Eileen Cole shares about this month’s celebration of the founding of JRS, and underlines how Jesus Christ is at the heart of their mission to make refugees’ voices heard and of denouncing the injustices they suffer.
14th November is kept every year as Founder’s Day by all involved in the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) around the world, with benefactors, partners and friends. That’s what refugees are called at JRS – friends.
Fr Michael Holman SJ, Chair of the Management Committee of JRS UK, celebrated a Thanksgiving Mass at St Patrick’s Church Wapping, which was followed, and enjoyed, by a delicious, shared lunch prepared by refugee friends of JRS at the nearby Hurtado Jesuit Centre. Ali, one of the volunteer cooks, commented: “We started very early in the morning as there were a lot of people to cook for. I’m so happy to volunteer. I like making curries, but I’m also very happy to do the washing up-I’m happy to do anything. Helping others makes me feel very good.”
Fr Michael recalled how, on this day in 1980, Pedro Arrupe, then the Superior General of the Jesuits, signed a letter to the whole Society announcing the creation of this new ministry and apostolate. “St Ignatius called us to go anywhere where we are most needed for the greater glory of God”, Fr Arrupe said in a speech at the time. “The spiritual as well as the material need of more than 16 million refugees throughout the world [at that time] could scarcely be greater. God is calling us through these helpless people.”
The Mission Of JRS
JRS was to be Fr Arrupe’s last initiative as Superior General, his “swansong to the Society”. The following year, Arrupe visited the Far East, a trip which included a meeting in Bangkok with Jesuits already involved with refugee camps for boat people from Vietnam. On his return to Rome on 7th August, Fr Arrupe suffered a stroke at Fiumicino Airport. He was to be incapacitated for the remaining 10 years of his life. That letter to the Society, 43 years ago, set out the vision, mission and methodology of JRS which remain largely unchanged today.
The mission of JRS is to be present among refugees: to accompany them in their trials, to share in their joys and sorrows, to help them as far as possible to improve their situation and to keep alive the hope of their future. As such, JRS is not only a work of charity but one of justice-a way of making refugees’ voices heard, of making known their needs and their rights, of denouncing the injustices they suffer. JRS is also a work of evangelisation: bringing the good news of Jesus Christ to those who do not know him; of strengthening the faith of those who already possess it, and encouraging the growth of the Church that is truly universal, open to all cultures, all races and people.
The British Jesuit and former provincial, Fr Michael Campbell Johnson, “CJ”, who died just six weeks ago, worked with Fr Arrupe as his secretary for justice, and was involved in setting up JRS. He wrote that Arrupe was a prayerful man, a holy man, continually looking for what more he could do, never resting, not complacent but desiring the more of the Kingdom of God. CJ recalled that, as Arrupe and his general council discussed the plight of the Vietnamese boat people, his reaction was: “What would Saint Ignatius have done if he were here today?” Like Ignatius, Fr Arrupe was deeply attached to the person of Jesus, a companion of Jesus, alongside the suffering Jesus and alongside those who suffered with Jesus.
‘For me, Jesus Christ is everything’
During one interview on Italian TV, Fr Arrupe was unexpectedly asked: “Fr Arrupe, who is Jesus Christ for you?” “For me”, he replied, spontaneously, “Jesus Christ is everything. Take Jesus from my life, and it would be like taking away my head, my heart, and all my bones. For me, Jesus Christ is everything.”
Referring to this, Fr Michael said: “As I see it, JRS was born out of Fr Arrupe’s strong attachment to Jesus. The Jesus who, as we read in the Gospels, chose to become poor, associated with the poor, preached the good news to and among the poor, denounced those who oppressed the poor and preached that the last would be first in the Kingdom of God.”
In his homily, Fr Michael said: “Today, we have much to be grateful for: for Fr Arrupe, for all working in JRS, for the many men and women in the UK and around the world whom we are fortunate to count among our co-workers and our collaborators.
Praying for JRS
Today, we pray for those in JRS working in the most dangerous parts of the world: that they be kept safe and that their work may prosper. We should pray as well for a conversion of heart: for a greater understanding of and sympathy for the situation of our refugee friends, for reconciliation and that more in this country will reach out the hand of friendship to them.”
After the event, Sr Rose Mary Harbinson, a volunteer and supporter of JRS, said: “It was wonderful to see so many friends together again, like it was before Covid. It’s so important to see people’s faces and share food together. I met so many friends-and the food was abundant and delicious.”
Refugee friend Josephine’s face lit up when she spoke about the day: “A fantastic day! It made me very happy to be with so many different people, praying, chatting, eating lovely food… I felt so different after. It is very important to bring people together. I really like the people here at JRS, their support and friendship.”