When I heard that father Arturo Sosa has been elected to lead the Society of Jesus — the worldwide jesuit order — my mind shot back to April 11th, 2002. I remembered the anxiety, alone at home in Puerto Ordaz, with my husband and our one-year old kid, our TV on all day long trying to understand what was happening.

That night when we didn’t know where President Chávez was, if his resignation was real or what the hell would happen next. In those halcyon days before Twitter, watching the TV was the main way to try to gather some news. I remember few of that night’s speeches, but I’ll never forget Arturo Sosa’s, from the RCTV studios.

What was a priest doing on national TV in the middle of such a crisis? To get it, you need to know something about the kind of Christianity he believes in. Since the Vatican II Council, the Catholic Church has been changing, and not only because mass is no longer in Latin.

The Council left us the “Gaudium et Spes”, a fundamental document that establishes that the Church needs to read the signs of the times, that it cannot imagine itself as standing outside the world, above its problems. And this isn’t new, it’s in the Bible: “for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen” [1 John 4:20].

The Society of Jesus, founded by Saint Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, stimulated that kind of spirituality through Spiritual Exercises. These exercises include meditation and prayer, but discernment is meant to help you find your personal path to better serve God.

All life aspects are under scrutiny though discernment, because you should be serving God not only when you pray; your entire life should be committed to His service. So, Jesuits, whether monks and missionaries, work through a deep engagement with the world.

Arturo Sosa joined the Society of Jesus in 1966, so he’s been deeply involved in these discussions for half a century. After he graduated in Philosophy  at Universidad Católica Andrés Bello (1972) he started working at Centro Gumilla, where he combined his studies of Venezuelan political thought with his work in poor communities.

What was a priest doing on national TV in the middle of such a crisis? To get it, you need to know something about the kind of Christianity he believes in.

He earned a PhD in Political Science at Universidad Central de Venezuela, wrote several books and articles analyzing our society, taught at different universities in Caracas until he was appointed as Rector of Universidad Católica del Táchira and moved to San Cristóbal in 2004. After that he went to Rome where he eventually became a a counselor to Adolfo Nicolás, the Jesuits’ Superior, in 2014.

I first met him around 1987, when I interviewed him for our High School newspaper. That day I went to Centro Gumilla for the first time in my life and put him through what was probably the worst interview he ever had to sit through. I was only 16!

A few years later we met again, he was my Political Theory professor while I studied Sociology and the next year he taught Cambio Social en Venezuela II, maybe the best of my courses in those five years. That was in 1992, but in February we hadn’t begun our spring term, so this course started after 4-F, Chavez first coup.

Arturo Sosa’s involvement in political affairs began early. In 1989, a few days after Caracazo, Luis Ugalde and Jean Pierre Wysenbach who lived in a popular barrio, La Vega, were imprisoned, accused of “subversive activities”. A young Arturo Sosa went with other Jesuits to negotiate their liberation with the police.

Negotiation and enforcing everyone’s human rights have been always been in his political beliefs and actions.

In Cambio Social en Venezuela II we spent a life-changing semester discussing our social and economic problems, the difficulties in addressing them and the challenges they imposed on our democracy. He was the most demanding professor I had ever had and our group (just nine sociology students) freaked out over his grueling tests. He always wanted more from us and we were terrified of not being good enough.

At the same time, he was very close and was willing to share with students. The sociology department had so few students and we used to gather a lot and invite our professors. Arturo Sosa, like most of them, used to come along and became a friend to us.

That night in 2002, Arturo Sosa talked about the peace and understanding that were broken that day because of violence. I knew then we were witnessing a very grave moment of our history. He was calling for peace, not revenge.

Because statements like that, many people said he was chavista. Maybe in 1999 he, as many others, he hoped things could change for the better. But, as a professor he never supported 1992’s coups. He has always been a democrat, he believes that people’s needs  have to be heard and that’s why he could never support a violent or authoritarian strategy to defeat chavismo.

Como sea isn’t good enough, either for chavismo nor for opposition. Not an easy position in our polarized politics.

Negotiation and enforcing everyone’s human rights have been always been in his political beliefs and actions.

