An Interview with Father George Pattery, SJ

by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.


Dr. Knight: Would you please share with us your early Catholic formation.

Father Pattery: I was born into a very traditional Catholic family in Central Kerala, India. It is believed that St Thomas the apostle came to India and preached the gospel in Kerala. Hence Christians in Kerala originating from that tradition call themselves as St Thomas Christians. It is in that traditional Catholic community that I was born into, and received my early Catholic formation. I feel quite happy and proud of that tradition in many ways; though perhaps the case has been overstated in certain circles.

Dr. Knight: Please tell us the significance of your high school years in formation.

Father Pattery: I did my high school in Kodungalloor in Kerala, the town that is credited for the arrival port of St Thomas the apostle; in recent times, it is a predominantly Hindu area with a very famous temple, devoted to goddess Kali. The high school, separately for boys, was government administered; It had fairly good reputation for academics. I had to commute daily on foot about 7 km one way to reach the school. Daily journey on foot to the school with companions drawn from our neighborhood provided rich experience of knowing the neighbourhood and the people around, drawn from different religions and strata of the society. That was a very formative part of my schooling!

Dr. Knight: You went to college and joined the seminary. How did you make that decision?

Father Pattery: As mentioned earlier, having been brought up in a very Catholic family and closely associated with the life in a Catholic parish, I was attracted to join the priesthood; in particular I was inspired by an elderly, saintly parish priest who was an embodiment of simplicity and hard work.

Dr. Knight: You were called by God to be a Jesuit. What is the significance of your call to be a follower of Ignatius and Christ?

Father Pattery: I joined the Society of Jesus as a priest. All along my philosophical and theological studies (Master’s in both), I was with the Jesuits, in the faculty at Pune, administered by them. I was impressed by the learning, the spirit of mission and companionship of the Jesuits. So much so before my ordination I requested to join the long retreat as a diocesan seminarian; I was given an opportunity to participate in one of them. I liked the dynamics of the four weeks of exercises, especially the way the person of Jesus and his filial mission to his father was presented. I then decided to proceed with the ordination and worked in the pastoral ministry for two years. However, something started to surface in me with regard to religious life. At that point in time I was invited to teach in a diocesan seminary in Calcutta, more than 3000 km away. My licentiate in theology and philosophy prompted me to take on this invitation; it gave me opportunity and time to discern the murmurings within. It was there that I met again with my mentor, Father Joseph Neuner, sj - the well-known Austrian theologian and peritus of Vat II. My discussion and sharing with father Joseph enabled me to enter upon a long process of discernment; I recall vividly the long personal letter from him after about a year of search and discernment. I had by then expressed my desire to join the Society of Jesus. In his reply father Joseph wrote to say that he already considered me a companion in the Society of Jesus, after reading my letter. It took me another two years to complete the process and to apply for joining the society in Calcutta province. In my personal reckoning, I joined the Society on the day I received letter from Fr. Joseph! That’s a personal secret not recorded in any catalogue of the Society. The companionship and the sense of mission as evidenced in the letters of Ignatius to Francis Xavier confirmed my desire and the decision. To this day, after more than 35 years, I feel happy and content with my choice.

Dr. Knight: You spent formation finding out your abilities and gifts through discernment. How was your discernment helpful to you personally?

Father Pattery: Indeed, all these years I have learned that discernment is the core tool for spiritual life, especially for Jesuit spirituality. The underlying principle of discernment in Jesuit tradition emerges from the Spiritual Exercises: that God is at work in this world and the realities of life; hence we are invited to discern the way of the Lord in all that is happening to us, around us and with us. The world, the universe and all that is in it belongs to the Lord and he is constantly at work in it to bring it to completion; our task is to join this enterprise of the Lord and to bring it to completion by discerning the ways of the Lord and co-operating with them. I find this extremely significant for my personal journey, for our communal search and for our engagement in and with the world. It gives us a positive outlook towards the world and the events of life so much so, as Jerome Nadal would say: the whole world is our home. This marks an essential approach of Jesuit way of living. It makes us co-travelers with all seekers across the world, from every religion, culture, nation, race and tradition. This common pilgrimage of the entire humanity and the whole universe transforms us into citizens of the universe.

Dr. Knight: Do you think/feel that your life is somewhat a mosaic of your different gifts?

