Father Kolvenbach Remembered


I'd like to share some personal memories of Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, superior general of the Jesuits between the years 1983 and 2008. Others will have to produce more serious studies of his person and activity, his governance and his term of office. My reminiscences will be by way of a more unassuming testimony, an attempt to deal with the sadness I feel at the loss of someone with whom I worked for eight years, and whom I greatly admired.


We were both at the 32nd General Congregation (December 1972 to March 1973). We exchanged greetings but did not know one another. In the heated debates that took place at that time, he never said a word. When asked why later on, his only reply was that he was learning.


We met again at the 33rd General Congregation, whose task was to accept the resignation of Father Arupe and elect his successor. The world was full of ideologies and the sparks that flew from them. The Society was living under a great deal of pressure, internal as well as in its relations with the Holy See. Father Arrupe and John Paul II were not exactly thinking along the same lines.


This is why, when it was decided what qualities the new general should possess, besides those that St. Ignatius had specified, it was thought that the next general's leadership should not be flashy, but given to dialogue, capable of building bridges, and of generating confidence. Members of the Near Eastern Province (Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Palestine and Turkey) had seen Father Kolvenbach perform this way in situations that were much more difficult than at the Vatican. This is why he was elected, and throughout his long generalate he measured up to their expectations of him.


A few days after his election he called a meeting of the new general assistants and told us: “One would have to be wrong in the head to want this job. But God put us here, so let's enjoy it.”


He was by nature reserved, but at the same time, he could be a great conversationalist, capable of keeping his listeners absorbed for hours as they listened to stories about himself and other people. He had a great sense of humor, and the ability to see the witty side of things. He could be sarcastic, but without ever offending anyone, like when about three months after being in Rome as general assistant, he told me: “Now be off with you to Chile to complete the canonization of your ‘santito’.” He was, of course, referring to Padre Hurtado, for whose beatification I had still to finish preparing the documentation, of which he knew nothing at that time.


Speaking of his mother, who was Italian, he loved to tell how she had the odd idea of building her house in Holland near two bridges. The Germans, of course, aimed their bombs at the bridges, but they fell on his mother's house, with the result that for the rest of the war they lived in the basement. His father was a banker, and this was a help to him later on in dealing with the Society's finances.


He was a very studious person, but he used to poke fun at himself telling how during his philosophy studies he worked so hard that he became so tense that it took him weeks to loosen up. Languages were his passion. During his high-school days, he began to study Dutch, German, English, French, Latin and Greek. In Lebanon, he had to learn Arabic, but also Armenian and Russian. As for Spanish, he learned that little by little from his secretary, Brother Luis Garcia, and likewise Portuguese. Working closely with him, I could see that in about a year and a half he spoke Spanish rather well. He often asked me about Mapadungun [the language of the native Mapuche people of Chile and Argentina], and he was fascinated by its prefixes and suffixes.


What he liked most about being in Rome was not the museums but just to go for a stroll along the streets. He enjoyed looking at the people with their thousand and one different faces and activities. Oriental that he was, he loved to go shopping in a bazaar and haggle over prices.


With his eastern-rite priest's beard, he had the look of a monk. And that not just because of the beard but because of his monastic ways. He used to go to bed around 11 p.m. and get up at 3:30 a.m. for long prayers, Mass, and spiritual reading, preferably works of the ancient authors.


By 6 a.m., he was already having breakfast alone in the dining room, and he would then get to work. He was very organized in the way he took care of the morning mail. He hated to leave any business unfinished and liked to have his desk cleared by the end of the day. There were times when I heard him at ten o'clock at night coming along the corridor, leaving his latest memos in the mailbox of each room. He would then go quietly to bed.


He introduced in the curia the custom of a daily briefing, at 8 a.m. There he would recount what he had done the previous day, give news of the Society, speak of a visit he had to make to some cardinal or Vatican congregation, and we would do likewise. There were always amusing stories, delivered with a delightful Hans-Peter-brand twist. He would bring the Saturday briefing to an end with, "Happy Weekend!" as if inviting us to take a break, while he would go on working.


