July 28, 2014 — As president of the Jesuit Conference of the U.S. for the last eight years, Fr. Tom Smolich has traveled to the far corners of the world as the U.S. Jesuits’ liaison to the global Society of Jesus. With his new assignment as the next international director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Fr. Smolich will need to free up pages in his passport.
Founded in 1980 by former Jesuit Superior General Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, JRS accompanies, serves and advocates for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people. Headquartered in Rome with ten regional offices around the world, the organization has more than 1,800 staff and volunteers, including 70 Jesuits, and serves upwards of 950,000 refugees per year. In addition to health and social services, JRS offers formal and informal instruction — from pre-school to vocational training to computer and language classes — to approximately 280,000 children, young people and adults each year.
Appointed by Jesuit Superior General Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, Fr. Smolich begins his term on November 1, 2015. “I’m deeply honored and grateful that Fr. General missioned me to this assignment, because JRS speaks to the heart of Jesuit identity and our Jesuit mission,” Fr. Smolich says. “JRS goes where the need is greatest, to places where others are unable or unwilling to go. JRS witnesses to who we are as evangelizing people. Whether someone is a Catholic or not is not the question — we are there to preach the good news.”
Because of its work in war-torn regions, JRS employees and volunteers often find themselves in the crosshairs of global conflict. In June, JRS Country Director Fr. Alexis Prem Kumar, SJ, was kidnapped in Afghanistan, and his whereabouts are still unknown. Fr. Smolich acknowledges that “the Church often is called upon to do challenging work. I think one has to prepare for this as much as possible, but ultimately, we realize we are called to be on the frontiers, and the frontiers are sometimes dangerous.”
As he steps down this week as president of the Jesuit Conference, Fr. Smolich begins a five-month stay at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, California, where he will study French and work on special projects. Already a Spanish speaker, he hopes to become proficient in both French and Italian before beginning his new job.
To prepare for his new role, Fr. Smolich will begin 2015 by spending four months with JRS in Eastern Congo, working with refugees from that country’s war as well as with refugees from Rwanda and other parts of Central Africa. He will be part of the JRS team but is not sure exactly what he’ll be doing, saying it depends on “how good or bad my French is by then.”
In May of next year, he heads to Lebanon to work with JRS Middle East, currently the largest of the organization’s ten regions. There, he’ll help respond to the needs of displaced people within Syria and of refugees in Beirut and Amman, Jordan.
Next summer, he’ll travel to Rome to study Italian and will spend the fall of 2015 working side-by-side with outgoing JRS international director, Fr. Peter Balleis, SJ. Once he assumes the reins of JRS, Fr. Smolich will travel extensively, with annual visits to all of JRS’ regional operations.
JRS international director, Fr. Peter Balleis, SJ, and Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ. (Photo: Christian Fuchs, JRS/USA)
Fr. Balleis says, “Over the last ten years, JRS has doubled in size. Fr. Smolich is the right man to lead us in this period of continued expansion given his previous commitment to social issues. He understands JRS and what drives us, the importance of accompaniment and our closeness to refugees. The time he spends with JRS field staff before he takes over as international director in Rome will allow him to experience the compassion and love which drive our projects.”
Ordained in 1986, Fr. Smolich’s first assignment was to Bolivia to learn Spanish. He was supposed to stay for a year but his visit was cut short by typhoid because “you’re supposed to peel the fruit, but I thought I had been there long enough that I didn’t have to do that. My fault.” He came back early and was temporarily assigned to Dolores Mission, a Latino parish in East Los Angeles, so he could practice his Spanish. The three-month assignment lasted seven years, with Fr. Smolich serving as associate pastor and running the church’s community development nonprofit, Proyecto Pastoral. “Being executive director of Proyecto was a lot of fun, but I couldn’t read a balance sheet.”
He wanted to stay in community development work and asked his provincial if he could acquire some management skills. Approval in hand, he headed to Stanford University, where he earned an MBA in 1996. After an assignment with an affordable housing developer in the San Francisco Bay Area, Fr. Smolich was tapped to serve as the director of planning, formation and vocations for the California Province Jesuits. From 1999 through 2005, he served as provincial of the California Province, followed by his most recent assignment, eight years as president of the Jesuit Conference.
As he considers his next assignment, Fr. Smolich laughs as he recalls how his life as a Jesuit is nothing like the one he imagined when he entered the Society of Jesus as a 19-year-old novice. “I was attracted to the Society when I was in high school, and I imagined that after ordination, I would return to teach at a Jesuit high school. That didn’t happen, and it’s been a terrific run.”