12/01/2016, 18.58
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Patriarch al-Rahi: Fr Kolvenbach, a witness of Jesuit fidelity to the Church and Lebanon

by Fady Noun

The cardinal noted the special bond between the former SJ superior general and Lebanon. Since 1958, he had become an expert on Lebanon, for him a land of study and mission. He was a point of reference for priests and seminarians, young students and seniors.

Beirut (AsiaNews) – Lebanon and the Society of Jesus bid a solemn and personal farewell to Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ on Sunday in the Church of Our Lady of Jamhour. The former Superior General of the Society of Jesus (1983-2008) died last Saturday in Lebanon just a few days short of his 88th birthday on 30 November.

The ceremony was held in the presence of the Maronite Patriarch Card Beshara al-Rahi, the new SJ Superior General Fr Arturo Sosa Abascal, the SJ Provincial of the Near East and the Maghreb, the Apostolic Nuncio Mgr Gabriele Caccia, the Patriarchal Vicar Mgr Hanna Alwan, the Archbishop of Beirut Boulos Matar, the Jesuit Fathers of Lebanon and Province, and members of Father Kolvenbach's family.

Fr Kolvenbach, who led the Society of Jesus for 25 years, died in Beirut "forever his land," according to Fr Salim Daccache, rector of Saint Joseph University, who announced His death in a tactful biographical note. The former JS superior general had chosen Lebanon as his place of mission in 1958. However, he was summoned to Rome in 1981 to serve as rector of the Pontifical Oriental Institute and then elected two years later, as a man of concord and peace, at the helm of the Society of Jesus.

First Love

After he resigned in 2008, he settled permanently in Beirut and become the curator of the Armenian Fund at the Oriental Library (Bibliothèque orientale) and researcher for the Christian Arab Documentation and Research Centre (Centre de documentation et de recherches arabes chrétiennes) at Saint Joseph University (Université de St-Joseph).

In doing so, Fr Kolvenbach came back to his first love, since it was at the Institute of Oriental Letters (Institut de lettres orientales) that he had begun to learn the Armenian language and literature, which became his speciality. It was in Beirut that, after his theological studies, he was ordained priest on 29 June 1961, in accordance with the Armenian rite. In parallel, he studied philology and linguistics in Beirut and Paris.

The war marked his academic career forever. One day in the 1970s, during his doctoral studies on "the place of particles in the Armenian Bible", a bomb fell on the buildings of the community St. Gregory of the Jesuits (Saint-Grégoire des Jésuites) where he lived, destroying the locker that contained the search papers he had collected over the years.

"Fr Kolvenbach was well known for his simplicity, frankness, humour and ascetic tendencies. He lived, indeed, on the last floor of the residence in a room with only one mattress on the floor," said Fr Daccache.

A great friend of Lebanon, he had a sense of hospitality and could offer observations sought after by those who had the chance to be counted among his friends. Many of them sought his company and turned to him for advice. He was known in the right places for his knowledge about Lebanon and he knew the country’s daily life more than the Lebanese themselves.

A word from Patriarch al-Rahi

Patriarch al-Rahi yesterday added his tribute to Father Kolvenbach "in the spirit of fidelity to an exceptional person who had, in his heart, a great love for Lebanon, the Lebanese and the Eastern Churches."

"Father Kolvenbach," said the head of the Maronite Church, "gave a great deal to our priests and seminarians, to our young students and seniors, great and small, during the 24 years he spent in Lebanon, as a theological student first and then as a professor at Saint Joseph University. On his return to Lebanon, he supported our country with his prayers and shone with his example of humility, serenity, joy, peace, and tireless intellectual work."

Paying tribute to Fr. Kolvenbach "for what he is and for what he did", the patriarch emphasised in particular "his attachment to Lebanon (which) was evident in his way of closely following the events that caused bloodshed in the country.”

"Who among us," he noted, "when in Rome, was not invited to his amiable table, and noticed his concern and hopes for Lebanon? What courage and tranquillity we drew from these fraternal encounters!"

Father Kolvenbach "summarised in himself the fidelity to the Church and the Lebanon of the Jesuit Fathers (. . .) since their first arrival in Lebanon almost four centuries ago," Patriarch al-Rahi said without hesitation.

In concluding his address, the prelate said that the whole Maronite Church is praying "for the Society of Jesus and for the success of the mandate of the new superior general".

Condolences were expressed at the end of the Mass.

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