An Interview with Father Nikolaas Sintobin. SJ

by Gordon Nary

Gordon: You were initially a lawyer. Please share readers what inspired you to leave your career to be a Jesuit priest.


I have been a lawyer for two years. I loved it very much. I was a happy young man, spreading my wings. My spiritual quest at the end of my law studies had made me discover the Ignatian spirituality. I had been a practicing catholic for all my life, but Saint Ignatius made me really discover Jesus. More in particular, Ignatian prayer with the Bible made me experience Jesus as somebody with whom I could establish something like a personal relation.


This changed my life profoundly. Basically I discovered a quality of joy I simply did not know that existed and that was directly related to my growing closeness with Jesus and his Gospel. Two years after the beginning of this adventure I made a short retreat. During the first evening I was praying in my room and all of the sudden I heard a question in my heart: Nikolaas, if really this intense proximity with Jesus gives you such a deep joy, maybe this means that you are called to a way of life where you can fully put this on the first place. Should you not consider to become a Jesuit?


I had never asked myself the question of a religious vocation. But, to my astonishment, asking the question was answering the question. Six weeks later I told my parents I was about to ask to be admitted to the novitiate of the Society of Jesus. I was 26 years old.


Gordon: Where did you do your training and what was your most challenging course and why?


Fr Nikolaas: I was trained as a Jesuit in Brussels, Paris and Santiago de Chile. My most challenging course was about the history of the trinitarian dogma during my theology studies in Paris. I must admit that, starting this course, I was not immediately seduced. I rather thought it would be horribly boring. It was all the opposite.


Not only I became impressed by the subtlety of the intellectual debates among the Fathers of the Church. But most importantly this course gradually introduced me, both intellectually and spiritually, into the very heart of the mystery of God, as revealed by Christ. It helped me understand the uniqueness of the Christian concept of God, one nature and three persons. By doing so, this course simultaneously opened my mind to the mystery of the identity of the human person, created in the image and likeness of God.


More generally, this course made me understand that the Christian revelation not only reveals the identity of God to mankind but that, by doing so, it also reveals man to himself. By consequence, Christians really have a very special mission to help men and women to grow in their humanity. For me, this is a common thread for anything I do as a Jesuit.


In the sixteenth century the Jesuits started their most important project ever: the development of a worldwide network of high schools. It is not a mere coincidence that they named this project “humaniora”, a Latin expression meaning “to become more human”.


Gordon: You are an internet Pastor. Please explain how you made this choice and explain your ministry.


Fr Nikolaas: My major mission today as a Jesuit is indeed the internet. It is a mission a was glad to receive, even though I have no professional training in this area. I am completely self-made. I am convinced that internet ministry is essential for the future of the Church. In Western Europe only a small minority of the people go to Church. By contrast almost all spend every day a significant amount of time on internet. For many of the surfers the digital environment has become the only place where the possibility exists that they will encounter some Christian content. Anyhow, to all applies that the digital environment has become the place where an ever-growing proportion of human activities take place, is being affected by and so on.


For these reasons it seems to me that developing know-how about how to evangelize through internet is an absolute priority for Christians. It is our duty, if we really want to obey to the mission Jesus himself gave us to proclaim the Gospel to all people in nowadays cultural context.

More specifically, together with a large group of professionals and volunteers, we produce all kind of content (text, podcast, video …) for our websites and social media.


Points of attention here is to adapt our ministry to the internet, rather than simply transposing to internet what we already do in the physical world. This means, for instance, that we try to

  • be as creative as possible – internet demands continuous change,

  • try to produce short and straightforward content – the surfer is not very patient,

  • prioritize visual products, more in particular visual storytelling,

  • always have an ecumenical perspective – on internet, fortunately, there are no wallsdevelop various content for various audiences,

  • all present on and accessible via internet.


Finally, for me it is clear that the digital religious experience cannot be a substitute for the experience in the physical world. Hence, we systematically try to make bridges between our digital and our physical offer, knowing however that for all kind of reasons for many the digital experience is the only accessible one.


