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October 31, 2007 Great charm, deep spirituality Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991) by Todd Morrissey SJ Pedro Arrupe was born in 1907 in Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain. He studied medicine at the University of Madrid, but he entered the Jesuits in 1927 before completing his studies. After the Spanish republican government outlawed the Jesuits in 1931, he pursued his philosophical and theological studies in Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1936 he was ordained and sent to the United States for doctoral studies in medical ethics, but three years later he was unexpectedly sent as a missionary to Japan. Even then he was known as a man of great charm and deep

Great charm, deep spirituality

Fr Pedro Arrupe (1907-1991)Pedro Arrupe took to heart the Vatican Council’s call to religious orders to be ready to meet the needs of the modern world. In a brief biography, Todd Morrissey describes what motivated Fr Arrupe and the opposition he had to overcome.


Pedro Arrupe was born in 1907 in Bilbao in the Basque region of Spain. He studied medicine at the University of Madrid, but he entered the Jesuits in 1927 before completing his studies. After the Spanish republican government outlawed the Jesuits in 1931, he pursued his philosophical and theological studies in Belgium and the Netherlands.

In 1936 he was ordained and sent to the United States for doctoral studies in medical ethics, but three years later he was unexpectedly sent as a missionary to Japan. Even then he was known as a man of great charm and deep spirituality. In 1942 he was appointed Jesuit superior and the master of novices.

He was living in suburban Hiroshima when the atomic bomb was dropped in August 1945. He described that event as “a permanent experience outside of history, engraved on my memory”. He led the first rescue team into the devastated area and utilised his medical skills in the service of the wounded and the dying, transforming the novitiate into a make-shift hospital for over 200 grievously scarred human beings. He spent almost 30 years in Japan, eventually becoming provincial of a flourishing province.

At the 31st General Congregation of the Society in 1965, he was elected as the order’s 28th Superior General. He served in that position from 1965 to 1981. Most people who met him at the Congregation were taken by his charm, his devotion to the person of Christ, and his deep faith which gave rise to what his successor, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, called his ‘radical optimism’. His election took place in the year in which the Second Vatican Council ended. The Council had introduced vast changes throughout the Church, urging religious orders to go back to the intentions of their founders and to be prepared to change to meet the needs of the modern world.

Pedro Arrupe took this instruction to heart. He outlined his views in a talk to Irish Jesuits in Hong Kong in April 1971:

Our goal as Jesuits is to serve; the Society is not working for itself, but for others, for the world, for the Church. So we have to know what is the situation so that we can ask ourselves what is the service we can give. Like a businessman has to know the market, we must know the world’s condition: “We have something to sell, very important, and that is Christ, that is faith. But we have to know the market. Therefore we, the Society, has to know the world. Then try to adapt.” We are working in a secularised world, to which we have to adapt apostolically, in our methods and ways. And this means a great change in many things, external structures, community life, in personal attitudes to people, to works, the criteria of selecting ministries. Then comes the problem how far can we adapt, and on this there are divided opinions in the Society… We should be ready to change all accidentals, if it is necessary, but we cannot change one jot of essentials because then we would no more be the Society of Jesus.

To meet this change, he reminded his followers that they needed to be men of prayer with a deep devotion to the person of Christ.

One further area in which he placed great emphasis was in seeking justice for oppressed people across the world, even though, as he acknowledged, this could lead to estrangement from people who had previously supported the order, and even persecution and death.

He mentioned “divided opinions”, for good reason. There was a vocal body of Jesuits in Spain who claimed that Arrupe was going against the traditions of the Society and leading his followers astray. They complained about him and his policies to the papacy. Their complaints were reinforced by individual Jesuits publicly criticising Church policy on priestly celibacy, and birth control, among other issues, and by some Jesuits in developing nations being advocates of liberation theology, and involving themselves deeply in struggles for political or social change.

Complaints kept coming to the Vatican, sometimes from interested parties. Pope Paul VI represented his concern to Arrupe. The latter’s radical optimism, however, was at odds with the pontiff’s outlook. In fact, Fr Arrupe’s devotion to the pope, as a Jesuit, was beyond question. He issued general reprimands and ousted a number of priests for unusually outspoken opinions. But he stopped short of restricting Jesuit scholarship or Jesuits involvement in their quest for justice in developing countries. He was rebuked as too permissive by the new pontiff, John Paul II, who seemed to have been concerned about obedience in the Society.

Some months later, Fr Arrupe informed the Pope that he felt it would be better that he should retire, and he asked permission to call a general congregation to elect a successor. In May 1980, the Pope told him to delay both measures. When Father Arrupe suffered a paralysing brain hemorrhage in August 1981, the Pope spurned his choice of an American, Fr Vincent T. O’Keefe, as interim leader, and instead appointed a personal delegate to administer the order, Fr Paolo Dezza, an 80-year-old conservative Jesuit theologian, who was confessor to a number of Popes, including John Paul. If His Holiness suspected that there might be an outcry from the Jesuits against his decision, he was pleasantly surprised. Whatever their personal feelings, the Jesuits accepted the Pope’s decision in accordance with their traditional obedience to the Vicar of Christ.

Pedro Arrupe lived on for another ten years invalided by his stroke. Although unable to speak, he remained cheerful, accepting his condition with full acquiescence to God’s will. All who visited him came away deeply moved. The Pope came personally to visit him before he died in 1991 aged 83 years. Many pray for his beatification.