Lay Reflections on Rome Congress Celebrating 50 Years of Jesuit Social Justice Ministry

BY ISN STAFF | November 25, 2019

In early November, Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network was one of 18 delegates from North America to attend the Golden Jubilee Congress of the Jesuit Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, Italy. The following is an interview with Chris about his experience.

What took place in Rome?

From November 4-8, 2019, the Society of Jesus celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES). What does that mean in layperson’s terms? The Jesuits were celebrating 50 years of having a division of ministry focused on social justice and ecological ministry, an effort that was started by the late Jesuit Superior General Father Pedro Arrupe in 1969. The Congress was a five-day meeting held at the Jesuit Curia in Rome to both celebrate 50 years of the SJES but also to envision what the social and ecological apostolate looks like in the future, particularly in light of the Jesuit’s Universal Apostolic Preferences which were recently introduced by Fr. Arturo Sosa, S.J., current Superior General. 

Who else attended the Jubilee Congress?

The 210 delegates came from sixty-two countries across the globe. Each regional conference was represented by a particular number of delegates based on the number of Jesuit provinces (governance regions) within their geographic area.

Jesuit Social Justice and Ecology Jubilee Congress Delegates

Jesuit Social Justice and Ecology Jubilee Congress Delegates from Sixty-two countries

There were 18 delegates from the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States, which also includes Haiti and Belize. Thirty-seven percent of the delegates were non-Jesuit (lay people and women religious) and fifteen percent of the delegates were women.

Why was the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s (ISN) participation in the Congress significant?

The previous SJES international meeting was held in 1997, in Naples, Italy, to establish characteristics of the Jesuit social apostolate had only Jesuits present. For a lay-run organization like the Ignatian Solidarity Network to be included in this celebration of social justice ministry is a significant statement of the Jesuit’s commitment to lay-Jesuit collaboration. ISN was highlighted as a unique example of this sort of collaboration but also as an organization that exemplifies the concept of “networking” that the Jesuits are seeding across their ministry sectors worldwide. 


Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, speaks about collaboration and networking during the Jubilee Congress at the Jesuit Curia in Rome.

It was an honor to participate, on behalf of ISN, in a panel on collaboration and networking on the second to last day of the Congress. During my remarks (presentation slides), I highlighted the intentionality of founding ISN as a lay organization that would work in partnership with the Jesuits. I also noted that ISN is fairly unique in the U.S.-context because it works with Jesuit institutions across all of the major ministry sectors (parish ministry, social ministry, secondary education, and higher education) and that we work across Jesuit provinces. When it comes to networking, I highlighted a variety of elements of a “network” but noted that a vital component is having a “captain”—some person or group that wakes up every morning committed to sustaining collaborative work for a collectively determined goal. For the Jesuit network in the U.S., ISN plays this role and it is significant to be recognized at the highest global levels for this. 

What was it like to be part of the private audience with Pope Francis? 


Christopher Kerr, executive director of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, is greeted by Pope Francis during the Jubilee Congress private audience at the Vatican.

I don’t know if I have fully processed the experience of being in Pope Francis’s presence yet. However, I can say with confidence that he lived up to the hype. His sincerity and authenticity were so present from the moment he entered the room. From the way he greeted fellow Jesuits, to his pause and wave goodbye before leaving the room—he was very present to us. I was toward the front of the room, so when it came time to be greeted by him, my turn came very quickly. There was so much I wanted to say—how elated we were when he was elected, the ways in which his simplicity and commitment to justice have influenced the Church, how affirming his words and deeds have been to the Ignatian Solidarity Network’s faith-based social justice work. However, in reality, I barely had time to say “Thank you” before being moved on my merry way. 

It is also important to note that his words to us were significant. 

He lifted up the UCA martyrs, saying: 

“In the pain of our brothers and sisters and of our common home under threat, it is necessary to contemplate the mystery of the crucifix in order to be able to give one’s life to the end, as many Jesuit companions have done since 1975. This year we celebrate the 30th anniversary of the martyrdom of the Jesuits of the Central American University of El Salvador, which caused so much pain to Father Kolvenbach and which led him to seek the help of Jesuits throughout the Society. Many responded generously. The life and death of the martyrs is an encouragement to our service to the least ones.”


Pope Francis and SJES Jubilee Congress delegates pose for a photograph.

He also spoke about the importance of going beyond accompaniment of people to address unjust structures, saying: 

“But our response cannot stop there. We need a true “cultural revolution”, a transformation of our collective gaze, of our attitudes, of our ways of perceiving ourselves and of placing ourselves before the world. Finally, social ills often become embedded in the structures of a society, with a potential for disintegration and death. Hence, the importance of the gradual work of transforming structures, through participation in public dialogue, where decisions are made that condition the lives of the lowly.” 

How might the Congress have an influence on the work of the Ignatian Solidarity Network moving forward?

There are three aspects of the Congress that I am hopeful will have an influence on the work of ISN: 

Continued Discernment on the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP)’s 

During his opening address to the Congress delegates, Fr. Arturo Sosa noted that the UAP’s “do not tell us what we should do, but how we should live in what we do.” This comment was very moving to the delegates I spoke with throughout the gathering. It is an important reminder that the UAP’s need to continue to be part of the ongoing discernment of Jesuit works as well as lay partners like ISN. 