Gordon: How essential is YouTube in your ministry?


Fr Nikolaas: YouTube has become one of the most important search engines on the internet. Moreover, visual story telling has become the dominant literary genre in nowadays communication. The commercials, the news, the social media, they all use this communication technique in a massive way. Most people feel comfortable with it.


Visual story telling has a particular potential for evangelization because it has a most valuable characteristic. When looking at a visual story, the interiority of the viewer is often being touched: the visual story appeals to the visual reminders of the viewer and those visual reminders are often connected to the most intimate part of human life. Religious experience takes place exactly at this level of personal intimacy, a level that most people find difficult to relate with in a conscient way. They are well trained to deal with more superficial levels of their experience. They often simply don’t realize there is also something deeper in their life.


Many of the people I work with are frankly interested to better understand what the Gospel and the Christian faith are about. But as their access to their interiority is so difficult, in the first place for themselves, it is often impossible for them to simply understand the kind of experience Christians are inviting them to deal with. This is exactly why I use YouTubes as a tool for introducing both Christians and not Christians to different aspects of the Christian experience. A clip of only one minute, if well chosen, can allow to reach out to that deeper level of experience and thus make it possible to start to reflect and to share on that level of interiority.

To share my knowhow in this matter, I have made a specialized website, in collaboration with the faculty of theology of the Catholic University of Louvain: www.seeingmore.org. In it, one can find hundreds of YouTubes I have selected over the past 10 years that can be used for this purpose. They all have in common that they are short, secular, non verbal and open ended. I use them while giving retreats to monks or to religious sisters. But also when giving training to teachers, businesspeople or high school pupils. The results are often impressive.


Gordon: What impact has on-line pornography had on faith?


Fr Nikolaas: Sane and humanizing sexuality has to do with relation, corporality, love, imperfection, desire, patience, the search of the absolute, respect and so on. In other words, it has to do with a whole range of challenges each human being has to address in his or her quest to become a better human being. Pornography is all the opposite of these values. It is about violence, non-respect, egocentricity, using and abusing the other, immediacy, virtuality, impulses etc. Online pornography only strengthens these dehumanizing characteristics of pornography. As the consumption of online pornography is massive it cannot but have an influence on the way men and women of all generations deal with their own sexuality.


A similar dynamic is present in the social media where all kinds of violence flourish in the field of communication. Not to mention the way we tend to deal with food, nature, personal enrichment etc.


Indeed, modern culture has an amazing capacity to provide, at any price, immediate satisfaction to the fundamental needs of the human being. This might seem to be an excellent evolution, if it weren’t for the fact that human experience has taught us overwhelmingly that this immediacy does not lead to real, longtime fulfillment and that on the long term we have to pay a very high price for this immediacy.


Christian faith has developed, through the centuries, subtle ways of dealing with each single of these issues. One could even say that the whole Christian revelation points in the opposite direction of many attitudes the present-day culture tries to convince us to adopt. Jesus invites us to respect, trust, abandonment, chastity, gradual growth, sharing, altruism, gratuity etc. He also warns us for the strength of temptation and teaches us not to give in with the seducer at the risk of going down completely.


But, for the time being, I think we have to admit that we are still short of having developed adequate means to translate this richess of the Christian faith experience in a way that can effectively help our fellow believers – and other people of good will - to learn to deal with these new challenges posed by our culture.


What might be the impact of this evolution on faith? On the short term it might seem to make the Christian tradition irrelevant and outdated. But this should not make us forget that the challenges that our culture poses to us today are ultimately no more than a new form of the same basic issues humanity always has had to tackle and to which Christian faith is really an answer, probably the best answer ever given to humanity. This is the reason why I have an optimistic approach of the future of Christian faith, also in times of massive online pornography consumption. Even though I think Christians will have to do a major effort of inculturation to discover how our two millennia old experience can produce answers to these questions that, as new as they may seem, are as old as humanity


Gordon: What inspired you to write Jesuits Telling Jokes: A (Serious) Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality


The Catholic Church has a tremendous tradition of humor. For me, this is reassuring. Because it proves that Catholics are fundamentally at ease with who and what they are. They know they are not perfect. No matter how rich and how refined the way they express and live their faith, they understand that it is, also, the result of the work of human beings. This humility makes it possible to joke with oneself and with one’s identity.


