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Posted March 26, 2006

An Interview with Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach,
former superior general of the Jesuits

by John Allen The National Catholic Reporter

NCR: How did you improve relations with the Holy See?

Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach: Around 1980 there was a deep communication gap…. Differences regarding the follow-up of the Vatican Council, the evaluation of the consecrated life, the interpretation of the concept of authority in the Church, pastoral strategies… It was Fr. Dezza who improved the relationship. How did he do it? Well, by speaking Vaticanese. At times he explained that for someone visiting a foreign country it was only natural to express his ideas in the language of that country.

People should credit Fr. Dezza and Fr. Pittau. I just followed their steps, assisted by a large experience of my own as a go-in-between man in the Near East.

You are in regular contact with the Vatican. What do you think is commonly misunderstood about it?

Once, after a long conversation with a senior official on a difficult and delicate issue, he made this observation: "Dear Father, now we have to translate our fraternal discussion into a formal decision; for obvious administrative reasons, the letter will read in a less understanding and friendly way…" Perhaps this anecdote is the best way to understand the inevitable tension between the pastoral approach, and the deep ecclesial concerns, that I've found in my regular contacts with the officials of the Holy See. … The Holy See has to speak to the whole world and for all times, above particular languages and cultures. That requires a very explicit and clear language which cannot take into account all the possible shades of concrete issues.

You worked closely with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger prior to his election as Benedict XVI. What did that experience teach you about the man?

I think all those who received the grace -- truly, a grace -- to meet Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger always felt welcome. The problems I had to speak about with him were most of the time sad, with solutions that were painful for both of us. Still, I never left a meeting with feelings of bitterness or anger, because the cardinal made a clear distinction between the dogmatic error involved, and the effort of a theologian who felt challenged to provide an answer to the concerns of our days. … We are here far from the "panzer cardinal" that certain press accounts have described.

One early controversy of his papacy centered on Fr. Tom Reese from America magazine. What are the lessons of that episode for Jesuit-sponsored publications?

America magazine, under the competent and dynamic guidance of Fr. Tom Reese, believed that the best service to a mature Catholic public was to let the two sides of a controversial question to defend their views. … However, this orientation did not meet the approval of some pastorally concerned priests who were worried about a negative effect on the faith-growth of the Catholics. They expect that Jesuit publications will offer clear standings to meet the questions of the day, avoiding confusion and relativism. Unhappily, instead of changing his policy, Fr. Reese resigned. This episode takes us back to St. Ignatius when he speaks about sentire cum ecclesia (feeling with the church).

Did the initial concerns about America come from the United States rather than the Vatican?

Yes, from clergy outside the Jesuits in the United States, including some in senior positions.

What do you expect from Benedict XVI on religious life?

On May 22, there will be a meeting with Benedict XVI for generals and vicar generals of religious communities, roughly 5,000 people. It's important, because November [2004] there was a World Congress on Consecrated Life, and it was not possible to have a papal audience. It was always unclear why. It's not that John Paul was sick, because he received other groups in those days. Clearly, there was some uneasiness. …

Some are asking the popes, 'Do you still believe in religious life?' But there's really no choice. Our charisms come from the Lord, not from the church. The Lord is asking for this.