'I felt God so close'

His wartime incarceration, said the late Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, was a grace and
a favour. His experiences in Japan continued to shape his life and mission.


By Fr Ross Jones SJ, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point 

In naming our new building and campus after former Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ, it is timely to share his life story. Pedro was born in Bilbao in 1907. The place is significant – in the Basque region of northern Spain. This was the same countryside he had in common with Ignatius Loyola. One only has to look at the build and profiles of these small-in-stature men to see the Basque physical features which the two shared – the high, broad forehead, the aquiline nose. 

Though he was educated at the Piarist Fathers’ school, when Pedro was eleven he joined a Marian sodality or youth group, run by a charismatic Jesuit in Bilbao, Fr Ángelo Basterra SJ. He was to leave Bilbao to study medicine in Madrid at sixteen, but the influence remained. 
Pedro continued to be as gifted a tertiary student as he was at school and he won prizes along the way. In his spare time, he was quite active in the St Vincent de Paul Society, working with those on the edge. Such service had a profound effect on him. 
Having lost his mother when he was only eight, Pedro also lost his father when he was nineteen. His life was to change. He and his sisters went on a pilgrimage to Lourdes, the centre of Marian devotion and healing in France. He had heard his professors in medical school speak disparagingly of “the superstitions of Lourdes”. But he was allowed to work in the Office of Verification there, where atheist doctors were engaged to make assessment of claims of cures. There he witnessed many unexplained miracles. He would later say, “I felt God so close in his miracles that he dragged me after him.” He gave up his medical studies and joined the Society of Jesus the next year. 
Jesuit formation began in his home country, starting at Ignatius’ birthplace at Loyola. However, this was interrupted by the Spanish Civil War which saw the Jesuits (yet again) expelled from Spain. So Pedro studied in the Netherlands, Belgium and finally in the United States, where he was ordained. He went on to take a doctorate in medical ethics. 
Always wanting to be a missionary, Pedro volunteered to go to Japan which was then an international Jesuit mission to which any Jesuit could apply. He arrived in 1938 and began work enthusiastically, but with little impact in drawing the Japanese to Christianity. This disappointed him greatly. Then, with the attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1941, Japan entered the war. 
The very next day, in the middle of celebrating Mass, Pedro was arrested, accused (as a foreigner) of espionage. Many letters to him from Jesuits in different foreign languages and in Latin were found in his office and these looked very suspicious! Hence Pedro was to spend thirty-three days in a military prison in harsh conditions, sleeping on a thin mat on the floor, in the bitter cold of winter, fed on fibrous turnips and broth. In addition, he was also interrogated for long periods. 

Mother Teresa in the company of an ailing Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ. 

By the time he was released, Pedro had won the respect of his captors and the prison commander. Upon his departure, the commander, with tears in his eyes, shook Pedro’s hand and said to him, “Preach, preach that admirable religion that is yours.” (At the end of the war, American military interrogators questioned Pedro about his treatment at the hands of his captors. They were looking for evidence of war crimes. But Pedro refused to say anything condemnatory. He had forgiven them. In fact, he was later to describe this incarceration as a grace and a favour. He described the solitary confinement as something of a mystical experience in being alone with God.) 
Pedro was then appointed as the novice master in 1942. The novitiate was in suburban Hiroshima. It was there that the atomic bomb was dropped on 6 August 1945. Pedro and seven other Jesuits who lived in the community experienced the flash of the explosion and then the massive shock wave which followed. Their residence was severely damaged, but being sheltered by a hill, they all survived. Arrupe was to describe that event as “a permanent experience outside of history, engraved on my memory.” 
With his medical skills, Pedro converted the novitiate into a makeshift hospital and began to treat around 200 victims of the physical blast, as well as those with radiation burns. The work was relentless. Afterwards, quite a number of those patients became Christians because of the charity and goodness they felt. 
Three days after the Hiroshima bomb, a second atomic device was dropped in Nagasaki. Subsequently, in a radio broadcast, the Japanese Emperor, regarded by his people as a god, announced his nation’s surrender on 15 August. The country was demoralised and humiliated. Pedro was to witness a most extraordinary cultural transition. The vast majority obeyed the surrender, but many soldiers committed hara-kiri or suicide, while kamikaze pilots plunged into naval targets and into the sea. 

When American occupation forces arrived, Arrupe ministered on the US ships anchored at Hiroshima. Some of the officers realised that Pedro’s mission was very short of supplies and finances. One captain promised to send him a good supply of vitamins. A few days later, a trailer arrived laden with large heavily sealed boxes, with a note claiming they were “the best vitamins there are in the world”. When the novices opened the boxes, they discovered they were filled with countless bottles of very fine whisky! Pedro realised this was worth a small fortune. Given the fondness of the Japanese for spirits, the sale of these provided the means of support of the community in the post-war months. 
Pedro continued in the Japanese mission in various roles. In particular, he now had time to translate a number of Jesuit works into Japanese – particularly the Spiritual Exercises. In 1950 he was sent on a world journey to give talks in various Jesuit Provinces about the work in Japan, which had been elevated from the status of being a mission to a Vice-Province, and to raise funds for the enterprise. This was the beginning of his becoming known internationally among the Jesuits. Pedro then became the Vice-Provincial and was subsequently appointed the first Provincial of the new Japanese Province in 1958. 
In the same year, Cardinal Roncalli was elected to become Pope John XXIII. Roncalli was expected to be a safe “caretaker Pope” and to do very little. But the winds of change were soon to blow. Four years later the Pope convened the Second Vatican Council, a watershed of renewal for the Church. 
In the final year of that Council, 1965, at a General Congregation of the Society of Jesus in Rome, Pedro Arrupe was elected the twenty-eighth Superior General of the Society of Jesus. 

Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ in Manila.

Again, the same year, one of the documents of the Council, Perfectae Caritatis (which dealt with religious life), was released. It requested that each religious order seek out knowledge of its own origins and history. It asked for a recovery of “the spirit and the aims proper to the founder” which would help to attune it to “the changed conditions of our time”. 

Pedro was to accept that task with relish. In response to the challenge of Vatican II to go back to their roots and rediscover their founder’s original charism, he began a renaissance of research and renewal in the Jesuits. A deeper understanding of the Society’s mission was embraced.  

A decade after his election as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Pedro attended an International Congress of Jesuit Alumni of Europe that was held in Valencia, Spain. This was in 1973, two years before the death of the country’s fascist dictator, General Francisco Franco.  

As General of the Society, Pedro had been encouraging the order to rediscover its roots, to become more true to the vision of the Jesuits’ founder. He encouraged change. Some of our colleges, which were seen as bastions of a comfortable elite, unable to respond to victims of poverty and injustice at their door, concerned him.  

At the alumni gathering, Pedro challenged the attendees. They needed to do more than reminisce over the good times, or relive their youthful antics. They must act to put their gifts and talents at the service of others. Social justice was not just an abstract theory, it was a clarion call. His audience, steeped in almost four decades of Franco’s fascism, began to smell what they thought were traces of Marxism, especially in the context of his use of language like the “liberation of the oppressed”.  

Pedro said: “Today our prime educational objective must be to form men (and women)-for-others; men (and women) who will live not for themselves but for God and his Christ — for the Godman who lived and died for all the world; men (and women) who cannot even conceive of love of God which does not include love for the least of their neighbours; men (and women) completely convinced that love of God which does not issue in justice for others is a farce.” 

These were provocative words. Whilst a number of those alumni walked away (and the alumni movements in Spain were fractured for decades to come) this Valencia address would ultimately shape the way Jesuit schools around the world formed and taught their students.  

Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ with Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, the Jesuit who was elected Superior General to succeed him.

The following year, another General Congregation (GC) of Jesuits gathered in Rome, to plan the Society’s future course. It was the most inspirational GC of recent times. Here, the gathering discerned and articulated what could be called the mission statement of the Society: “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.” 

Faith and justice were now linked, as the Gospels and the Epistle of James had made abundantly clear centuries earlier. Justice was not “an add on” or “an optional extra”. It was an “absolute”, a constitutive element of the preaching of the Gospel. 

In the years following the fall of Saigon in 1975 at the end of the Vietnam War, there was an enormous stream of South Vietnamese, individuals and families, fleeing the country’s new communist regime. Most escaped by sea in overcrowded and unseaworthy vessels. The world then heard harrowing accounts of the refugees being shot by the Viet Cong patrols, or lost at sea in typhoons and rough waters, or robbed, raped and murdered by Thai pirates. 

In response, Pedro established the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). He invited Jesuits world-wide to become partners in this mission. The response was immediate and generous. The goal of JRS was to “accompany, serve and advocate” for the dispossessed. Pedro imagined that JRS’s work would be complete and wound up in a couple of years. How wrong he was! JRS continues today, working in 55 nations, serving a million and a half people. The educational ministry is a significant part of the work in the many refugee and asylum-seekers’ camps. 

Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ with members of the Spanish royal family in Rome.

Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was to become Pope John Paul II in 1978 after leading the Church in Poland under the nation’s communist masters. Pedro, however, still bore the taint of leftist influence. The Pope was distrustful or disapproving. There were also Jesuits who were becoming too radical or progressive in their theology or their ministries, which displeased the Pope, given his conservative disposition. 

A year later, the Pope accused the Jesuit leadership of “causing confusion among the Christian people and anxieties to the church and also personally to the Pope,” criticising in particular “secularizing tendencies” and “doctrinal unorthodoxy” within the order. This hurt Pedro keenly because the Jesuits have always had a strong bond with the Holy See – evidenced especially in their fourth solemn vow of obedience to the Pope in regard to mission. 

In 1981, after a gruelling tour of the Far East, Pedro suffered a stroke and resigned as Superior General. But instead of allowing the Vicar General to govern in his place and convene a GC to elect a successor – the normal canonical procedure – the Pope intervened. He suspended the process and appointed another Jesuit, an ageing Fr Paolo Dezza SJ, to lead the Society. John Paul would not allow a GC to convene because he did not trust the directions that such a legislative gathering might take the Society. 

Jesuits worldwide were shocked and some angered by this papal strategic move, but accepted it in fidelity. Some Vatican observers thought the Pope was quite surprised that the Jesuits did not revolt at his intervention. Reassured somewhat, he later allowed Fr Dezza to convene a GC. The Pope also visited the dying Pedro, much to the latter’s delight. 

A GC was convened in 1983 and Pedro’s successor, Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, was elected Superior General. The very frail Pedro was wheeled into the opening ceremony and so warmly welcomed. He then offered his now-famous prayer:  

More than ever I find myself in the hands of God. 
This is what I have wanted all my life from my youth. 
But now there is a difference: 
the initiative is entirely with God. 
It is indeed a profound spiritual experience 
to know and feel myself so totally in God’s hands. 

The words were greeted with tears and applause. 

The beloved Pedro died on 5 February 1991.  

This article was originally published in two parts in recent editions of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point. 

To enquire about becoming a Jesuit in Australia, contact vocations@sjasl.org.au and for more info, visit our Vocations page. 

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