It used to be said that Peter-Hans ate alone and not with the community in the dining room. That was only partly true. What used to happen was that every day he would invite people to lunch to take care of different kinds of business, and he wanted to give them a special treat, the kind of meal that was not available in the large dining room of the curia, and for that he would dine in a separate dining room. These were luncheons that took much more time and entailed certain formalities: waiting for the arrival of the guest, welcoming him with a glass of wine, discussing the latest news, before getting down to business. Everything was simple but with a touch of class; that's what the table at San Ignacio had the reputation of being. Brother Garcia would serve the meal by himself. When there were no outside visitors, Peter-Hans would eat in the dining room with all the others.


Studious and methodical that he was, upon being elected superior he decided to undergo a renewal along Ignatian lines, beginning from square one. First, he determined to study the Spiritual Exercises in some depth, making use of his linguistic-analysis methods and reading some good authors. This led him to getting to know the lectures of the Centro de Espiritualidad Ignaciana (CIS), which were published in a number of books. After the Exercises he went to work on the Formula of the Institute and passages of the Constitutions. Some of the titles of his publications are: “To name the unnamable,” “Journeying toward Easter,” “On the Street of the Holy Spirit,” “The Road from La Storta.” All treat of very Ignatian themes. And I remember him challenging Father Carlo Maria Martini (who wrote books on the Exercises according to Moses, according St. John, according to St. Paul, etc.) saying, “Couldn't you have written a book on the Exercises according to St. Ignatius?” The two of them had a good laugh, but Martini accepted the challenge and wrote it.


Though quite different from Fr. Pedro Arrupe, Kolvenbach admired him tremendously. During the eight years that Don Pedro lay helpless in the infirmary, Peter-Hans visited him the way one makes a visit to the Blessed Sacrament. Though he himself was able to laugh at concrete situations in the life of the church—something Don Pedro was incapable of doing—he sensed the love that Arrupe had for the Church and the Second Vatican Council. He made use of all of his diplomatic skills to ease relations, not only with the Pope, but also with the Holy See and its congregations. He used to spend hours in conversation with the secretaries and sub-secretaries of the Vatican dicasteries, aware that this was where the real business was carried on. He could be very strict and severe in questions of failure to think with the Church. But for all the talk there might be about difficulties between the Holy See and the Society, in actual fact the Holy See continued to rely on the Society and would recommend possibilities for new and difficult missions on five continents. At one point they wanted to make him a cardinal. The idea seemed so ironic as to be fairly laughable.


Father Kolvenbach was very concerned about the training of young Jesuits. To put it concretely, he called for a revision of each of its stages. He assigned this task to Father Simón Decloux, an uncommonly good and capable man. Simón, in consultation with the provincials and those responsible for that training, worked very hard at this for many years, composing very illuminating guidelines that are still extremely useful.


Father Kolvenbach was fond of the university world, study, and intellectual rigor. In Lebanon, his life revolved in large part around the University of Saint Joseph and that of Beirut, and he worked there right up to the end of his life. Libraries were his passion and his delight. During the summer, in spite of Rome's terrible heat, he did not go anywhere, because for him vacations were for work in the library. He desired that the Jesuit scholar, very competent in his discipline, should continue to be a pastor both on campus and outside of it. I think that in this he established a precedent for the Society.


We assistants used to have regular frequent visits with Father General in order to take care of what needed to be done in those areas that were our responsibility. Normally he would agree to support and adopt the suggestions and petitions that were presented to him. This is how he took on the post of World Assistant of the CLC, thereby strengthening the bond between the CLC and the Society, which hitherto had been the responsibility of a bishop in a far away diocese of Canada who had scant access to the Holy See and the Society. It was my job to prepare with him various world conferences, such as the ones for charismatic Jesuits, the Apostleship of Prayer, Ecumenism, CLC assemblies, parishes, retreat houses. And he was always ready to help prepare and deliver a message. He was a superior general very much at the service of the varied and always surprising life to be found in the Church and in the Society.


To conclude, Peter-Hans was fond of listening to the songs of Domenico Modugno, especially his “Volaré.” God has called him “al blu, dipinto di blu.” It is a rest he is in need of after 25 years as general and a life dedicated to the service of others.