After my graduation Arturo Sosa became Provincial, the Superior of Jesuits in Venezuela right around the time I left to do my PhD in Spain. After 1996 I have seen him only a few times: in a formal visit he made to Universidad de Deusto, where I was studying. Maybe a year later, in Puerto Ordaz when I was working at UCAB Guayana and I needed to decide if I should stay or move back to Caracas. We saw each other a lot in such formal occasions when I was Director of our School of Social Sciences.

The last time I saw him was in 2012, after I left that post. I went to a conference in La Castellana just to see him, I guess I felt guilty for stepping down. But now I know that wasn’t my path. I wish I could have seen him after my father’s death, but he was in Rome by then.

It is very unlikely we will meet again, now he has become Superior General of the Society of Jesus. He is the first non-European Superior the society has had in its nearly 500 years.

He now belongs to the world’s church, not to the friends and students that are so proud of him. Maybe if we both live long enough (I hope we do!) and he retires at 80, like Peter Hans Kolvenbach and Adolfo Nicolás did, and then he comes back to Caracas we might talk again around a cup of coffee about the changes we have seen in our lifetimes and the future that we will not see, but can only imagine.

17 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for your interesting thoughts on Arturo Sosa. When I first starting reading your article I thought, “Oh Gawd, another on of those “liberation theology” guys, or what is referred to as “Christianized Marxism.” No, he wasn’t. He sounds like a very thoughtful and interesting priest. Catholicism in South America, however, is inundated with thousands of Marxist-inspired priests. These young do-gooders, who mean well, often fall in love with one party rule, especially with left-wing caudillo types. Chavez, Ortega and on and on. Concepts stressing the importance of democracy and economics were usually not taught/stressed in their seminary studies program. The wealth creating powers of capitalism are almost always completely ignored. So, out into the world they go, with little understanding as to how the real world works. Then when they see someone like Chavez handing-out free Haier refrigerators to the poor, they become smitten. One wishes that a course in basic economics were taught to the current Argentinian Pontiff as well. He obviously has little clue as to how an economy works. Perhaps Sosa can find some time in his busy schedule to teach him some basic concepts of economics and democracy. The world would be grateful.

    • Well, I am not sure if there are really so many “Marxist” priest in South America these days.
      But as long as we do not have capitalists and social democrats and real pluralism but blunt feudalism and feudalist compradores thinking they are capitalists, we will keep having tira⁻piedras and left winged populists.

      • Competition has arrived in Venezuela, as in other parts of the region, for the hearts and minds of believers, and it is not over the long term, chavismo. The “marxist” priests, and the non-marxist ones, will be in a fight for their continued existence with the evangelicals, if that is not the case already. They are bringing to a chaotic country a populist, millenarian, do-it-yourself-type faith that caught on in a big way in other semi-failed states in central america.

        • I appreciate freedom of belief but I am worried about many fundamentalist groups…evangelists, Catholic but also from other things….Cuban spiritism and so on.

        • Good point. While the trend is strongest in Central America, affiliations to Protestant faiths have increased all over Latin America- with most of the increase coming from non-mainline churches, such as Pentecostals and Evangelicals. [I leave it to others to define more precisely.] Most Protestants in Latin America are converts from Catholicism.

          Which reminds me of a joke from Guatemala. What’s the fastest way to close a door? See a Mormon missionary at the door.

          http://www.pewforum.org/2014/11/13/religion-in-latin-america/
          http://www.economist.com/news/americas/21632573-what-driving-advance-evangelical-protestantism-latin-america-southern

          • During the dirty wars in central america, the pentacostals and evangelicals flourished on the far right, which viewed the catholic church as being pro-communist. I think that is where it got its original foothold, but those movements then built a following for a number of reasons, not excluding self-preservation -aligning oneself with the forces that otherwise could obliterate you, but other reasons as well.

            My observation is, the catholic church in Venezuela is very much a middle class dominated institution, centred around access to improved learning in private schools, institution-maintaining and building, and politically conservative thinking. There is outreach to the poor, no doubt, but chavismo captured that terrain pretty quickly. This other form of worship, now well established in central america and growing quickly in Venezuela from what I have seen, has no well established hierarchy or institutional structure, is entrepreneurial in design, relies on local charismatic leadership, is more about being in the moment, making lots of noise, and facing the imminent end of the world in a spectacular and demonstrative way. People like that. People living on the edge like that. People suspicious of institutions like that, and people with downward economic prospects like that. So I see it as a growth area, particularly as chavismo is in retreat.

