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Pedro Arrupe SJ

30 November, 1999

Fr Brian Grogan SJ tells us about the life and times of Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ.

Now however, twenty-seven years after his death, he is coming to be recognized as one of the towering figures of 20th century Catholic life. His was a vast panorama of influence. He shaped the lives of many both within the Society and outside it. As his successor, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach said: ‘He belongs to the world.’ Lay persons animated by Ignatian spirituality owe him a debt of gratitude for rescuing the richness of that spirituality and presenting it anew after Vatican II. He was a prophetic and visionary figure whose memory will live on.

We need only to look at the chapter headings in a recent massive study of him to get an idea of his engagement with the Church and the world. A (Arrupe) and Africa; A and Latin America; A and the Russian Orthodox Church; A and Vatican II; A and Justice; A and Dialogue, Culture, Gospel.

It is said that if we can see far ahead, it is because we stand on the shoulders of giants. He was such, and we can be lifted up by him and offered a vision of how to live our lives in the service of Christ.

Born in 1907 in Bilbao, northern Spain, he, like St. Ignatius, was a Basque. The family was a happy one; he had four sisters, older than himself. A bright student, he loved theatre, music, opera. He went for medicine, and a brilliant career opened to him.

In 1926 he went to Lourdes for three months as a member of the Verification Bureau. There he witnessed three cures. The first was of a nun with spinal tuberculosis, lying paralysed in a plaster cast; she had difficulty in speaking. During the blessing of the sick she rose from her stretcher, calling, ‘I’m cured!’ Loudspeakers picked it up and the crowd responded over and over: ‘Miracle, miracle!’

The second miracle was of an elderly woman with stomach cancer. Her doctors told her that her only cure would be a miracle. After the baths, she said she felt hungry and knew she was cured. The third was of a paralysed young man, who, during the blessing of the sick, cried, ‘I’m cured!’ and jumped out of his wheelchair.

Arrupe’s comment was, ‘I sensed God very close and tugging at me’, and in 1927 he joined the Jesuits in Loyola. He asked to be sent to Japan, where Francis Xavier had laboured, but was told to wait. In 1932 the Order was expelled from Spain by the Government. This was a shocking experience of injustice and raised for him issues about the relationship of Church and State, faith and justice.

In 1936 he was ordained in Belgium, went to the US to complete his formation, and in 1938 was finally missioned to Japan. He learned Japanese, but while he spoke six other languages, he was not a linguist, and some commented that he actually spoke Spanish in seven languages! He once played his fiddle in a Yamaguchi square to gather an audience, much as Xavier had done 400 years earlier by ringing a bell.

After Pearl Harbour and America’s entry into the Second World War, he was arrested as a US spy, and spent fifty-six days in prison and solitary confinement. He contemplated the possibility of torture such as many of his brethren had endured before him. He prayed for courage and found God close. ‘It was beautiful, the solitude with Christ, a mystical experience, nothing in my cell, only me and Christ.’ His eyes filled with tears in telling this story. Again, he had here a direct experience of injustice, and time to ponder how the message of Christ could ever be heard in a violent, savage world.

Freed from prison, he prepared his starving novices to serve their country’s spiritual needs, while in the US, the Manhattan Project – the creation of the atom bomb – was under way, costing millions of dollars. On the feast of the Transfiguration, 6 August 1945, while homilies across the world carried a message of hope for the transfiguration of humanity, the atom bomb was dropped on the unsuspecting city of Hiroshima.

Arrupe led the first rescue party into the flattened city in which 150,000 had been annihilated or killed. He brought over 200 scarred human remnants home to the Jesuit house. They had been burned, boiled, skinned, deafened, blinded. He cared for them, helped by his medical expertise. For him the bomb was ‘a permanent experience outside of history, engraved on my memory’. Again there were questions that would not go away: ‘Where is God in all this? What is the role of the Church in the face of such horrors?’

From 1954 till 1965, he led his brethren in the evangelization of the broken nation. In 1965 he attended General Congregation 31. He was an outsider, a missioner from the ends of the earth, whose only goal was to convey to his brethren how the Society must adapt to meet the needs of the contemporary world. They must have been impressed, for they elected him 28th general of 36,000 Jesuits. He spent the following sixteen years in leading the renewal of the Jesuits and other Congregations, in fidelity to Vatican II, for the service of the Church and the world. 

This article first appeared in The Messenger (March 2008), a publication of the Irish Jesuits.