An Interview with Fr. Franco Imoda S.J.

by Dr. Eugene Fisher Profiles in Catholicism



INTRODUCTION


Fr. Franco Imoda is a Jesuit Priest.

Has studied Philosophy in France, and Theology in Italy, obtaining the corresponding Licentiates (Philosophy and Theology). After a year of Psychological studies at Fordham University in New York, went on to his Doctorate (Ph.D.) in Clinical Psychology at the University of Chicago

From 1971 has been a professor at the Institute of Psychology at the Gregorian University teaching mainly Human development, psychotherapy, psychopathology, and discernment. His writings include around 15 books and various articles treating psychological aspects of the human/spiritual motivation of vocational choice and commitment.

From 1980 to 1986 and from 1993 to 1998 he was Director of the Institute of Psychology at the Pontifical Gregorian University. He has been a member of the Italian Association of Professional Psychologists, since its beginning, in 1991 and recognized as a psychotherapist.

In 1994 he was appointed Vice-Rector of the Gregorian University and from February 1998, till 2004, was Rector (Magnifico) of the University.

In September 2003 he was appointed a Member of the Commission of the Congregation for Catholic Education

for the Bologna Process.

In September 2004 he was appointed President of the Fondazione La Gregoriana, which he was asked to create in order to develop and sustain the International Institutions of the Society of Jesus in Rome: Pontifical Gregorian University, Pontifical Biblical Institute, Pontifical Oriental Institute.

In February 2005 he was appointed a Consultor of the Congregation for Catholic Education and of the Foundation Gravissimum educationis”.

From September 2007 until 2018 he has been President of the (then to be created) agency for the evaluation and promotion of Quality of Ecclesiastical Faculties depending on the Holy See - AVEPRO. Since 2017 has been President of the Governing Board of the Istituto Massimiliano Massimo” in Rome

Dr. Fisher: When you received your vocation, with whom did you discuss it and what was their response?


Father Franco: The vocation developed initially in the context of the Jesuit High School where I was a student. The spiritual experience offered by the group of “Christian Life Communities” (at the time called “Marian Congregation”) offering some apostolic opportunities, such as spending some time in a Charity Hospital or in visits to poor families in neglected city neighborhoods. All this was “accompanied” quite personally by Jesuit Fathers who, in different ways were certainly “inspirational” for their commitment, a sense of a full life, and personalized attention to us/me. Other important figures in the initial decision were my parents who confronted and challenged the maturing decision with a certain opposition and the request to meet and talk about what was “the call” with some non-Jesuit persons.


The Jesuit vocation is obviously not decided in a moment, even before the decision to enter the Novitiate, but it “matures “during the several years of formation. The various stages with studies, apostolic experiences, and joining and leaving different communities, where one comes to meet and live with many different companions, with various superiors, within academic and existential challenges, may be – and in fact, it is – the occasion of a prolonged “test” of a demanding life calling.


In spite of busy schedules implied in what has just been said, the experience of prayer and consistent periods of silence play a decisive role. In all this the presence, the confrontation, exchanges with an always available Spiritual Guide is also a fundamental element. Needless to say, their “guiding” is never an imposition or a definite indication, but mediation and eventually confirmation of a decision and a process which will be undertaken with the best possible degree of freedom.


Dr. Fisher: Where did you attend seminary and what was the most challenging course that you took, and why was it challenging?


Father Franco: The Jesuit formation life starts with the Novitiate. Two years of Spiritual formation, with the 30 days Spiritual Exercises, introduction to Jesuit spirituality, constitutions and tradition, and various experiences (catechism to children, pilgrimage, etc). Then the three-year study of Philosophy (France) with a seminary course on Hegel’s Phenomenology of the spirit” and after two years of “regency” in a Jesuit Middle and High school, four years of Theology, with Ordination at the end of the third year. Then another year of spiritual deepening, called Tertianship, with particular attention to the Jesuit tradition and formation which I made in Dublin. The last step information was the full year of training in the Psychiatric hospital. These “challenges” involved a review and conversion of the cognitive horizon, of the life commitment, and of the various motivations.


Dr. Fisher: Why did you decide to be a Jesuit?


Father Franco: There are probably many factors and motivations ranging from an inevitable search for something of great value, the experience of dissatisfaction with a world which, in spite of its fashion presents its limits and imperfections. More or less consciously there was an increasing persuasion that this type of life was responding to the deep search of meaning in the heart, in spite of the inevitable ever-present questions and possible doubts: The various different figures of Jesuits Saints even if from other ages, but some much closer to us, has been a constant inspiring factor in order to try to follow outstanding models.


