Setting the world ‘on fire with the love of God’

  • September 15, 2011

From the 1611 arrival of the first Jesuit missionaries on Canadian soil to well after Confederation, Canada’s Jesuit priests and brothers engaged in ministry across Quebec, Ontario and into the West. But for most of the last century, they’ve also looked beyond Canadian borders and taken the Gospel message of faith, peace and justice to marginalized people in distant lands.

Almost 500 years ago, Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola urged St. Francis Xavier to “Go forth and set the world on fire with the love of God,” as St. Francis departed to spread the Gospel in India and Japan. That same message carried the first French missionaries to Canada and today it inspires Canadian Jesuits around the world as they live out the order’s unwavering commitment to social justice through international development.

Today Canadian Jesuits can be found in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Europe. They are engaged in missionary work overseen by the Bureau des Missions in Montreal and Canadian Jesuits International in Toronto. The two offices co-ordinate significant international undertakings in the areas of education, pastoral care, social services, community development, agriculture, peace-building and social justice.

This ambitious outreach program was spawned from a humble beginning — two French-Canadian Jesuits leaving from Montreal in 1918 to take up missionary work in China. They were the first of 92 Canadian Jesuits who would perform missionary work in the diocese of Suchow until 1954, when all foreign missionaries were forced out of China. A decade earlier, three Canadian Jesuits in China — Frs. Prosper Bernard, Alphonse Dubé and Armand Lalonde — were executed by occupying Japanese forces in 1943 because the Jesuits refused to discontinue their missionary work.

They were the first known Canadian Jesuits to die overseas in defence of the faith, but not the last. In 2001, Fr. Martin Royackers, an outspoken advocate for poor farmers, was gunned down in Jamaica.

French Canadian Jesuits had been abroad for almost 30 years before four Jesuits from English-speaking Canada journeyed to Darjeeling, India, in 1946. That marked the beginning of a thriving mission. More than four dozen other Jesuits followed over the years, several of whom are still serving in India and Nepal.

Fr. J.P. Horrigan was one of the Canadian Jesuits sent to India. From 1961 to 1976, he taught philosophy and theology at a boys’ school in the mission compound in Darjeeling. The students were mainly the children of workers from the large tea estates in the area.

“Our Jesuits saw this terrible situation and (how) the labourers had no voice,” Horrigan said.

One remedy for injustice is education because, said Horrigan, education “empowers them to stand up to the powers that be and demand changes.” 

The Jesuits were also involved in advocacy on behalf of the workers calling for health care and proper housing, as well as job creation. Horrigan recalls one of the success stories. Stella was the sister of one of his students. Her family could not afford to send her to university but she received a loan from the Jesuits and was able to start her own business.

Horrigan said it’s important to invest in girls’ education because “the female child will become the mother of the next generation.”

One of the first Jesuit initiatives in Africa was helping to establish a university in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. About 60 Jesuits participated in the project founded by then Emperor Haile Selassie between 1946 and 1968.

In 1980, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, then Superior General of the Society of Jesus, established the International Jesuit Refugee Service. That led to the opening of affiliated Canadian offices: the Jesuit Refugee Service in Toronto and the Service Jesuite aux refugiés in Montreal. In addition to advocacy on behalf of refugees, Jesuits work directly with displaced persons in refugee camps, providing a range of aid services.

Fr. William Mbugua grew up in Kenya where missionary teachers imparted lessons about faith and service. This exposure to missionary life inspired Mbugua to join the Society of Jesus. Now living in Toronto, Mbugua worked with the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN) for two years in Nairobi. He represents a new type of work Jesuits are undertaking in international development: short-term projects that are passed on to local Jesuits to sustain.

During his time in Kenya, Mbugua assisted Fr. Michael Czerny, a Canadian who was AJAN’s founding director. AJAN’s mission is to encourage and assist Jesuits in sub-Saharan African who minister in the field of HIV/AIDS. Established in 2002, Jesuit AIDS ministries include programs for not only those suffering with the disease but also support for orphans, children and widows.

Jenny Cafiso, Canadian Jesuit International’s first lay director, notes how “mission” has evolved to international development work.

“Today more than ever, mission is understood as solidarity and two-way evangelization,” she said. “Our mission is to promote a spirituality of international solidarity and reciprocity.”

Part of CJI’s work is to “raise the consciousness of people” about the plight of their brothers and sisters overseas, Cafiso said.

She also noted how missionary work has changed. In the past, Northern countries sent missionaries overseas who stayed there. Today, mission assignments tend to be shorter. A Canadian missionary, for example, may be involved in the establishment of a project but when it is up and running smoothly its maintenance it taken over by local Jesuits.

That type of transition is what happened with AJAN, where Czerny was followed by African Jesuit Father Paterne Mombe. In India, Jesuit projects in Darjeeling now operate under the leadership of Fr. Paul D’Souza of the Jesuits in India, Cafiso said. Similar stories have unfolded in India, at the Gandhi Ashram School founded by Canadian Jesuit Father Edward McGuire in 1992, and in Zambia, at the Kasisi Agricultural Training Centre founded in 1974 by Br. Paul Desmarais, S.J.

But although there have been changes in how Canadian Jesuits mission to the marginalized people of the world, the vision established by St. Ignatius Loyola remains the same. Jesuit missionaries still joyfully “Go forth and set the world on fire with the love of God.”

Catholic Register


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


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