How do the four preferences continue to provide a framework for reflecting on our programs, campaigns, and other initiatives? Who do the preferences call us to be in relationship with? Where do the preferences invite us to seek reconciliation with God, others, and the Earth? These are all questions that we must ask ourselves. 

Expanding the Sense of Ignatian Family 

It is always moving to attend an international gathering. Meeting new people from parts of the world that one knows little about expands the mind and heart. Such interactions broaden our definition of solidarity because we become more deeply connected to the realities of our world through the relationships we come to make. I was moved by the experiences of Jesuits and lay colleagues in India working with Lok Manch (People’s Forum), a national platform for promoting the dignity and well-being of marginalized people; the work of the Pan-Amazonian Ecclesial Network (REPAM) to establish a spiritual vision for caring for the Amazonian region amid rampant degradation that harms both the environment and indigenous peoples; as well as the prophetic ministries of Jesuits like Ismael Moreno Coto, S.J., in Honduras and Greg Boyle, S.J., in Los Angeles, who both reflected on the suffering they have encountered and offered their own unique visions of God’s love illuminated through radical kinship and hospitality.

During my own remarks about the work of ISN, I shared the vision of “Ignatian Family” that was initiated 22 years ago when the Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice began, humbly, on the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Columbus, Georgia. The “tent” quickly became a symbol of this “family” because of its capacity to expand and its ability to “pop-up” anywhere. With this in mind, these encounters with the broader Jesuit network expand our sense of “family” and invite us to reflect on a more global vision of the Ignatian Solidarity Network moving forward. 

Affirming Jesuit-Lay Collaboration 

The Congress was a significant statement of the Jesuits’ deep desire to be in “deeper apostolic collaboration” (GC 35, Decree 6, 5) with lay Catholics, other religious, indigenous communities, and people of other faiths. There are two aspects of the Congress that are particularly notable to me. 

As I mentioned, when the 40th anniversary of the SJES was celebrated in 2009 the gathering was comprised of just Jesuits. Ten years later, nearly 40% of those who participated were non-Jesuits. In many cases, these lay delegates are working at Jesuit works throughout the world and in other instances, they are working at “Ignatian” works, like ISN, that work in partnership with the Jesuits but are not formal apostolic works of the Society of Jesus. However, in both cases, they illustrate the Jesuits’ deep desire to respond to the calls of their 34th and 35th General Congregations. GC 34 described lay collaboration as both a “constitutive element” of the Jesuits’ way proceeding and “a grace calling for individual, communal, and institutional renewal.” (GC 34, Decree 13, 26). Not only were lay and non-Jesuit delegates present, but they also played an integral role in the process of reflecting on the history of the SJES and the ways that it can respond to the UAPs. 

Secondly, thirty-one of the non-Jesuit delegates were lay and religious women. Amid a Church that is struggling to value women’s contributions, the significant involvement of women to the Congress makes a strong statement. During his opening remarks, Fr. Sosa, addressed this saying: 

“The place of women in our social institutions and priorities: What role do women play in processes of discernment and decision-making for our life-mission? What place do they have among the priority challenges of a world that marginalizes women and a Church that is reluctant to recognize their co-responsibility in the leadership of the community of the followers of the Lord Jesus?”

This sentiment was furthered when Fr. Sosa accepted the invitation of the women delegates to have an impromptu meeting during the Congress to express their satisfaction about the inclusion in Father General´s speech of the need to analyze the role of women in the Society of Jesus and in the Church. The women delegates also expressed the need to continue this reflection and suggested that they make a proposal in the near future.


Fr. Sosa with the SJES Congress women delegates from across the globe.

In the ISN vision of the “Ignatian Family,” it is impossible for “the family” to flourish without the contributions of women. One can look no further than this year’s Ignatian Family Teach-In for Justice, which took place from November 16-18, in Washington, D.C. All three of the keynote speakers were women, five of the seven Ignatian Network speakers were young women, and more than half of the breakout presenters were women. More broadly, the staff of the Ignatian Solidarity Network, which shepherds the work of our programs, campaigns, and communications throughout the year, is comprised predominantly of women. Simply put, the Ignatian Family would be a mere shadow of itself without the contributions and significant leadership of women. The Congress illustrated that this reality is true in the larger work of the Society of Jesus as well. 

Editor’s Note: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the last SJES international gathering, which took place in 1997 in Naples, Italy, to develop the characteristics of the Jesuit social apostolate. 

2 replies
  1. Dr.Cajetan Coelho
    Dr.Cajetan Coelho says:

    Moreno and Greg, they have suffered a lot. They are doing justice to their noble calling. Others are yet to do justice to their potential.


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  1. […] 2019, during the inaugural address at the Congress marking the 50th anniversary of the Jesuits’ Social Justice and Ecology Secretariat (SJES…, Fr. Sosa issued an invitation to assess the place of women in the work of the Jesuit order. In […]

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