one ideal was to serve the Lord and his church… I thank the Lord for the great progress I have witnessed in the Society. Obviously, there would be defects too – my own, to begin with – but it remains a fact that there was great progress, in personal conviction, in the apostolate, in concern for the poor, for refugees. And special mention must be made of the attitudes of loyalty and filial obedience shown toward the church and the Holy Father, particularly in these last years. For all of this, thanks be to God.”
Arrupe spent his final years entirely dependent on others for his daily care. Whereas he had once served God through bold and prophetic leadership, now it was through prayer and patient suffering. As always he set an example of the Ignatian discipline of “finding God in all things.” He died on February 5, 1991.
Watch a video about Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., produced by Georgetown University.
See: Pedro Arrupe, Justice with Faith Today (St Louis: Institute of Jesuit resources, 1980); Joe Nangle, O.F.M., “Pedro Arrupe: The Other Basque,” Sojourners (December 1991).