Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach Dies at Age 87



by Quentin Bet


On November 26, just days before his 88th birthday, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (pictured) passed away in Beirut, Lebanon. During his lifetime, Fr. Kolvenbach served as a priest for 55 years and as a Jesuit for 68. He served as the Superior General of the Society of Jesus for nearly 25 years, making him the 28th successor of St. Ignatius of Loyola. As the leading figure among the Jesuits, Fr. Kolvenbach had extensive knowledge of spirituality and social justice.


Much of Fr. Kolvenbach’s life was spent in academia, where he studied topics ranging from linguistics to philosophy. He was born on November 30, 1928 in the Netherlands, where he spent most of his childhood. He studied Latin and Greek at Canisius College before joining the Jesuits at the age of 19.


In 1958, he and a group of other Jesuits were assigned to Lebanon, a country that Fr. Kolvenbach described as wartorn but full of welcoming people. While there, he taught linguistics at Université de Saint-Joseph in Beirut before being ordained a priest through the Armenian Church in 1961. For the next two decades, he continued his ministry, serving as rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome and consultor for the Congregation for Oriental Churches.

In the early ‘80s, after Father Pedro Arrupe resigned from his position as Superior General because of illness, the Jesuits elected Fr. Kolvenbach as Arrupe’s successor. Pope John Paul II’s decision to appoint his own interim team after Fr. Arrupe’s resignation caused some disagreement, but Fr. Kolvenbach calmed the waters with skillful diplomacy.


During his time as Superior General, Fr. Kolvenbach directed the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation, which addressed a variety of contemporary issues. He also visited the U.S. a number of times, even stopping by Boston College in 1988 for the school’s 125th anniversary. Kolvenbach’s visit to the university coincided with the official opening of Conte Forum and he was welcomed by hundreds of excited faculty, students, and alumni.


Fr. Kolvenbach also attended a conference at Santa Clara University on “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice in Jesuit Higher Education” in October 2000. He talked to the audience about Jesuit students and the importance of living lives rooted in faith. Sixteen years later, his message to young people remains pertinent: “Students, in the course of their formation, must let the gritty reality of this world into their lives, so they can learn to feel it, think about it critically, respond to its suffering, and engage it constructively.”


In February 2006, Fr. Kolvenbach announced he would resign from his role as Superior General, even though the post is traditionally a lifelong position. On January 14, 2008, the Jesuits accepted his resignation and elected Adolfo Nicolás as his successor. After he resigned, Fr. Kolvenbach returned to a Jesuit community in Beirut where he worked as an assistant librarian.


Pope Francis praised Fr. Kolvenbach for his “integral fidelity to Christ and His Gospel,” and “a generous commitment in exercising his office with a spirit of service for the good of the Church.” A memorial Mass was held in Kolvenbach’s honor at the Church of Gesù in Rome on December 2.

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