Death of a Superior General: Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ

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Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1983 to 2008, passed away on November 26 in Beirut, Lebanon. He was 87 years old.

The funeral Mass was held in Beirut on November 30 attended by Fr General Arturo Sosa.  In Rome on December 2, Fr Sosa led the Jesuits based in Rome in a Mass in the Church of Gesù to celebrate the life of Fr Kolvenbach. The principal concelebrants included members of the General Council as well as those who had been members of the General Council when Fr Kolvenbach was Superior General.  Fr Kolvenbach will be buried as he wished, under the cedars of Lebanon.

Pope Francis sent his “deepest condolences” to Fr Sosa upon hearing of the news of Fr Kolvenbach’s death.

In his letter addressed to Fr General, Pope Francis wrote: Having received the news of the pious death of Rev Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ, who was Superior General of the Society of Jesus, I wish to express to you and to the entire Jesuit family my deepest condolences. With memory of Fr Kolvenbach’s total fidelity to Christ and his Gospel, together with his generous commitment to exercise his particular office for the good of the Church, I offer prayers of suffrage by invoking the Divine Mercy for the eternal rest of his soul.  I spiritually unite myself to the memorial celebrations, and I cordially impart the Apostolic Blessing to you, to the Jesuits and all those who share the sadness of this mourning.  Francisco.

Funeral Mass of Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ in Beirut, LebanonFr Kolvenbach was elected at General Congregation 33 in 1983 to succeed Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ as Superior General. This was a turbulent time for the Society of Jesus under St Pope John Paul II who had widely-known concerns over the direction of the Jesuits under Fr Arrupe.  The pope had disregarded Fr Arrupe’s request to appoint his vicar general after a debilitating stroke in 1981 prevented him from continuing as Superior General.  Instead, the pope appointed two Jesuits to be temporary place-holders. 

Fr Kolvenbach was able to restore good relations with the papacy.  Addressing delegates at GC33 immediately after his election, he said, “The Lord wishes to make use of our Society to announce to the men and women of today’s world – with a pastoral preference for those who suffer injustices in this world – the Good News of the Kingdom in a way that speaks to their culture and condition of life. He wants us in this way to serve His Church and the vicar of Christ, Pope John Paul II.”  This sense of loyalty and service continued with Pope Benedict XVI.

Upon resigning as Superior General in 2008, Fr Kolvenbach returned to the Near East Province where he worked as assistant librarian in the Jesuit community in Beirut.  In recent months, he continued to work, as much as his health allowed, at St Joseph’s University in Beirut, particularly in the Armenian section of the Oriental Library and the Center for Arab-Christian Documentation and Research (CEDRAC).

Funeral Mass in the Church of Gesù, RomeBorn on November 30, 1928 in Druten, Holland, Fr Kolvenbach came to know the Society of Jesus through his secondary school studies at Canisius College.  He entered the novitiate at Grave on September 7, 1948 and pronounced his first vows on September 8, 1950.  After a year of juniorate at Grave and three years of philosophy at the Berchmans Institute of Nijmegen he was sent to Lebanon in 1958.

From the start of his assignment, he dedicated himself to the study of Arabic through direct contact with the people.  He specialised in Armenian language and literature and studied at St Joseph’s University for four years.  He was ordained a priest in the Armenian Rite on June 29, 1961 by the Vicar Apostolic of Beirut Eustace John Smith OFM.  He continued to study philosophy and linguistics in Beirut and Paris.  He completed tertianship in Cleveland, USA and professed solemn vows on August 15, 1969.

He was a professor of linguistics and Armenian language and literature at St Joseph’s University from 1968 until 1974, when he was named Vice-Provincial of the Near East, a region that includes Egypt, Lebanon and Syria.  In 1981 he was called to Rome as Rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute.

Jesuit Conference of Asia Pacific President Fr Mark Raper SJ lived in the same community as Fr Kolvenbach for almost 11 years.

“It was a joy to talk with him, although one had to prepare well.  He listened closely, responding with pithy comments that gave one both freedom and encouragement,” Fr Raper said.

“When in 1990 I first came to take up my assignment as International Director of JRS, I asked him what did he want of me.  ‘Do something for Africa’ was his immediate response.  He placed his trust in me and in the potential of JRS. It was enough encouragement to begin building, together with the Jesuits of Africa, a network of service among millions of displaced people on that continent.

“In the beginning Fr Kolvenbach appeared to support JRS out of duty. ‘This was the legacy of Fr Arrupe,’ he told me, ‘so I cannot be seen to shut it down.’ Yet when he was getting ready to leave Rome, he wrote, ‘throughout my 24 years as General, this social apostolate of the Society has been a source of deep consolation’. The more I knew him, it was clear that his affection for the service of refugees grew closer to his heart,” said Fr Raper who remembers how Fr Kolvenbach would sometimes talk about his own experiences as a scholastic in the camps of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon.

“Peter-Hans Kolvenbach died as he lived, with great simplicity, not wanting a fuss, deeply grateful for the care and help he received. One of the greatest privileges of my life has been to know and serve with this man.”