General from 1983 to 2008

As was written in the previous sketch, any person of the last quarter of the 20th Century, and one familiar with the very recent history of the Jesuits, recognizes the name of Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the 29th General of the Society. We must await the definitive account of his Generalate to give us a true picture of his accomplishments and hopes for the future of the Society and how they were carried out.
Peter-Hans was born on November 30, 1928, in Druten, a small town in South-eastern Holland, not far from Nijmegen. He was fortunate to have spent his childhood and adolescence close to the German border where he was able not only to use his native Dutch language, but German as well. It gave him a certain linguistic bent and later he was able to acquire several other languages including Arabic and Chaldean. He was able to switch rather easily from one to another without missing a syllable.

His early schooling was at Canisius College, and he soon felt the call to become a priest. He entered the Novitiate at Mariendaal on September 7, 1948 and studied Philosophy and Theology in Nijmegen. He was ordained in Beirut, Lebanon, on June 29, 1961 in the Chaldean Rite.

He became professor of Linguistics and Armenian at St. Joseph's University and was at home in both Oriental and Occidental communities.

He was named Vice Provincial of the Near East Vice-Province made up of three Regions—Egypt, Lebanon, and Syria. During his term as Vice-Provincial, Lebanon was engaged in a destructive and bloody civil war and Kolvenbach managed to keep his equilibrium, his altruism, and personal tranquility in the face of opposing factions.

He was able to travel through the Near-East visiting the Jesuits in his charge.

In 1981, he was appointed Rector at the Oriental Institute in Rome, an office he held for almost two years until his election as General.

Father General Arrupe had become incapacitated and was clearly unable to carry on as General. In 1980 he, himself, had suggested that he resign and a Congregation be held to elect a successor.
On October 5, 1982 Pope John Paul II named Father Paolo Dezza as his Delegate—in effect, the Vicar General—to prepare for a Congregation to be held in the following autumn. So, on December 8, 1982 Dezza called for a Thirty-third General Congregation with the view of addressing two immediate problems: the resignation of Arrupe and the election of a new General. In addition, it was to treat of matters suggested by the Holy See.

It was to begin on the following September 1 and continue until October 25, 1983. The work of the Congregation began on September 2, 1983 and right away got down to the matters in hand. Before voting on Arrupe's resignation a eulogy on his exceptional life of devotion to the Society was given and, the delegates, then, voted secretly on the proposition. Arrupe's resignation was accepted forthwith by the assembled Fathers on September 3.

On the 13th the Fathers gathered in the chapel for an exhortation and a concelebrated Mass, after which a long time was spent in private prayer. In the Aula the Fathers gathered for the next session and Father Kolvenbach was elected General on the first ballot by an absolute majority of the votes. The result was quickly conveyed to the Pope who was on a pastoral visit in Austria.

Immediately after his election Father Kolvenbach's remarks to the delegates expressed the Society's profound gratitude to Father Arrupe for his sacrifice and long devotion to the Society, and to Father Dezza, the Pope's Delegate who had so successfully moved the Congregation along.

During the following years Father Kolvenbach carried on the example of Father Arrupe by visiting as many Jesuit Provinces and individual Jesuits as possible. As General his altruism and tranquility was displayed just as they had been when he was Provincial in the Near East in tempering of some misgivings of his subjects. As General his character has not changed from what it had been in the Near-East.

It was in September 1992 that he first issued the call for another Congregation. Then, on September 8, 1993, he fixed the dates of the 34th General Congregation to begin on January 5, 1995, and was to continue until March 22. It was to deal with the Mission of the Society in the world today, the Jesuit identity, as we perceive ourselves, and for a revision of laws to conform to the modern world updating the Society to conform to the new code of Canon Law. Possibly, he found himself frustrated by the precipitous drop in the numbers of Jesuits in the past twenty or thirty years and the few Jesuit Novices entering to replenish the ranks of the older members, who were slowly dying off, and being unable to stop the gradual out-flow. However, Father Kolvenbach's optimism was a continual encouragement to the members of the Society, which he conveyed by letter and numerous conferences as he visited the various provinces.

As of this writing Father Kolvenbach, God willing, still has years before him and will add to his many accomplishments and the many directives he has given for the future of the Company of Jesus and for the Greater Glory of God.