However, authentic humor is not only fun. It is also most serious. A good joke – that means a joke that has a positive and even a loving bias with regard to the subject it deals with – often expresses a thorough knowledge of that subject. In other words, humor can be an excellent way to say something about the very core of a topic.


That’s exactly why I decided to write a book about Jesuit spirituality, pedagogy, history and way of life, starting from an anthology of 20 Jesuit jokes and 20 cartoons. Though the starter of each chapter is pure fun, it is actually a very serious introduction into the wide range of the Jesuit tradition. Strange enough, this combination of humor and seriousness is not very usual among Christians. And that while it lowers considerably the threshold for people to start reading. I suppose it is this particular combination that explains why this booklet has already been translated into five other languages and that four more translations are underway.


Gordon: Since God is infinite, does He have an infinite sense of humor?


In 2013 pope Francis gave an interview to the Italian daily La Repubblica. In it he said, jokingly: “I don’t think God is catholic”. God is above our all too human ways of thinking, speaking and acting. For the simple reason that God is infinite and perfect while we, humans, are finite and imperfect.


Our imperfection is one of the reasons why we are often afraid or angry. I don’t think similar feelings exist in God. God is only and fully love, abandonment and trust. Stating that God has an infinite sense of humor is of course an anthropomorphic projection. But I think it can make sense if one understands it as a statement about the inner peace and rest that exists in God. Only the one who is at peace with himself can mock oneself. When applied to God this can make us indeed conclude that God has an infinite sense of humor, as He is perfectly in peace with Himself.

Gordon: What in your option, are the three greatest challenges to the Catholic Faith and how should they be addressed.


Reflecting on this question, three issues come to my mind.


1. Inculturation.


The whole history of Christianism is a history of inculturation: finding out what the Gospel, and broader, the whole of the Christian revelation, means in a given culture and era. One of the characteristics of the present time is that the rhythm of change of almost every aspect of our culture has never been as high and is still increasing.


This dynamic of change has important consequences for Christians, if at least we want to remain relevant for our contemporaries. It invites us, in a systematic way, to engage the dialogue between our faith tradition and that changing context. The speed and the extent of these changes ask us to be audacious and creative. This willingness to adapt, in dialogue with and faithfulness to tradition, is a necessary condition to continue to better understand how our faith can help, ourselves and as many other people as possible, to grow in our humanity, in our search for God and to be able to tackle more efficiently challenges such as ecology, climate change, refugees etc.


2, Remaining Catholic


The aforementioned paradigm of change necessarily entails uncertainty, fear and, as a consequence, a risk of conflict and division among the faithful. Indeed, dealing with change is difficult. This risk is all the more real since the Catholic Church, like many others, has become a global organization where everything can be known by everybody, in particular in times of internet.


At the same time the Catholic Church has a lot of knowhow of dealing with differences and plurality. The challenge of maintaining dialogue and unity within a context of worldwide growing plurality is an integral part of the Catholic DNA and an important testimony and contribution our world needs so much.­­


3. Ecumenism


It is hard to believe but until not that long ago Catholics and Protestants often behaved more like enemies than like brothers and sisters in Christ. The continuing, historic division among Christians is a major challenge Christians have to deal with. In our secularizing and globalizing world the scandal of this division is a counter-witness that undermines the credibility and the message of the Gospel itself.


In addition to this, humanity is facing global challenges of such a magnitude that it is vital that all people of good will collaborate to find solutions. Hence, ecumenical dialogue and collaboration, both among Christians and with other religions, is of the utmost importance.


Gordon: Thank you for an exceptional interview.

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