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USA: Jesuit hospitality?
28 August 2014

A community day for Iraqi refugees at the Jesuit Centre in Amman, where the refugees came together to pray and share a traditional Iraqi meal. (Jesuit Refugee Service)
Our hospitality is not found in the quality of our dwelling place but in the fact that we accompany the other travellers until it is time for them, with us, to meet the Christ who will one day return to accompany us home.
Boston, 28 August 2014 Hospitality is not one of, say, the first dozen descriptions that come to mind to define the Jesuits. Although Jesuits are polite and welcoming, our propensity for service leads us often to be away from our own homes and communities. Often enough, you can arrive at a Jesuit community only to find no one at home. If you want religious hospitality, go to a Benedictine monastery. The Benedictines will be at home and they'll treat you like God!

Jesuit hospitality – attributed here to all, religious and laymen and women, who share in the Jesuit mission – is VERY different. In order to understand it, we need to first understand Jesuit identity and spirituality. Our identity is caught up in our mission. Jesuit identity is not shaped by where we live but rather by what we do.

We are missioned throughout the world. This includes being missioned to go where those most in need are, to accompany the most vulnerable. In light of this mission, we can begin to understand the type of hospitality to which the contemporary Jesuit is called. As one theologian writes, "The central image of the Jesuit St Ignatius seems to have had in his own mind, right up to his death, was that of a kind of apostolic vagabond." How can an "apostolic vagabond" be hospitable? What hospitality can a homeless vagabond provide?

One of the founders of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), Jerome Nadal, wrote that Jesuit ministry does not expand from the Jesuit community; rather, community occurs where Jesuit ministry is: "Wherever there is need or greater utility for our ministries, there is our house." We live wherever those in need live. Nadal continues, "The principal and most characteristic dwelling for Jesuits is not in … houses, but in journeyings..." Thus we form our communities in the heart of our mission; we live where those whom we serve live.

In a manner of speaking, Nadal sees our ministry as being like the first apostles: to meet those most in need as apostles of the church. Where they are, we dwell. In as much as we are a people "sent on mission" (Jesuit General Congregation 35, Decree 1: With Renewed Vigour and Zeal), we make our pilgrim lodging where others already are and, from there, we support those in need.

That journeying forth to meet those in need is, then, an act of hospitality. As one "in the church" and "in the world", the Jesuit goes to those on the margins of society to welcome them into the church, by preaching, catechizing and confessing, or into the wider society through education or social ministry. If the world is our home, as Nadal proclaimed, and if our mission is to those who are refugees, then our call is to bring them to sanctuary.

Our model for Jesuit hospitality is not found, then, in the gracious Benedictine monastery, though indeed there is much we could learn from that place. Rather the model for Jesuit hospitality is the refugee centre. In his letter to JRS on the 30th anniversary of its founding, the Jesuit Father General, Adolfo Nicolás SJ, says, "JRS, in serving refugees, is Gospel hospitality in action."

In as much as we go out to the whole world, we are called especially to those who find no dwelling place in this world. Wherever those refugees are without country or support, we go to meet them and invite them into a place of welcome where God works. Where anybody in need is, there is our Jesuit mission and our Jesuit brand of hospitality. Our hospitality is not a domestic one, but a mobile one, mobile not because our communities are mobile, but because those whom we serve are found throughout the whole earth in transit.

In as much as the Jesuit charism is so strikingly defined by our mission to go to those in need, the accent on hospitality warns Jesuits and JRS as well against seeing the world as solely the place where we live; rather it calls us to be more attentive to where and how others live. We are invited to be hospitable as the itinerant Good Samaritan was, the model of hospitality that Fr Nicolás invokes in his letter to JRS, when he describes hospitality as "the virtue of the Good Samaritan who saw in the man by the roadside, not a member of another race, but a brother in need". The model of the Good Samaritan is then the model of a hospitable itinerant figure. Of course the ultimate model is Jesus who teaches us by example that the practice of mercy is the definitive expression of neighbourly love.

It might do us good, then, to reflect on this parable from Luke (10:29-37). We must start by remembering why Jesus tells this parable. He has just given the commandment to love one another. In response, one of the scribes asks Jesus: who is my neighbour? Jesus responds by telling the parable of the Good Samaritan.

A close reading of the story reveals that Jesus is offering a very surprising answer to the question. At the beginning, we are thinking the answer to the question who is my neighbour? is the man lying wounded on the road. But by the end of the story we are no longer looking at the neighbour who is wounded but rather at the neighbour who has taken action. The scribe therefore answers Jesus' clever question at the end of the parable (who then is the neighbour?) by saying that the neighbour is the one who shows mercy. In the beginning we think the parable is about whom we should help. But the end is really about who we are called to be. We are called to be like the Good Samaritan, that is, to be a neighbour.

But why is Jesus so interested in teaching us to be like the Good Samaritan?

Like the surprising ending, many of us forget that this parable was never primarily a moral one. Many great preachers and theologians see in it the story of our redemption by Christ. In this light, then, the parable is first and foremost not a story about how we should treat others, but rather the story of what Christ has done for us. Like the lessons we learn from the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, we come to understand that before we discern what we will do for Christ, we need to remember first of all what he has already done for us. We are instructed to "go and do likewise", only after we have understood the mercy we have received. We are called to follow the actions of the Good Samaritan because it is a live retelling of the entire Gospel of salvation as it has already played out in our lives.

In Decree 3 of the Jesuit General Congregation 35, Challenges to our Mission Today, we are called to establish right relations with our neighbour. The parable of the Good Samaritan reminds us further that we seek right relations with others because Christ has first made right relations with us. Welcomed into his kingdom, all of us in JRS are in turn sent out, ‘homeless vagabonds' that we are, to accompany others whom we find along the way. Our hospitality is not found in the quality of our dwelling place but in the fact that we accompany the other travellers until it is time for them, with us, to meet the Christ who will one day return to accompany us home.

James Keenan SJ
Boston College

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