November 26, 2016 — Jesuit Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, 29th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, died in Beirut, Lebanon, today. He was 87 years old, just four days shy of his 88th birthday. He was a Jesuit for 68 years and a priest for 55, and he served as Superior General from 1983 to 2008.
After Fr. Kolvenbach’s death, Pope Francis sent a telegram to Father Arturo Sosa, SJ, Superior General of the Society, expressing his “heartfelt condolences.” In the message, the pope recalled Fr. Kolvenbach’s “integral fidelity to Christ and His Gospel,” which was joined to “a generous commitment in exercising his office with a spirit of service for the good of the Church.”
Pope Francis assured Fr. Sosa of his “prayers of suffrage, invoking, through the divine mercy, eternal peace” for Fr. Kolvenbach.
Fr. Kolvenbach in the Aula at the Jesuit Curia preparing for the Jesuits' 35th General Congregation. (Photo by Fr. Don Doll, SJ)
Born in Druten, Netherlands, on November 30, 1928, Fr. Kolvenbach lived most of his teen years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. He came to know the Society of Jesus through his secondary studies at Canisius College, and after a year of studying Latin and Greek, he entered the Jesuit novitiate on September 7, 1948.
He studied philosophy at the Berchmans Institute of Nijmegen in the Netherlands and was sent to Lebanon in 1958. From the start of his new assignment, he dedicated himself to the study of Arabic through direct contact with people. In his new mission in the Near East, he specialized in the Armenian language and literature, and he studied at St. Joseph’s University in Beirut for four years.
Fr. Kolvenbach celebrating Mass. (Photo by Fr. Tom Rochford, SJ)
Fr. Kolvenbach was ordained a priest in the Armenian Rite on June 29, 1961. He continued to study philosophy and linguistics in Beirut and Paris. He served as a both a professor of linguistics at St. Joseph University and as vice-provincial of the Jesuits’ Near East Vice-Province, which includes Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. In 1981 he was appointed as rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome, a position he held until his election as Superior General in 1983.
As Superior General, Fr. Kolvenbach visited as many Jesuit provinces and individual Jesuits as he could. In 1995 he directed the Jesuits’ General Congregation 34, which addressed issues including the mission of the Society in the modern world.
Fr. Kolvenbach (left) with Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, who succeeded Fr. Kolvenbach as Superior General of the Society of Jesus. (Photo by Fr. Tom Rochford, SJ)
Speaking to America magazine, Father Timothy P. Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S., reflected on Fr. Kolvenbach’s legacy. “The first time that I met Fr. Kolvenbach was as a scholastic in the mid ’80s. During a question and answer session, a member of the province went to an open microphone and said, ‘Fr. General I have a difficult question for you.’ Fr. Kolvenbach responded, ‘Difficult for me or difficult for you?’ He had this uncanny ability to cut to the heart of the matter with extraordinary confidence and wit. He governed the Society for a quarter of a century during a critical period in our history. His words and legacy will inspire generations to come.”
In February 2006, Fr. Kolvenbach informed the members of the Society of Jesus of his intention, with the consent of Pope Benedict XVI, to step down. His resignation was accepted at General Congregation 35 in 2008. Upon retirement Fr. Kolvenbach returned to Beirut, making his home in a Jesuit community, where he served as assistant librarian.
Fr. Kolvenbach departs the Jesuit Curia in 2008, after serving as Superior General since 1983. (Photo by Fr. Tom Rochford, SJ)