New Jesuit leader has strong social justice background

By 
  • March 10, 2008

{mosimage}TORONTO - For the next six years Canada’s English-speaking Jesuits will be under the direction of a man known for a life-long commitment to the poor.

Jesuit Father Jim Webb, 63, has been appointed Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in English Canada. He has spent the last 22 years working among the poorest people in Jamaica in some of the most violent communities in the Western hemisphere. Before that, Webb spent years developing social justice ministry in the South Riverdale neighbourhood in Toronto.

A commitment to social justice may be identified with the Jesuits, but it’s really just the way in which Jesuits remain faithful Catholics, said Webb.

“The commitment to social justice is a teaching of the church,” said Webb in an interview from Jamaica. “It’s not something that’s peculiar to the Jesuits. On the other hand, it’s something that’s important to us.”

Webb will take over as Father Provincial from Fr. Jean Marc Laport July 31, the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola. He will become spiritual father and leader for 174 Jesuits, including 19 in some stage of formation leading to priesthood and final religious vows. The Canadian Jesuits run parishes, schools, retreat houses and a graduate school of theology.

One of Webb’s oldest friends from their days in the novitiate together said Webb has always had what it takes to lead.

“Jim was early a leader, earning his first spurs in student politics at St. F.X. (St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S.) before entering the novitiate,” wrote Fr. Michael Czerny in an e-mail from Nairobi, Kenya.

Through the 1970s and early 1980s Webb and Czerny worked and lived in one of Toronto’s poorest neighbourhoods in hopes of giving flesh to the church’s social teaching.

“We hoped to build up a full ministry of faith and justice,” wrote Czerny. “Promoting social change so as to bring about greater justice, and social thinking in the light of Scripture and the church social teaching.”

After being ordained in 1973, Webb was a founding director of the Jesuit Centre for Social Faith and Justice, one of the founders of The Catholic New Times and a founder with the Taskforce on Corporate Responsibility. He spurred the creation of the South Riverdale Community Health Centre and the Canadian Alternative Investment Co-operative.

In Jamaica starting in 1986, Webb became a parish pastor at St. Peter Claver Church in Kingston and then at St. Theresa’s Church in Annotto Bay. He has been instrumental in the St. Mary Rural Development Project, helped found and sat on the board of Citizens for Free and Fair Elections, and chaired the Justice Commission of the archdiocese of Kingston, Jamaica.

If the church is more divided over how to bring about social justice, then the Jesuits have a role in bringing people together to work out those differences, he said.

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