07 October 2016, The Tablet

Fr George Pattery SJ: South Asia can make a vital contribution


The growing Jesuit communities of South Asia can make a vital contribution as the Society of Jesus grapples with issues including religious intolerance and fundamentalism. In an interview with The Tablet, the Provincial of South Asia, Fr George Pattery S.J. said the great strength of the region’s communities is that of being at home with other religions, cultures and numerous languages.

Fr Pattery was speaking in Rome where he is attending a gathering of Jesuits that is preparing to elect a new leader and to determine the Society’s focus for the future.

Jesuits in South Asia comprise close to a quarter of membership of the Society in the world. They number 4,030 and are represented at the 36th General Congregation (GC36) in Rome by 46 delegates. South Asia has the fastest growing Jesuit communities in the world and some speculate that the time is ripe to elect the first Superior General from the region. With the election expected to take place early next week in conclave-like conditions, it is a subject upon which delegates will not be drawn.

As President of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, Pattery is responsible for India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He is based in New Delhi. His personal story is a typical one for his generation. Aged 65, he comes from a Christian family in the Catholic heartland of Kerala in southern India. Tradition holds that the area was evangelised by St Thomas the Apostle. As a Jesuit he went to work in the mission territory of Calcutta in the north and taught at the secular university. He has written two books about Gandhi, who led the independence movement against British rule in India. He believes there are parallels between Gandhi’s quest for justice driven by faith and a similar imperative for Christians.

Pattery says men are discerning Jesuit vocations today from all parts of India, including the tribal belt to the North. Some are first, second and third generation Christians. They come from a variety of backgrounds and social strata. Their primary work is in education in highly regarded schools and colleges but also of tribal and Dalit communities in informal settings. Jesuits are also active in social work, helping migrants and refugees and educating the poorest in society about their rights concerning work and accommodation. Pattery says the Jesuits encounter hostility in their work from those who exploit the poor and in some areas, because simply they are Christian.

Christians are a tiny minority and encounter persecution from fundamentalist Muslims, especially in Pakistan, and from extreme Hindu nationalists in some parts of India. A number of Jesuits have been killed in recent decades.

According to Pattery, the three major issues that are important to the Jesuits of South Asia are the same as those identified by Jesuits in the rest of the world: the environment, migration and refugees, questions of religious intolerance and fundamentalism.

He says the South Asia Jesuits bring to GC36 the strength of being at home with other religions and many cultures: “That experience of living with multiple cultures and religions and groups will give us a perspective to look at these questions with a much better universal perspective without feeling immediately threatened.”

However, he adds that the South Asia Jesuits need to learn about the international dimension of the important issues.

“What we thought was our issue is now becoming the issue of all, be it in Paris or be it in London. So I think of Pope Francis’ perspective: how are we to articulate our faith in an intercultural, interreligious context.”

Pattery is looking to Francis to inspire GC36 primarily because he is a Jesuit but also because he is giving a new perspective of being the Church. He cites Francis’ collegial approach to the Synod on the Family and his profile as a pastor.

“It is very important for us to say that Vatican II is being enacted and lived now by Pope Francis,” he says.

Another characteristic of Pope Francis, raised by Fr Pattery, is his encouragement to the Church to think about the role of the laity, and especially of women.

He says: “Maybe the step is not very visible and it has not immediately been taken up all over the world but I think the step that he has taken for the laity, and especially for women, is very significant and it is important that we should take it forward.”

Pattery also attended GC35 in 2008 when he was the Provincial of Calcutta. After that congregation he wrote that the South Asians missed the free flow of ideas and interventions and that “the causalities were the frontier issues of indigenous people, of African concerns and of engaging perspectives on mission.” He is hopeful this will not happen again at GC36 as he identifies a new connection between the ecological issues, indigenous people and the multicultural perspective.

Of GC35 he says: “ I think what we were trying to do at that time was to take separately the question of indigenous people. Now we see that these issues are all interconnected.”
















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