Death of a great Superior General: Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ

Fr General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ
Fr General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ

Pope Francis has added his condolences to the Jesuits and their co-workers in Britain and beyond who have been paying tribute to Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the 29th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, who died on Saturday. Elected at the 33rd General Congregation in 1983, Fr Kolvenbach had been a Jesuit for 68 years and served as General for almost a quarter of a century. He was 87 years old.

Born on 30 November 1928 in Druten in Holland, Fr Kolvenbach entered the Society of Jesus at the age of 19 and was missioned while still a scholastic (a Jesuit in formation) to Lebanon. "When in October 1958 we arrived by boat in the harbour of Beirut, Lebanon, fighting was going on," he later recalled. "The 18 different religious groups were trying to dominate one another, making political and military alliances with the help of neighbouring countries. Still, Lebanon wanted to maintain a message that diverse people can live, work and practice their beliefs with one another. The welcome of the Lebanese was unforgettable. Even as the division in the country grew worse, never was the hope abandoned that Lebanon might become a sign of communal harmony for the whole Near East."

Fr Kolvenbach was ordained to the priesthood in Beirut on 29 June 1961 and continued his studies in Lebanon, as well as at the Sorbonne in Paris and in the Netherlands. He worked as a professor of linguistics at L'Université Saint-Joseph in Beirut and as vice-provincial of the Jesuits’ Near-East Vice-Province, a region that included Egypt, Lebanon and Syria, before being appointed as rector of the Oriental Institute in Rome. In 1983, Fr Kolvenbach was elected by the delegates of General Congregation 33 (GC33) to succeed Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ as the order’s leader.

Fr General Kolvenbach SJ visits the staff at Jesuit Missions in Wimbledon, south London

Total fidelity to Christ and his Gospel

This was a turbulent time for the Society of Jesus. Pope John Paul II had widely-known concerns over the direction of the Jesuits under Fr Arrupe and appointed two Jesuits to be temporary place-holders when he suffered a delibitating stroke in 1981. But Fr General Kolvenbach was swift and effective in restoring good relations with the papacy, addressing delegates at GC33 immediately after his election: "The Lord wishes to make use of our Society to announce to the men and women of today’s world—with a pastoral preference for those who suffer injustices in this world—the Good News of the Kingdom in a way that speaks to their culture and condition of life. He wants us in this way to serve His Church and the vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II." This sense of loyalty and service continued with John Paul's successor, Pope Benedict XVI.

Fr Kolvenbach shared his predecessor's love for the Society of Jesus and for the universal Church, and believed passionately in the Society's commitment to 'The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice'. Although previous Jesuit Superior Generals had been elected for life, Fr Kolvenbach became the first Jesuit Superior General to resign, and many believe his resignation paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI to make a similar decision in 2013.

In a letter addressed to Fr General Arturo Sosa SJ, Pope Francis wrote: Having received the news of the pious death of Rev Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus, I wish to express to you and to the entire Jesuit family my deepest condolences. With memory of Fr Kolvenbach's total fidelity to Christ and his Gospel, together with his generous commitment to exercise his particular office for the good of the Church, I offer prayers of suffrage by invoking the Divine Mercy for the eternal rest of his soul.  I spiritually unite myself to the memorial celebrations, and I cordially impart the Apostolic Blessing to you, to the Jesuits and all those who share the sadness of this mourning.  Francisco.

A generous heart and love for the poor

"He was an exceptional man," the Treasurer of the Jesuits in Britain, Br Stephen Power SJ said, on hearing of his death on Saturday, "a special Fr General and a friend to me." This is a sentiment shared by Fr Paul Fletcher SJ, the Superior of the Jesuit Community in Wimbledon. "Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was so easy to approach and relate to," he said. "[He] always made time for me on his personal visits to the UK." Fr Victor Edwin SJ, a Jesuit from India who studied in Britain, described Fr Kolvenbach as "a great man with a great vision for the the Society of Jesus and the Church." Saying that he "relentlessly pursued God", Fr Edwin wrote that the late Superior General had "deep love for the poor, [and a] generous heart for the mission ... [He] lived a simple life treasuring poverty for the apostolic life ... " And from the Jesuit Institute in South Africa, Annemarie Paulin-Campbell said she was very privileged to hear Fr Kolvenbach speak in Rome and in Johannesburg. "I remember him as very committed to Jesuit-lay collaboration and very supportive of the ministry of women," she wrote.

On resigning as Superior General in 2008, Fr Kolvenbach returned to the Province of the Near East, serving as assistant librarian in the Jesuit community in Beirut. Fr General will attend the funeral Mass for Fr Kolvenbach in Beirut this Wednesday (30 November), and a Memorial Mass will be held at the Church of Gesù in Rome on Friday, 2 December. May he rest in peace.