Father Pattery: The journey of my life unfolded gradually for me, revealing different gifts or talents that I have or had, and I am grateful to the Lord for enabling me to put that into the service of the kingdom. About one third of my Jesuit life was spent in teaching: in THE Central Government University of Visva-Bharati in Santiniketan, (Calcutta) established by Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore. Teaching, interacting and sharing with staff and students, drawn from different parts of the country and abroad was an interesting and enriching experience in itself. I was one among the handful of Christian staff in the University; that experience both challenged me and taught me to be a presence that builds up communities and peoples.

Two third of my Jesuit life was spent in the Ministry of governance, as Superior/Dir, provincial and the President of the faculty and of the Conference. On hindsight I recognize that in the process I missed teaching and interacting with students and colleagues; perhaps that was my forte. However, in the process of governance I also learned a lot about myself, the Society’s ways of proceeding and the immense richness and weaknesses of our Society - truly ‘the least Society’. I also learnt, probably belatedly, how important discernment is for governance. I find it very enriching to rediscover spiritual conversation as an effective method of discernment in common, and an important help in our journey of life-mission. The actual implementation of the implications of spiritual conversation could promote justice and reconciliation in a world that is getting intensely polarized, divisive and increasingly violent. This I believe is the challenge of our times.

Dr. Knight: What do you want the readers to understand after reading this interview about being a Jesuit? About living in community?

Father Pattery: Being a Jesuit means a particular way of standing in the world; as Teilhard de Chardin would say and as quoted in DC 35 decree 2: “For those who know how to look, there is nothing profane in the world”. This for me summarizes a Jesuit perspective of embracing the world and the reality with an intensely and acutely divine-look. Such a reading of the world and its realities makes us pilgrims with other pilgrims in this universe, on this earth - our common home. Ours is a pilgrimage in communion with the entire humanity, the whole creation and the immense universe.

GC 35 also enabled us to rediscover the triptych of community, mission and Jesuit identity. These three are intrinsically related and immensely challenging. We are companions in life-mission; this companionship in life-mission marks the Jesuit identity today. It calls for forming inter-cultural communities, hallmark of Jesuits from the beginning of the Society. As Pope Francis invited us, we are expected to initiate processes that would help in this inter-cultural companionship in life-mission, rather than occupying spaces. Such process-creation will bring about greater justice and reconciliation in the universe; this we can do only and always with others. Hence the task cut out for us Jesuits is to collaborate with all those who are initiating such processes across nations, religions and cultures.

Dr. Knight: What are some of the challenges of the future Church?

Father Pattery: We are fortunate to have Pope Francis to lead the church today; he has given us a vision of the church for our times. He qualifies the church as the field hospital, with doors thrown open so that Jesus may go out of the churches to the streets, where people are struggling; the church embodies a space where all are ‘Fratelli tutti’; a church that upholds the dignity of the human person, married and unmarried, gendered or otherwise; a church that is a table-fellowship where people from the north-south-east-west can dine together. To my mind this was the perspective of the Second Vatican Council in Gaudium et Spes (1): the anxieties and griefs, joys and struggles of the world are also the joys and anxieties of the church. This is to my mind remains the real challenge of the church today. Laudato si gives us a perspective where everything and everyone are interrelated, interdependent and interconnected. This ecological thrust of our existence makes us one humanity, one universe and the earth as our common home. The challenge of the church today is to initiate processes that would promote the sense of single human family, common home and one universe journeying to the fulfillment of the dream of our creator.

Dr. Knight: What are some of the joys you’ve experienced as a Jesuit follower of Christ?

Father Pattery: The joy of being a companion of Jesus joining his enterprise; of walking with our Jesuit companions seeking the magis, of discovering so many pilgrims on the way from all traditions and walks of life, of entering upon ‘spiritual conversation’ with co-travelers discerning the way, finding consolations in the happening of the worlds, and searching together the ever-new and amazing faces of the Lord – even in the midst of the dark nights of the global pandemic.

Dr. Knight: As a Jesuit what are some of the duties that you perform/pray?

Father Pattery: Perhaps there is only one duty – of returning the love received – take and receive - nothing more, nothing less. Everything is a gift; everything is returned with gratitude. Peter Faber used to say: datum est mihi. It’s given to me. The only prayer then is ‘Magnificat’- for I am given lavishly, so much so my boundaries are broken in order to accomplish the ‘fiat’ of divine dream.

My prayerful duty is to stand by those who are deprived of their giftedness; to fight for their legitimate rights and privileges; to make this common home as common heritage of all on the face of this earth; thus, to bring to completion the creation; to give glory and honour to the one Creator of all.