            I would expect to see, in the near future, a charismatic political leader arise in Venezuela out of this mould.

      • Thanks Boludo for posting the lovely wonderfully written piece , Naipaul was an artist and also a very insightful man with a streak of cold cruel lucidity…..!! He wrote a book The Middle Passage’ which in passing touched on Venezuelas history and character , in this book his vignette of Miranda was wonderful and implacable, a portrait of all Venezuelans in a way……!!

        Venezuela has never been a very pious country , maybe there was a pocket of religiosity in parts of the Andes , but even there nothing to compare to the deep religiosity of other countries…..’.In the 70’s some jesuits priests got bitten with the Castroite bug and staged a kind of revolt centered arround UCAB university , dozens of lecturers left or were let go…….then those priests matured and became exemplary very conscious intellectual men…..for the m!!ost part they are rabid Anti chavistas now …..

        • I was trying to post two different Naipaul articles from the NYR, but instead posted one twice. Here is the original one from 1972, where Naipaul initially met Father Mujica, but didn’t know who he was. I was amazed how Naipaul, years before the Dirty War was in full swing, could show that the madness that enveloped Argentina in the 1970s was widespread. One could find advocates of torture both in the military and in the opponents to the military.

          http://www.nybooks.com/articles/1972/08/10/the-corpse-at-the-iron-gate/

        • The UCAB crisis in 1972 was nothing about Castro! A new political party (MAS) won the student’s election on july and our very conservative authorities decided to expel a group of students and 7 professors, mainly jesuits. At the time, Arturo Sosa and Luis Ugalde weren’t professors yet, so they weren’t leading actors in that conflict. The issue was mainly about theology, about different interpretations of what Vatican II meant. Many departments were closed because of the student’s strike, but only theTheology Institute never opened again. We still don’t have nothing like that more than 40 years after the crisis.

  2. This priest sounds like a good guy.Yet I’m skeptical about all organized religions. The Catholic and Jesuit churches are no exception. There are many good priest, but lots of bad ones too. Some say the Vatican is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Pope Francisco knows it, the greed of many of these priests is well-documented. Hope Mr. Sosa stays away from all that.

      • Tomate,

        An acquaintance of mine who is a devout Catholic made the same distinction (that is, “Catholics and Jesuits” as if the latter were not part of the former) and I asked him about it. He told me that while they are, of course, Catholics, they have a history of defining themselves as distinct from the church (I’m not sure I put that the best way) and that, for instance, Jesuit universities often make a point of describing themselves as Jesuit-not-Catholic. So apparently this is a thing. I am not Catholic, or even religious, so I cannot speak from any personal perspective.

        • I know the Jesuits and have great appreciation for them.

          Jesuits have a strong intellectual tradition and are no wall flowers. And as such they will challenge anyone and they have a rich history of doing so and martyrs to show. They will challenge the church hierarchy if need be.

          However, they make a vow of obedience to the Pope. They are very Catholic.

          As for the Jesuit universities not holding to Catholic orthodoxy, I would chalk that up on the dominance of progressive ideas in academia. This, by the way, is a hotly contested topic inside the Church.

        • Jesuits universities share a christian inspiration and they want to contribute to development and social justice through teaching and research. But, unlike other catholic educational institutions, neither students nor professors are required to be catholics, or to endorse a specific moral or political view. We have jewish and muslim students, even atheistic professors. Pluralism is welcomed as the only way to teach critic and analytic thinking. Some other catholics might think this is heresy, of course.

    • Euguenio,

      The church has bad people in it.
      Governments have bad people in it.
      Police have bad people in in it.
      Jesus closest friends had bad people in it, Judas and cowardly Peter!

      Everywhere you look you will find bad, greedy people. It’s the human condition.

      Before you judge an institution for the bad apples you should look at its history and the ideals that drive it.

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