Dr. Fisher: What are the primary differences between Jesuits and other religious orders?


Father Franco: The Jesuits are called “contemplatives in action”, with a strong emphasis on the mission which is – at least potentially - open, through a special vow of obedience to the Pope for apostolic “work” in all parts of the world., The last General Congregation (the SJ Chapter) indicated as “Apostolic Preferences”: 1. Show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and Discernment; 2. Walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated in a mission of reconciliation and justice. 3. Accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future; 4.Collaborate with Gospel depth, in the protection and renewal of God’s Creation.


Dr. Fisher: When did you serve as Rector of the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome and what were your primary responsibilities?


Father Franco: The “mission” as Rector lasted two three-year terms from 1998 to 2004. The responsibilities were the usual ones for the head of an institution of considerable reputation and a long history, requiring attention to the academic, but also the administrative and therefore financial dimensions; I always considered of crucial importance to pay attention both to the internal relations as to those with external institutions both ecclesiastical and secular, national and international. Aware of many possible limits – quite inevitable - in a complex world - I tried to rely on and foster – more or less successfully - collaboration, trusting a number of competent persons both within and without the circle of the institution. In this sense, I believe that the introduction of competent lay personnel, men and women, not only as teachers but in some important administrative and technical offices, was an enriching step which was then successfully continued.


Dr. Fisher: What interested you in studying clinical psychology and where did your study?


Father Franco: After a more general year almost as an introduction to the Socio-psychological Sciences at Fordham University (New York) I pursued a Doctoral Program in Clinical Psychology at the University of Chicago with a full year of practice at Michael Reese (Psychiatric) Hospital... My Ph.D. Dissertation was part of a research on the motivation of young people to join religious life or seminary, with special attention to the degree of their spiritual psychological maturity. Those were the years just following Vatican Council II, with its strong call to the human person and his/her central presence in a changing and challenging world. I am still very grateful to the trust shown to me by the Superior who asked me to make a plan for the study and then accepted it.


The importance of an “integration” between the richness offered by the spiritual dimension of Christian anthropology and the rich contribution of the human-psychological sciences which sometimes/often remained closed into a purely humanistic horizon, was a stimulating even though difficult challenge. After several years the temptations of a “spiritualistic” or a “psychologistic” approach remain strong. Pope Francis in the Apostolic Exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate” mentions “two subtle enemies of sanctity” (cf Ch 2) which he calls “Gnosticism” and “Neo Pelagianism”. In this perspective, after 50 years of the life of the Institute of Psychology, it is a great joy to see several hundreds of Alumni active throughout the world often in the position of great responsibility and/or formation: There are also 14 “Institutes for Formation of future Formators” created and managed by alumni in all the Continents.


Dr. Fisher: What are some of the psychological factors that could result in sexual abuse of minors?


Father Franco: The possible interpretations are various. They may be called identity problems, mainly psychosexual, narcissism, unresolved intimacy issues. some authors have referred to power. These can all be useful in reaching a fundamental component of the personality, which has to do with value and its link with the relationship, the other. All this on the horizon of what would/should be real, fundamental freedom involving a dynamic synthesis of sameness and difference, closeness and distance, immediacy and mediation, physical and spiritual.


Dr. Fisher: Are there any psychological tests that might be helpful in predicting abuse?


Father Franco: As I am not particularly specialized in the field, I am not aware of any specific “instrument”. I don’t know. I could say however that any “procedure” which helps to understand the basic dynamics of the person, especially in view of evaluating the possible weaknesses of the self, the personality, is of fundamental importance. This area involving “abuses” could be the expression of very serious fragilities, even though the person may not show strictly psychopathological signs.


What are some of the most effective techniques that can help survivors of abuse heal?


Father Franco: As mentioned above this is a complex question that would require more extended treatment. I would like to mention at the beginning that a “technique” would be inadequate. The possible personal interventions adopted may be aimed at the person in his/her reality as a whole and he/she should experience any “intervention” as addressed to and considering the person in all his/her dignity: The importance of a relationship of trust is certainly central in order to restore a sense of dignity and value.


Also, the area of resentment and shame/guilt should be “worked through” in order not to deny but to accept a difficult past, so as to live it in “real freedom”. The spiritual and clearly Christian dimension will contribute to an actualization of real freedom which is able to “accept”, to “assume responsibly” and eventually to “transform” what is negative, a loss, into something positive. This process, which – without excluding what we will call techniques -should be very personal but usually achieved through a relationship, will involve the mind a cognitive (re-evaluation), the will for an exercise of real freedom, and especially an affective dimension, ultimately real love.