Jesuits, Colleagues Gather in Santo Domingo for International Social Ministry Conference

By Becky Sindelar

April 26, 2016 — Over 90 representatives of Jesuit social ministries from more than a dozen countries gathered in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, earlier this month to discuss social justice issues, including the environment, crime and migration.

The Intercontinental Jesuit Gathering for Social and International Ministry, held from April 4-8 with the theme “Crossing Borders, Finding New Ways,” included participants representing 12 Jesuit provinces — from as far north as Canada and as far south as Central America, including the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States.

Meeting attendees included Father Patxi Álvarez, SJ, Secretary, Social Justice and Ecology, at the Jesuit Curia in Rome; Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States; and eight Jesuit provincials from North America, Central America and the Caribbean.


Fr. Brian Christopher, SJ, Andres Vall-Serra, SJ, and Fr. Timothy Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.

The participants represented a broad range of social ministries where the Society is present, including Solidarite Fwontalye (Solidarity at the Border) in Haiti; Jesuit Refugee Service Canada; the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette University in Milwaukee; and St. Peter Claver Parish in Belize.

Fr. Álvarez kicked off the meeting by emphasizing that social ministry has been at the core of the Jesuit mission since the Society of Jesus was founded in 1540. “St. Ignatius from his conversion was living and serving the poor. I don’t think we remember that as much as we should.”


Fr. Patxi Álvarez, SJ, Secretary, Social Justice and Ecology, at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, presents at the conference.

He then offered an overview of the history and current implications of “The Service of Faith and the Promotion of Justice,” the groundbreaking decree in the document produced during the Jesuits' 32nd General Congregation in 1974-75. The decree declared, “The mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.”

Over the course of the next three days the delegates learned about the hemispheric realities of four key justice areas where Jesuits and lay partners are engaged throughout the region: the economic system and exclusion; the environment and natural resource extraction; violence and organized crime; and migration.


Delegates gathered in discussion groups after each session.

Rosa Cañete, coordinator of the "Equal" campaign against inequality in Latin America and the Caribbean at Oxfam, gave of an overview of economic exclusion in the region, and Rafael Moreno, SJ, director of the Jesuit Migration Network, offered a presentation on the consequences of migration in Central America and Mexico.

Gabriel Mendoza Zárate, of the Mexican Jesuits’ Programa de Reconstrucción del Tejido Social, described the impacts of violence on communities throughout Mexico in his presentation.


Fr. Scott Santarosa, SJ, provincial of the Oregon Province Jesuits, and Elba Polanco, coordinator of CEFASA, a Jesuit-founded center for social and agricultural training and action in the Dominican Republic.

Pedro Landa of Equipo de Reflexión, Investigación y Comunicación, a Jesuit-sponsored social research center in Honduras, explained the harsh impacts of the extractive mining industry on Honduran communities. The gathering also served as an opportunity to remember Berta Cáceres, a Honduran human rights and environmental activist, who was assassinated recently.            

Father Ismael Moreno, SJ, a Honduran Jesuit and human rights activist known as Padre Melo, was on hand to testify about her life.

“Berta Cáceres was an uncomfortable woman. She made the various governments uncomfortable because they could never buy her … She made men, especially the leaders, uncomfortable because she questioned patriarchal power and violent machismo … Who is this trait of uncomfortableness of Berta Cáceres reminiscent of? Who could we compare her to? Certainly to Jesus, the inconvenient one of Nazareth.”


Participants gathered for the Eucharist each day.

Marco Veilleux, delegate for the social apostolate in the Jesuits’ French Canada Province, appreciated Padre Melo’s reflection. “It helped us situate and ponder our own commitments. In the South, a number of people involved in social causes risk their life for their solidarity with the victims of oppression. It brings a sentiment of humility to our struggles.”

After each session, delegates gathered in multinational groups to discuss what they heard and discern ways that the Jesuit social ministry network might respond more collaboratively to the realities.


Fr. Bill Kelley, SJ, Secretary for Social and International Ministries at the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.

Participants were energized by the diversity of their colleagues. Father Eduardo Soto Parra, SJ, of Quixote House, a Jesuit residence in Winnipeg, Canada, where parolees can live while getting adjusting to life outside prison, said, “It seems unimaginable for 98 people coming from over 12 countries, speaking in four different languages to meet under the same roof … I am inspired by everyone’s participation and glad that people took advantage of this opportunity to step outside of their cultural comfort zones.”


Fr. Eduardo Soto Parra, SJ

Toward the end of the conference, delegates met in their province groups to discuss ways that they could carry forward the relationships and knowledge that were built during the gathering.

On the final day, the group had an opportunity to visit a number of Jesuit social ministries based at parishes in Santo Domingo neighborhoods facing significant economic challenges.


Students at a Jesuit-run school in Santo Domingo attendees visited.

“The Jesuits decided to move into this barrio to live with them in the early 1970s. Not to begin building a parish or a school — which both came later. Instead, it was to be with, to accompany, and to walk with the people of this poor barrio,” explained Matthew Ippel, SJ, a Jesuit scholastic studying at Loyola University Chicago who attended the conference.

“It was a brief visit, yet the interior movement or moción that I felt undeniably reflected the greater sense of ánimo (spirit/energy) and esperanza (hope) that I had been experiencing throughout our gathering,” said Ippel.


Stephen Nicholson, SJ, Matt Ippel, SJ, and Matthew Cuff, 
policy associate of the Advocacy Office of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the United States.

Veilleux was also inspired by the visit to the barrio. “It was the church of the ‘peripheries,’ the one Pope Francis talked about so many times. I told myself: ‘This is the reason I work with the Society of Jesus!’”

Ippel said he was hopeful, challenged, inspired and discomforted following the gathering. “All are places in which God is active and present, inviting me and, I believe, inviting us, as the Ignatian family, to respond to the signs of the times, to the realities in front of us.”


Delegates from Canada and Haiti, including Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ, (front row, second from left) provincial of the English Canada Province, and Fr. Jean-Marc Biron, SJ, (front row, center) provincial of the French Canada Province.

Photos by Fr. John Whitney, SJ. 

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