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Jesuit Identity and Lay Collaboration for Our Times

Posted on: 1 Dec, 2014

Modified on: 1 Dec, 2014

By unkonwn

Jesuit Identity and Lay Collaboration for Our Times

The complexity of an interface between Jesuit identity and lay collaboration can be best discussed within the framework of identity formation. The study of identities has a complex trajectory from psychology to anthropology, from individual to collective, from self to communal. Ever since the first usage of the term 'identity' in the 20 th century, it has come a long way. There have been enriching discourses on identity in relation to its nature, dimensions, constituents, formation, construction, crisis, change, multiplicity, influences, etc. One thing the above two disciplines have in common is that both of them challenge the essentialist approach to the identity concept that emphasizes the 'uniqueness' and 'essence' of identity at its core. The two traditions of discourses on identity, namely psychodynamic, and anthropological, have the same orientation and emphasis on the 'creation' and 'construction' of identity. This is obviously in sharp contrast with the essentialist notion of identity that is 'unique', 'essential', 'coherent', and somewhat permanent. Both the traditions reject the notion of primordial, permanent and fixed identity. Identity is a multiple and an open-ended construction and not a water-tight, compartmentalized, single, closed entity. These multiple identities refer to a variety of social phenomena, such as caste system, strong cultural values and ethnicity, nation, religion, descent group, class, occupation, lifestyle, gender, sexual orientation, and so on. Interconnectedness of various dimensions of identity despite its plurality is an accepted phenomenon today. One dimension influences the other. Despite multiplicity of identities each one of us has a dominant identity enabling us to read the world.


The Jesuit identity is in a process of evolution over the years and does not remain static or stagnant. It keeps being shaped by our context social, cultural, economic, political, historical, etc. However, the Asian-ness of the Jesuit identity remains dominant in our context. Since our identity is relational, Jesuits look at themselves vis--vis others both individually and collectively .

It is against this backdrop that the inclusion of laity in the Society's structure becomes extremely crucial for our times. However, there are certain problems in the process of Jesuit identity formation. For instance, while the universal aspect of Jesuit identity is inclusive of the lay people committed to a common cause, the particular dimension of Jesuit identity asserts its boundaries, necessitating laity's exclusion from its framework. Relationship between the Jesuits and the laity is dichotomized as "insider-outsider", "same-different", "other-non-other", etc. Nevertheless, the demand for inclusion of the laity in the Jesuit structure is not the Society's need (for its own survival) but that of the people. In the new construction of Jesuit identity it is the context that plays a pivotal and determining role and not the Society as such. Hence, the involvement of the laity in Jesuit life and mission needs to be looked upon as a response to the challenging signs our times. It is indeed a process of Jesuit identity formation from below.

There are, however, certain questions that need to be addressed. The Jesuit-lay collaboration is a question of two separate identities. Can laity participate in the mission vision and structure of the Society, which is characterized by Jesuit values, ethos, spirituality and charism? What makes a Jesuit, Jesuit and not a lay person? Can the boundaries between the two be merged? Should there be a line between the laity and Jesuits? What are the characteristics of a Jesuit? By virtue of following the Jesuit charisms can the laity fully identify themselves with the Jesuits, participating in the latter's way of proceeding? What then can be the degree of collaboration between the two?

On the side of the laity, similar questions can be asked. What do we understand by lay people in India? There is a difference in the western and Indian context of laity? In the west there is certain religious homogeneity of the people collaborating with the Society. Within the context of India the Jesuit-lay collaboration is confronted with the question of multiplicity. Hence the question of secularism arises. However, if we define secularism as being inspired by Jesus and the Gospel, there are lots of theoretical problems. The question is whether we are ready for collaboration from the Christian fold only or from different religious and cultural backgrounds. If we have them as collaborators, how do we ensure respect for their beliefs and values? Any inclusions of the adherents of other faiths would entail certain respect for their values. How do we go for a very close collaboration with people of different religions with a view of Christian mission?

Another aspect of collaboration is whether it can be based exclusively on profession or on a professional partnership in running institutions and movements within the mission vision of the Society. Partnership in itself does not create problem as such but it does ideologically. In the west it is very easy to speak of partnership with people who are Christians or with Christian values. The exclusive Jesuit-lay collaboration in an Indian context is less problematic than when this partnership is extended to non-Christian communities.

Partnership can be paternalistic. If there is full partnership there will be full trust and transparency in matters of property and administration. For instance, who owns the property and the resources? If there is partnership only at the level of work, we encounter some questions whether we are respectful of people at all.

How far is this partnership? Is it an act of freedom? Do we force people of different backgrounds into one structure? Is there imposition of certain values from top at the cost of the grassroots? If there is absorption and assimilation of the identities into a common stream, there is loss of creativity and humanism which emanates from freedom. This partnership has to be done in freedom. If we remain at a superficial level then there is no problem. But if we want an in-depth partnership there are several problems social, cultural, economic and political.

Moreover, there are contradictions between the old/traditional and the modern. The theological and philosophical thinking is inadequate in the context of the modern world. We are still functioning at the antiquated level despite living in the modern world. There are no deep philosophical and theological reflections. For instance, the incident of Loyola taking a decision to kill or not to kill the Moor if the mule turned left is indicative of the values system that is guiding us. The challenge, therefore is, how to develop democratic values in the Society with certain theology with specificity to various social groups in India.

The big question is the decentralization which is part of democratization. Is individual Jesuit part of the decision making process? How far? The crucial question is whether the decision comes from top or from the community? Is the laity part of the process of discernment or just an implementing agency? If Christians can be part of the process why can't others? If Jesuits cannot become part of the decision-making process most of the time, how can the non-Jesuits, leave alone the non-Christians?

To conclude, lots of questions are raised above to which there are no immediate answers. However, we must accept to face these questions. Answers will emerge as the result of a process. It is too early to have definite, final answers to the above questions. There is space for experiments and decentralization.

Working in a country, continent with multiplicity of religious traditions, requires from the Jesuits great sensitivity and respect to others' identity. Hence there is a necessity of a new understanding of religions that minimize practices, rituals and look for common new humanism in those traditions. Jesuits in South Asia should explore the possibility of a new theology that makes space for a secular Jesus, who can bring different people together for concretizing the mission-vision of the Society of Jesus.