A life in service to scripture - a jubilarian reflects

POST BY PEdmonds

Fr Peter Edmonds SJ

Jubilarian and biblical scholar Fr Peter Edmonds SJ reflected on a life of service in this homily, given at Farm St Church on the Feast of St Ignatius 2018.

Today is the feast day of St Ignatius, a special day of celebration for members of the Jesuit order, the Society of Jesus; it is also a special day for those who have been educated at Jesuit colleges which for over four centuries have flourished in so many parts of the world. But today is also a special day of celebration and gratitude for Jesuit jubilarians including myself, because this year I remember that it is 60 years since I entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus and 50 years since I was ordained a priest.

It is good to begin with some words about Ignatius. Who was St Ignatius? What was it through the grace of God that he achieved? A slick answer to these questions is offered by some words from the blurb describing the book in the Penguin Classics series entitled St Ignatius, Personal Writings. This reads:

“One of the key figures in Christian history, St. Ignatius of Loyola (c. 1491-1556) was a passionate and unique spiritual thinker and visionary. The works gathered here provide a first-hand, personal introduction to this remarkable character: a man who turned away from the Spanish nobility to create the revolutionary Jesuit Order, inspired by the desire to help people follow Christ.

His Reminiscences, (the first major section of the book) describe his early life, his religious conversion following near-paralysis in battle, and his spiritual and physical ordeals as he struggled to assist those in need, including plague, persecution and imprisonment. (They are a sort of Acts of the Apostles which tell us the story of Paul in lively and entertaining terms as preparation for tackling the solid meat provided by his letters).

The Spiritual Exercises (its final section) offer guidelines to those seeking the will of God, and the Spiritual Diary shows Ignatius in daily mystical contact with God during a personal struggle. The Letters collected here (40 out of some 7000) provide an insight into Ignatius' ceaseless campaign to assist those seeking enlightenment and to direct the young Society of Jesus.”

A first draft of this homily offered reflections on a selection of these topics, but then I decided to risk offering some autobiography as a sample of how this Ignatian charism has worked out for one Jesuit in our own day. So here are a few paragraphs on what has happened in the life of this individual Jesuit. We can surely recognise the grace of God at work in these events. 

Providentially, during initial years of study and practical preparation, ten in total, I noticed that from among the areas of philosophy and theology studied in preparation for priesthood and apostolate, the field of scripture had a particular attraction and fascination. A degree in classical studies gained before entrance into the Society was surely an advantage, because it was in the world of Roman emperors like Augustus and Tiberius that the Word took flesh and dwelt among us.

In 1910, the Jesuits had added to their colleges of further learning in Rome the Pontifical Biblical Institute. In 1970, I was enrolled there for special studies in Scripture. It was a special time. In residence were Jesuit scholars of international reputation such as Pere Stanislaus Lyonnet and Pere Ignace de la Potterie. The Rector at the time was Fr Carlo Martini who was to become the Cardinal Archbishop of Milan, well known for the programme of biblical formation in his diocese, and a serious candidate for the Papacy after the death of John Paul II. I attended the Pontifical Biblical Institute because of a request of the Dean of Studies at the Regional Seminary in the then Rhodesia. In his retirement years, he had gone there with a mandate to update its programme according to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, and for this he needed teachers.

I volunteered to become one of them but insisted that I would concentrate on the area of biblical studies. Hence my first substantial appointment was to introduce the riches of the evangelists Mark, Matthew and Luke, theologians St Paul and St John, to candidates preparing themselves for priestly ordination. The present Archbishop of Harare, other bishops and devoted pastoral priests at work to this day, were in their number. It was also a privilege to join other Jesuits in their efforts to provide the devout and loyal Catholics from that African country with priests who were at home in her language and culture.

Circumstances were not easy. Good secondary education for Africans under a colonial regime was scarce. And in the final years of this minority government, a violent guerrilla war was raging. Jesuits, including personal friends, were among those who lost their lives. We can read about them in the recent book of the late Fr Ted Rogers SJ on the Missionary Martyrs of Rhodesia and Zimbabwe. Such tensions affected life in the Regional Seminary. However, peace eventually came and the joy that marked the midnight when Zimbabwean independence was declared will always remain a memory.

Work for one trained in Biblical studies and spirituality was not confined to the Seminary. Under the title of national promoter for the Biblical Apostolate, opportunities were taken for the formation of other religious and lay people in scriptural knowledge and spirituality. And there was time for writing too. Material published on the readings we hear at Mass on Sundays is still in print and thankfully is still in use internationally.

Jesuits were active in other parts of Africa besides Zimbabwe, and in the 1970s and 1980s, their work was being blessed by an increasing number of young men attracted by the Jesuit life and the apostolates in which they engaged. But a suitable formation programme in Africa itself was missing. To meet this need, a decision was taken to open a Jesuit School of Theology in Nairobi. Nairobi in Kenya is a hub city. It is the third United Nations city after New York and Geneva. It provides headquarters not only for well-known multi-national companies but for missionary congregations too. Its airport has good international connections.

The Jesuit school of theology, Hekima College, opened in 1984; I was privileged to give the first lecture there. I went on to give to introduce Mark, Matthew, John and Paul as in Zimbabwe, but this time the majority of the students were Jesuit scholastics who came from up to 22 African countries. Most were French speaking, but African people jest about people who only know a single language, and they did not resent having to learn, work, live in an English-speaking environment. The 11 years spent there sped by. I was content to live in a local church marked by vitality and enthusiasm, typified by the local parish five minutes’ walk away which served Kibera slum, one of Nairobi’s largest.

Hekima College is just one of several significant Catholic institutions including a Catholic University situated in Nairobi. It flourishes till this day. Its administration and teachers are mostly former graduates. Looking down the list of the eight or so Jesuit jurisdictions in Africa, I recognise among their leaders the names of former students who responded with zeal and industry in our New Testament sessions. And the academic environment continued to stimulate to encourage writing. Material on the gospels prepared mostly in those Nairobi years has recently been published by The Way publications in Oxford.

Successful missionary endeavour produces local churches responsible for their own growth and maintenance. Jesuit formation programmes in Africa now include centres in Congo and Zimbabwe for the earlier years of Jesuit formation in humanities and philosophy and in Ivory Coast and Nairobi for theology studied in the later years.  There in Africa, and on other continents too, we can recognise and thank God that the Ignatian vision and charism endures. On this feast day of St Ignatius, we are grateful for this. We thank God for his gift of Ignatius to the church and to ourselves, especially if, like many of those here, myself included, we have been exposed to this through a Jesuit education.

The story of Ignatius, told in the Reminiscences, recorded in the book of his Personal Writings, which we mentioned at our beginning, continues in the life of the Society and in those who share the Jesuit vocation as its collaborators in many parts of the world. His own experience of God and his encounters with God, recorded in his book of the Spiritual Exercises and in the Spiritual Diary, continues to provide a route to God not only for those who frequent Jesuit Retreat houses like St Beuno’s in North Wales and Mangwaza Retreat House in Nairobi but for so many who pray to know the will of God in their lives.

St Ignatius, pray for us.

St Ignatius Day, Farm Street, July 31, 2018