11 October 2016 | by Elena Curti
Elena Curti speaks to the director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Zambia for an African view
The memory of a past Jesuit leader, Pedro Arrupe S.J. (1907-1991) looms large for members of the order who are now deciding who should lead them next
This is especially true for an African delegate, Fr Leonard Chiti S.J. who is engaged in work inspired by Arrupe’s commitment to “the preferential option for the poor.”
Chiti is director of the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection in Lusaka, Zambia. The centre, says Chiti, has a direct link to Arrupe who presided at the 32nd General Congregation (GC32) that established the “service of faith and the promotion of justice” as the overriding characteristic of all Jesuit works.
He says: “After 28 years we have become a renowned and well respected faith based organisation and we have been quite useful in terms of providing checks and balances where the government is concerned. We have been instrumental in popularising Catholic social teaching which is the bedrock of our work and whenever we make public comments they are listened to by government.”
We meet at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome where delegates at the 36th General Congregation are enjoying a short break before beginning the process of electing a new Superior General. The election is due to take place on Friday. After that, a number of weeks will be spent on determining the Society of Jesus’ priorities for the future.
Chiti is among the radical voices at GC36 who want to renew the Society of Jesus’ commitment to social justice. He is well known in Zambia as a social commentator and political activist and has a column in a local newspaper. He defends the role as entirely compatible with his ministry and shrugs off criticism from some Catholics in Zambia who disapprove of priests being involved in politics.
He is the eldest of nine children born to a Catholic family in Zambia’s copper mining region. He first discerned his vocation to the priesthood as a teenager though at that stage the Church was unwilling to accept him. He says this was because, as the eldest son, he was expected to take responsibility for his family in the event of his father’s death. He was introduced to the Jesuits on a retreat prior to going to university and was immediately drawn to the order. The link continued via a Jesuit chaplain and he joined the Jesuits after graduation. He has a Master’s degree in development studies from SOAS (The School of Oriental and African Studies), University of London, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy and theology from the Arrupe College in Harare, Zimbabwe.
There are 110 Jesuits in his province of Zambia and Malawi, mostly working in education. He says they want GC36 to strengthen what the Jesuits call the “social apostolate”.
The need, he says, is particularly urgent in Zambia: “We have been let down by our government leaders who really don’t care much about the poor even though they make nice-sounding lofty pronouncements. But I also believe that within the Church we have not done enough to equip ordinary Christians to call their leaders to account. The majority of Zambians are classified as poor, not because the country is poor but because the way the economy is run.”
And then there is the Francis-effect – “the man next door” says Chiti gesturing with a smile in the direction of St Peter’s Square. Delegates are looking to the first Jesuit Pope for inspiration when he addresses GC36 sometime after the election of the new Superior General. Francis was a delegate at GC32 and GC33.
“We are thinking how can we appropriate Pope Francis’ style of leadership within our own Society of Jesus,” says Chiti singling out Pope Francis’ encyclical on ecology, Laudato Si’. “The negative effects of climate change affect the poor the most. The Pope’s message is timely and very pertinent,” he adds.
Chiti is the sole Jesuit working with 22 lay staff at the centre for theological reflection. Greater collaboration between the Jesuits and the laity is another area he wants to see advanced at GC36. While in Rome, especially, he has been thinking about St Ignatius of Loyola and his companions, who established the Society of Jesus there in 1540.
“Every time I move between the Jesuit Curia and where I’m staying, I think about the first Jesuits. They were small group of people who worked here in Rome and who committed themselves without reservation. They didn’t worry about their comfort or material situation and were effective in their ministries. Can we imitate the first Jesuits in attending to the challenges we are facing today with the same effectiveness?”
It is a question the 36th General Congregation will consider in earnest in the coming weeks as they look at calls for the renewal of Jesuit ministry.