Social justice Jesuit-style is for God’s greater glory

  • September 15, 2011

The term social justice may seem inseparable today from images of building schools in Africa, defending the rights of the oppressed and lobbying in the corridors of power. The image it likely doesn’t provoke is that of Luigi Taparelli D’Azeglio, the 19th-century Jesuit who coined it.

Social justice, widely used to describe the promotion of human rights and dignity of every person, was introduced in 1840, but only recently has it taken such a large role in both the secular and religious world.

Even the Jesuits, its architects, have only developed a modern understanding of social justice in the last quarter century.

“In the past, there had been always the danger that people would look at their spiritual life as private and their work life as public,” said Fr. Bill Ryan, S.J., director of the Jesuit Forum for Social Faith and Justice in Toronto. “The Jesuits saw that you can’t separate your faith from the doing of justice… it’s not just thinking about justice, it’s about doing justice.”

Until 1975, when the Jesuits held their 32nd General Congregation, the highest legislative gathering of the Society of Jesus, social justice and faith belonged to two different worlds. Religion was pure and transcendent, while social justice was secular and political — until they were combined. Social justice was made religious and faith was made social.

“It was difficult because the language was new,” said Ryan, who has witnessed the change over the years. “The language that seemed so strange initially gradually became part of the Church’s language.”

With the 32nd congregation and the subsequent 34th in 1995, the Jesuits redefined the relationship with social justice. Rather than a single ministry among many, it became a dimension of all of them. It not only broke down the barriers between faith and justice, it intentionally began a reconstruction of how the Jesuits identified themselves. And since embracing social justice, the Jesuits in Canada have never looked back. “It’s been a rebirth of the Society,” said Ryan.

This rebirth has included partnering with other Catholic organizations, lay people, secular NGOs and even other faiths, all to do the work that is the hallmark of the Jesuits. These efforts — evident across Canada but also in dozens of nations worldwide — are based in some 125 justice centres worldwide and form the new Jesuit mission. While the term mission was regarded in the past as bringing Christianity to where it was not, it now encompasses all the Society does — in proper Jesuit fashion — “for the greater glory of God.”

In Canada, a core element of Jesuit social activism has always been ministering to native peoples. Evangelization is what brought the first Jesuits to Port Royal in 1611 and through their missionary work, led by the Canadian Martyrs of the 17th century, the Jesuits quickly developed an appreciation for native culture and spirituality. Unlike 19th- and 20th-century  Canadian policies that devalued native language and lifestyle, the Jesuits always sought to see God’s presence in native people. They promote respect for native values and preservation of native culture.

Those values were evident in the work of the martyrs and remained as Jesuit missionaries spread across the country throughout the 19th and 20th centuries. As one example, Jesuits have lived and worked with native people in Northern Ontario for more than 165 years, often breaking new ground in their ministry.

In 1948, Jesuits in Spanish, Ont., launched Canada’s first high school program for native students. In 1971 they opened the first native studies department to be entirely administered at the University of Sudbury by native people and in 1979 founded Canada’s first program for the formation of aboriginal deacons.

The Society’s spirit of justice is also evident in their ministry in the inner cities and is evident in the work of the Jesuit Forum. The Forum, formed in 2007, brings together people from similar fields of social responsibility to promote justice. Their work is about building trust, said program director Anne-Marie Jackson.

“Instead of doing a lot of research and documentation and being a think-tank,” she said, “the idea was we need to work more closely with people… who they are, what they’re doing and how does that relate to the whole world?”

Among its various works, the Forum facilitates discussions on justice issues with a range of people, including parish groups, workers, even health, business and education leaders. The concept is bringing people together to get to know one another and build trust for each other.  Building that foundation nurtures productive dialogue, Jackson said.

Much of the recent dialogue, she said, is focused on ecology.

“If you’re talking about Jesuits in Canada today, to not mention ecology would be a loss,” said Jackson.

The Forum itself has been involved in the Jesuits’ emerging ecological focus. To celebrate the 400th anniversary of Jesuits in Canada, it hosted a seminar on justice, ecology and spirituality.

“Once you get to know ecology, you see it’s part of justice,” said Ryan. “We see more and more people realizing you can’t separate your faith life from either ecology or social justice.”

Catholic Register


Jesuits in Canada - 400 years of Service - Catholic Register special front cover


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