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Contemplative Activists
Contemplative Activists

Defender of Liberation Theology

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Contemplative Activists

Defender of Liberation Theology
Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Jesuit priest Pedro Arrupe (1907–1991) was a deeply spiritual man who was entirely committed to serving others, particularly the poor in whom he saw Christ. Authors Kerry Walters and Robin Jarrell describe some of the pivotal events of his life:

He was three years into medical school in Madrid when a miraculous healing he witnessed at Lourdes sparked Pedro Arrupe’s call to the Society of Jesus. He entered the order at the age of nineteen and was ordained seventeen years later after studying in Holland and Belgium.

Following doctoral studies in the United States, Arrupe was sent as a missionary to Japan. He was serving in a Hiroshima suburb on the day the atomic bomb fell and later described the horror as “a permanent experience outside of history, engraved on my memory.” Calling on the skills he had acquired years earlier as a medical student, he quickly converted a damaged chapel into a makeshift hospital for the bomb blast’s victims. Arrupe remained in Japan after the war years and was named Jesuit provincial there in 1958. Seven years later, fellow Jesuits elected him Father General of the entire order.

During his leadership of the Jesuits, Arrupe was particularly supportive of his brethren who worked with the poor in Central and South America. These Jesuits combined spiritual ministry with social activism, convinced as they were that the poor were oppressed by wealthy landowners who acted with the tacit approval of the Church. The Roman hierarchy condemned this political involvement as well as the liberation theology, or gospel-based privileging of the poor, that justified it. . . . Arrupe disagreed, and he vigorously defended his priests, even after the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith officially condemned liberation theology. He also refused to withdraw Jesuits serving in El Salvador, despite persistent death threats against them, insisting that the people of that war-torn and oppressed nation needed them. Six Jesuits who remained, including noted theologian Ignacio Ellacuría, were murdered [along with their housekeeper and her daughter] in 1989.

Described by one of his friends as “a second Ignatius” who “refounded” the Jesuit Order “in the light of Vatican II,” Arrupe focused the Jesuits during his term as Father General on both renewed spirituality—as a result of his years in Japan, Arrupe himself practiced Zen meditation daily—and social justice advocacy. Along with other proponents of liberation theology, he identified the suffering endured by the victims of war and poverty with Christ’s Passion and taught that alleviating the one through justice was honoring the other in faith.

Arrupe’s leadership of the Jesuits and his quiet but persistent defense of their involvement in liberation theology came to an end in 1981 when a massive stroke left him paralyzed and mute. In resigning as Father General, he offered this prayer: “More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. This is what I wanted all my life from my youth. But now there is a difference; the initiative is entirely with God. It is indeed a profound experience to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands.”

Kerry Walters and Robin Jarrell, Blessed Peacemakers: 365 Extraordinary People Who Changed the World (Cascade Books: 2013), 318.

Image credit: Fannie Lou Hamer (detail), courtesy of artist Robert Shetterly and Americans Who Tell the Truth, c. 2007. The portrait is not for sale and travels with the collection. It is currently on exhibition in Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia. Used with permission of the artist.
Inspiration for this week’s banner image: Fannie Lou Hamer faced daunting odds, as she was not dealing with an abusive individual but instead the power of federal, state, and local governments and cultural traditions that deemed her to be a nonperson.  —Barbara Holmes
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