Interreligious Dialogue as Integral to the Jesuit Mission
The mission of the Society of Jesus goes back over 400 years to its founding by St. Ignatius. In 1540, Pope Paul III approved the Society of Jesus "chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine." This mission statement has been successively refined over the years by periodic "General Congregations," the highest legislative authority within the Jesuit Order when it sits. Recent Congregations consist of about 200 members, some ex officio and most elected, and last anywhere from two to four months. Woodstock’s director, Father Jim Connor, was elected to both the 32nd and the 34th General Congregations.
When the 32nd General Congregation met in 1974-1975, it recognized that "progress of souls" or even "love of neighbor" might be read to mean individual acts of charity for people in need, whereas our times call for us also to address the social structures and institutional arrangements which oftentimes stifle opportunities for development and oppress people unjustly. Moreover, "love" or "charity" can be taken to mean "something added" or "over and above what is really required," whereas people have certain rights which all of us are obliged in justice to recognize and honor.
So, General Congregation 32 described our mission today as "the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement." This was a major innovation for the Jesuit Order and had a profound influence on the goals and the shape of Jesuit ministry.
Twenty years later, in 1995, another General Congregation, the 34th, realized we needed an even further refinement of our mission of serving the faith by promoting justice. That refinement was the incorporation into our mission statement of dialogue with other religions and insertion into local cultures. In the words of the 34th Congregation:
In our experience since GC 32, we have come to see that our service of faith, directed towards the justice of God’s Kingdom, cannot avoid...dialogue [with other religious traditions] and presence within cultures. The proclamation of the Gospel in a particular context ought always to address its cultural, religious, and structural features, not as a message that comes from outside, but as a principle that, from within, "animates, directs and unifies the culture, transforming and remaking it so as to bring about ‘a new creation’." (Fr. Pedro Arrupe on inculturation, Acta Romana 17  p. 257)
In other words, the service of faith through the promotion of justice, includes and implies sensitivity to the culture of people we are serving, a culture which almost invariably involves religious belief. The Congregation tries to put us in touch with the rich religious diversity of our world and the opportunity it represents.
If we imagine ourselves with the Trinity, in the spirit of Ignatius, looking down on the earth as the third millennium of Christianity is about to unfold, what do we see? More than five billion human beings—some male, some female; some rich, many more poor; some yellow, some brown, some black, some white; some at peace, some at war; some Christian (1.95 billion), some Muslim (1 billion), some Hindu (777 million), some Buddhist (341 million), some of new religious movements (128 million), some of indigenous religions (99 million), some Jewish (14 million), some of no religion at all (1.1 billion). What meaning and what opportunity does this rich ethnic, cultural, and religious pluralism that characterizes God’s world today have for our lives and for our mission of evangelization?
And the Congregation goes on to spell out the interrelation-ships between justice, faith, cultures, and religious belief.
- There cannot, in short, be an effective proclamation of the Kingdom unless the Gospel, having been brought to the very center of a society, touches its structural, cultural, and religious aspects with its light.
- There is effective dialogue with members of other traditions when there is a shared commitment to a transformation of the cultural and social life within which people live.
- The transformation of human cultures requires a dialogue with the religions that inspire them and a corresponding engagement with the social conditions that structure them.
- If our faith is directed towards God and his justice in the world, this justice cannot be achieved without, at the same time, attending to the cultural dimensions of social life and the way in which a particular culture defines itself with regard to religious transcendence.
And, finally, the Congregation reminds us that the integration of interreligious dialogue into our mission of the service of faith in the promotion of justice is something that Pope John Paul II has urged on us.
The Holy Father has repeatedly asked Jesuits to make interreligious dialogue an apostolic priority for the third millennium.(3) In a world where Christians comprise less than 20 percent of the population [sic], it is imperative that we collaborate with others to achieve common goals.
Footnote (3) in the text above refers us to: "John Paul II, ‘Ad quosdam Societatis Iesu Sodales,’ 27 February 1982, Acta Romana 18 (1982): p. 728; Homily at General Congregation 33, 2 September 1983, Acta Romana 18 (1983): p. 1093; Allocution to General Congregation 34, 5 January 1995, n. 6."
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