By Fr Cedric Prakash sj*
January 17, 2016 was observed as the ‘World Day of Migrants and Refugees’; it’s an appropriate, I feel, to share with you a new chapter in my life! I am really not sure where to begin! What I want to share – has many different dimensions; it’s like a multi-coloured tapestry – delicately but exquisitely inter-woven into a unique design! The creativity and the dexterity involved can be appreciated and understood – only by those who can watch it’s unfolding from a distance! Somehow, I feel myself in that situation: looking into, about to leap into something I did not even think was possible – some months ago!
Fr. Pedro Arrupe is for me and for several of my brother Jesuits and others one of the great Saints of the post-Vatican II period. He was the Superior General of the Society of Jesus from 1965, a time when the Church and the world at large was going through a historical transformation.
I joined the novitiate in Ahmedabad, Gujarat in 1974. About a year later, in December 1975, Fr. Pedro Arrupe presided over the 32nd General Congregation which left a deep impression on the universal Society of Jesus which mandated every Jesuit to the service of faith and the promotion of justice. This thrust became the defining direction for Jesuits all over the world.
In keeping with the vision he had for a world which is inclusive and all-embracing which had faith-justice as its cornerstone, Fr. Arrupe launched in November 1980 the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) (www.jrs.net) ‘with the mission to accompany, serve and advocate on behalf of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons’. Ever since the JRS has been responding to the cries of millions of people all over the world!
One of the first Jesuits to work with the JRS from India was Fr. Pierre Ceyrac, someone who has been a great inspiration in my life. He worked in Bangkok, Cambodia and other parts of South-East Asia; Fr. Jose Changanacherry (on demitting office as the Provincial of Gujarat) also went to work with JRS in Africa. Fr. Varkey Parekkatt (who was also the Provincial of South Asia) also had a stint with JRS in Nepal; listening to their moving testimonies and the fact that Fr. Arrupe has always been my hero, I always dreamt that I would one day at least “spend a little time with JRS”.
It came rather suddenly and spontaneously, in November 2014. In a conversation with Fr. Stanny Fernandes, the Director of JRS, South Asia expressed this desire. A young Jesuit Priest Fr. Prem Kumar had been abducted by some Taliban outfit in Afghanistan and all efforts were being made to secure his release.
My thoughts at that time were to serve for a couple of weeks or a month in Afghanistan, Nepal or elsewhere. Little did I realise that in a skype conversation later that evening with my friend Fr. Peter Balleis (the Director of JRS International) that Fr. Stanny would tell him of this desire. There were immediate communications from Fr. Peter literally asking as to when I would be ready to join the JRS; well, my response at that time was “it’s only for a short time and we will see”.
Early in April, I made my annual Spiritual Exercises (retreat) in the Jesuit residence of Gandhinagar. It was a troubling retreat with my thoughts constantly going back to the JRS. On Good Friday, there was this urge as never before to say “yes” and on Holy Saturday, I wrote to Fr. Peter Balleis that I think I hear the Lord calling me to serve in JRS. Peter’s immediate response was “come immediately. We are waiting for you”.
In May 2015, I had to go to Rome to speak at the Caritas Internationalis Assembly. I had some prolonged meetings with Fr. Peter and some others concerned there. They were certainly keen on me joining JRS as soon as possible and offered me some possibilities; the topmost, one being to work in the Middle East. I agreed to going to Beirut for a few days in July to see things for myself. My visit there was extremely positive but after the stay, I still felt that I needed more time to reflect and pray over things.
On my return to India I went through a long but difficult process of Ignatian discernment. During this process of discernment, I must have put down at least a hundred reasons why I should continue to be where I am and particularly in Gujarat. On the other side, there seemed to be just one voice saying to me to “let go” and to “let God”.
In the early hours of August 22nd, the Feast of the Queenship of Mary I finally said “yes” totally, willingly and cheerfully to go and to work in the Lebanon. It was certainly an important decision in my life, a very difficult one in every sense of the word.
I have been assigned the responsibility of doing Advocacy work with JRS in the Middle East and North Africa region (MENA). I will be based in Beirut, Lebanon and while this responsibility is for the next two or three years, it is in fact open ended. My responsibilities sounded to me are challenging indeed!
I enjoyed being here in Gujarat and particularly for the last fourteen years working on issues related to human rights, justice and peace. Ever since friends and colleagues heart of my imminent departure, there has been no end of visits, phone calls, emails and messages. I truly value and feel good with all the appreciative things being said. Many have expressed feelings that I will be missed. I too will miss each one of you…!
Many also say how ‘shocked and surprised’ they are about my going wondering whether it was an overnight decision. Well it was not! It was kept under-wraps: very few knowing about it till very recently. Above all, no one is forcing me to go away…!
I humbly request your prayers for me, for my new responsibility and very particularly for those whom I have been called to serve.
I promise to be in touch and till we meet again, its “aavjo” (see you again) as we say in Gujarati!
*Former Director of PRASHANT, the Ahmedabad-based Jesuit Centre for Human Rights, Justice and Peace