He assumed his high office in a time of unprecedented change and challenge. At first, no one who voted for him really expected him to win. The outcome frightened some and reassured others. The man was Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., the 29th superior general of the Society of Jesus, who died last month at the age of 87. He had been a Jesuit for 68 years, serving as superior general for nearly a quarter-century.
Dutch by birth, German and Italian by genes, Father Kolvenbach was elected superior general in a time of crisis. Church officials, including Pope John Paul II, had grown suspicious of the Jesuits under the leadership of Father Pedro Arrupe, Kolvenbach’s immediate predecessor. The Jesuits had lost their way, some thought, especially in Latin America, where the sons of Ignatius had embraced liberation theology. At the height of the Cold War, they wondered why any Catholic, let alone a priest, would associate himself with a movement that, in part, had Marxist underpinnings.
Just a few months after the assassination attempt on John Paul in 1981, Father Arrupe suffered a devastating stroke that ended his active ministry. Forces in the Roman Curia allied against the Jesuits seized the moment to call the ecclesial equivalent of a time-out. The pope intervened directly in the governance of the Society, suspending its constitutions and bypassing Father Arrupe’s presumptive successor. After an anxious two years, the pope at last gave permission for the Jesuits to hold a general congregation and elect a new leader.
But who among the delegates possessed the necessary holiness, gravitas, humility and aplomb that the moment required? Who could heal the breach? The task fell to Father Kolvenbach. As Joseph M. McShane, S.J., president of Fordham University, recently told America: “Most if not all Jesuits would tell you that Father Kolvenbach’s humility, holiness, integrity and savvy diplomacy were what stabilized the Society after one of the roughest periods of our history. Without his serenity and savvy, we would have been very much at sea. We owe him more than we could ever repay.”
It’s safe to say that without Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, there would be no Pope Francis. Thirty years ago there was a profound rupture in the relationship between the papacy and the Society of Jesus. Today the pope is a Jesuit. That the College of Cardinals would entrust the governance of the universal church to a Jesuit is a testament to Father Kolvenbach’s tireless efforts to reconcile the Society with the church and pontiff it exists to serve.
After 25 grace-filled years, Father Kolvenbach had a “Simeon moment”: Let your servant go in peace, he told us, as he became the first Jesuit superior general to resign from office. Many insiders say that Father Kolvenbach’s resignation paved the way for Pope Benedict XVI's resignation in 2013. When asked what he would do in retirement, Kolvenbach replied: whatever my superiors ask me to do. He spent his final years as the assistant librarian for the Jesuit university in Beirut.
In one of his final interviews, given in these pages in 2007, Father Kolvenbach shared with us what he had learned through his time as general: “Jesuits are not as brilliant and excellent as people believe us to be, and we are not the liberals, protesters and free-thinkers some like to say we are.” The key to who we are, he said, is our living relationship with Christ and his church: “I hope and pray that, inspired by the experience of St. Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises, we can continue this mission, which leads Jesuits, other religious and laypeople to a personal encounter with the Lord, the origin of our vocation and of our mission in the world.” R.I.P.