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Interview: Fr Damian Howard SJ, Provincial Superior of the British Jesuits

20 March 2020

‘Courage seems to force itself upon me every now and again’

The first Jesuits in Britain came to Britain during Reformation times, and suffered persecution and martyrdom. We have 11 canonised martyrs from the 16th and 17th centuries, and many non-canonised, including Henry Garnet, one of my predecessors as Superior, who was a victim of the hysteria surrounding the Gunpowder Plot.

Nowadays, we’re about 120 priests, Brothers, and priests-in-training, living in 13 communities up and down the country. We run ten parishes; Campion Hall, Oxford; three big university chaplaincies; and we’re associated with 11 Jesuit schools, St Beuno’s Jesuit Spirituality Centre, the Jesuit Refugee Service, the Jesuit Institute, Jesuit missions, Jesuit centres in London, Edinburgh, and Glasgow, and quite a lot more besides. We work ecumenically and in partnership with thousands of lay partners.

I entered the novitiate in Birmingham in 1990, during the last months of Margaret Thatcher’s period in office. There was an engagement with culture, justice, and other religions, which I admired. It also had something of a mystique, which attracted me, but, fortunately, I grew out of that pretty quickly. These days, though, it’s just where I feel at home.

I left university at the end of the 1980s, in a wave of glitzy new jobs in marketing and banking. I wasn’t sure what I wanted, but it wasn’t that. I had a job offer from the Department for International Development, but I was looking for an alternative life that I could give my whole self to — something I could believe in, which would change me for the better. I’ve not been disappointed.

Wherever I am, personal prayer and mass are the essentials of every day. I spend roughly half the year in my London curia, where I begin work at about 8.30 a.m. and finish at about 7 p.m. I try to meet others working in leadership roles in the Churches. I wish that I was more in touch with the poor. The rest of the year, I might be visiting Jesuit communities, which means a lot of listening, or going to international meetings, which means a lot of talking. I try to keep up with emails, but they usually defeat me.

We have a Jesuit Pope, and his vision for the Church is recognisably Jesuit. He’s committed to the justice that flows from eucharistic life, and he’s also a man of the Spirit. He has that deep Jesuit sense that God deals with every single soul, inspiring, encouraging, challenging,and planting good desires, and that the Church is bigger than any one cultural expression. It makes you the target of a lot of abuse, but it’s vital.

Pope Francis asks Jesuits to help build a discerning Church — docile to the action of the Holy Spirit and capable of responding to the signs of the times. We’re sometimes accused of emphasising God’s mercy at the expense of God’s justice. I’d rather err that way than the other.

Previous popes recognised human-caused climate change as a moral issue. Catholic organisations such as CAFOD have worked on these issues for a number of years, and Pope Francis’s encyclical Laudato Si has increased awareness and mobilised Catholics around the world. More than 160 Catholic organisations around the world have made divestment commitments. Christian investors played an important part in the fight against apartheid and in the rise of Fairtrade certification.

The Jesuits in Britain now take the care of creation as one of the top priorities for all our activities,
and we’ve been looking at divestment from fossil fuel-producing companies for a decade. For years, we’ve been restricting our investments in thermal coal or Canadian tar sands. We’ve also been advocating, with others, for the likes of BP and Shell to follow the 2015 Paris COP agreements. We’ve now taken the decision to divest completely from oil, gas, and coal-producing companies, because we felt those companies were not making enough progress.

I hope that the impact will go beyond the Jesuits and the Catholic Church, and make a prophetic statement to wider society about the importance of a rapid, just transition from fossil fuels to clean alternatives. When governments fail to show sufficient leadership, it’s up to civil society to show it.

It’s important that our investment portfolios spread risk, to protect the funds available for mission. If we’re to meet Paris-agreement targets, fossil-fuel companies run the risk of being left with worthless fuel reserves that can’t be burned, whereas the increasing competitiveness of renewable energy and new technologies is economically promising.

We’re also switching to green electricity, and taking those myriad steps that build up to bigger transformation: oat milk instead of dairy; less meat, more vegetarian meals; fewer plastic items, more recycling. We continue with energy audits of all our works.

Lent struck me as a great opportunity to invite others to join us. Our schools set a whole host of practical steps that young people can take with their families in caring for our common home.

I find Lent a challenge, to be honest. My work before becoming Provincial was in dialogue with Muslims. Compared with Ramadan, a modern Lent can seem rather pallid, but Ramadan’s also a time when Muslims break their fast every night and celebrate with the whole community. Lent doesn’t quite have that flavour. The key, for me, is to go deeper, to let my heart expand, to be that bit more ready for the joyful but unsettling gift of the risen Lord. I never arrive at Holy Week without feeling disappointed in myself, but I never leave the Easter Triduum without deep satisfaction in God.

I grew up in Surrey. I was rather shy, a bit of a daydreamer, but good at exams and besotted with music. It was a household of strong women, plus me. My mother taught me how to pray, and communicated her abiding fascination with Christ and Catholicism; but I went through teenage scepticism and came out the other side a rather naïve student of theology. I found my way back to the Catholic Church through an intellectual encounter with Hinduism and Buddhism. My family have always supported my vocation — they realised I was never going to make millions in the City — and I still love to spend time with my mother, sister, and nieces in Shropshire.

My first experience of God was a sense of his presence — and the joy that it gave me — I felt gazing at the sanctuary lamp in the local parish church where my grandmother used to play the organ.

I developed, slowly, mainly unintentionally, stumbling from one insight to another. Jesuits formation through the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius made that mysterious link for me between the experience of God and the concrete life of service, self-control, and openness to others.

Once, I might have said that my proudest achievement was lasting the course of our long Jesuit training: from ten to 20 years. Nowadays, I can’t make sense of the word “achievement”, to be honest. I’ve done several things that I thought I’d never have been capable of; but this wasn’t, in any real sense, me, but just the Lord turning up every morning and showing me what to do next.

To know your own religious tradition is already a lifetime’s work. To really know another is almost impossible, but I hope that I made a little contribution in my book about evolution and 20th-century Islamic thought [Being Human in Islam: The impact of the evolutionary worldview (Routledge, 2011)]. Germany takes their theological faculties seriously, and some very exciting progress is happening in their new departments of Islamic studies there.

Courage seems to force itself upon me every now and again. I remember stepping up to make an impromptu speech to an anti-Nazi rally in Whitechapel a few years ago — not my accustomed rhetorical genre. I dread to think what anyone listening made of it. The trickiest thing has been taking on leadership at a time when good leadership is in short supply.

Petty-mindedness makes me angry. Wilful misrepresentation of the underdog. Sloppy punctuation.

I’m happiest in that rare moment when I’m teaching, and manage to get something across; or preaching well — knowing that I’ve used my gifts to free someone of a burden.

I love the “kaah” of rooks in an English country garden on a late summer’s evening when the shadows are long on the lawn.

The sacraments give me hope, and unexpected eruptions of the Holy Spirit in barren ground, such as when I connect with a young person across the digital abyss.

These days, my principal task is to pray for the Jesuits of my Province. But I also pray for my family and friends, and Pope Francis and his enemies. And I pray often for abuse victims, and benefactors and partners of the Jesuits.

I’d want someone who was stimulating company if I was locked in a church. Not being much of a conversationalist, I’d need someone who could cope with long silences. I’ve often thought that George Smiley would shed some light on a few things.

Damian Howard was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

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