Speaking the word to many lands

map of Guyana

Between the sixteenth and the twentieth centuries the Society of Jesus, like many other Catholic missionary orders, utilised the routes established by explorers, traders and imperial administrators as they moved across the globe. One result was that Jesuit provinces in Europe (and later in North America and Australia) tended to be given responsibility from Rome for providing manpower and resources for particular ’missions’ where access was made possible because of political fault-lines across the globe. Historically this can be seen, for example, in Belgian Jesuits ministering in the Congo and French Jesuits working in Indo-China. In a similar fashion, the main missions of the English Province of the Society were Southern Africa and the Caribbean, where the British Empire had a significant presence.

When Rhodesia became Zimbabwe in the late 1970s, the Jesuits in that country were sufficiently strong, in terms of personnel, works and organisation, to become a province in their own right. There were fewer Jesuits in South Africa, and in part because of the isolation from the rest of the African continent during the apartheid era, the Jesuits there retained close ties with Britain for longer. However, in the post-apartheid era, circumstances changed in the last few years and the Jesuit region of South Africa has now become an integrated whole with the Jesuits in Southern Africa, co-ordinating its work with its neighbours in Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

In the Caribbean, over the last 100 years, the British Jesuits focussed their ministry primarily in Guyana, the one part of the English-speaking ‘West Indies’ that is not an island but is actually situated on continental South America. In more recent times, the Jesuits from India have been significant supporters of the ministry in the country, but although there are 27 Jesuits present in Guyana, it is not really large enough to be regarded as a province in its own right, so the question has been, how best to envisage a future alignment of provinces?

As a country it is complex in history, politics and ethnic identity. Despite being the size of England and Scotland combined, it is small in continental terms and is dwarfed by its neighbours of Venezuela and Brazil. Much of the land area of Guyana is covered by rivers and Amazonian forests, impenetrable mountains and sweeping savannahs, while three-quarters of the 800,000 population live concentrated on the coastal strip around the capital of Georgetown. Guyana is thus unique in its position in the hemisphere; culturally it looks in two directions at the same time: the coastal strip of sugar plantations and paddy-fields is Caribbean in culture (e.g cricket, Bob Marley, rum, driving on the left-hand side of the road, the Commonwealth etc…) while the interior of the country more clearly looks to South America (e.g. football, Pele, blowpipes, exotic animals, forest canopies etc…).

Already a fruitful joint ministry is taking place between the Guyanese and Brazilian Jesuits across their shared frontier and given their unique cross-over, the Jesuits in Guyana are thus looking towards becoming something of a bridge between the ministry of the islands of the Caribbean and the work of the Jesuits in Latin America. Although the languages are varied (Spanish, French and English primarily in the Caribbean; Portuguese and Spanish in Latin America) there are serious attempts to grapple with creole and the indigenous languages of the Amerindians of the interior in order to reach out more effectively in the preaching of the Good News. Structures of mission can change and vary, but the speaking the Word to many lands continues with imagination and generosity.

Dermot Preston SJ

This article first appeared in Jesuits and Friends issue 98