A Conversation with Xavier de Bénazé

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Meeting our Eco-friends:

Recently been appointed Laudato Si’ delegate at the French West Europe Province, Xavier de Bénazé talk with us about how the Society of Jesus is embracing Ecology as a fundamental element of its mission.

Qs: Let’s set the frame: Who is Xavier de Bénazé? Tell us a bit about your background.

I am a French Jesuit. I grew up in between the Mediterranean Sea in Marseille and a little village in the countryside of western part of France – between the urban and the rural. I was born in a Catholic family where the notion of social justice and the concern for the poor was important, the firstborn out of five children. We would go to mass every Sunday, and also went to catechism while at school. After my high-school years at the Dominican High School in Marseille, I went down the path of preparing the national exams to become an agro-engineer. This, while at boarding school, was my first contact with the Jesuit world. During my agro-engineering studies I took a year-break and went to Cameroon to work as a missionary alongside a development programme run by the EU. This experience later took me to join a consulting company on sustainable development after graduation.

During this time I went on a pilgrimage to Assisi, back to where I went for my retreat to prepare for confirmation when I was 15. Here, after almost 10 years, I felt the same presence of God, and the question of vocation came back to me. Due to this, I started spiritual accompaniment and came to the conclusion that I could bring these two vocational strands together. I went on a 10 day retreat with the Jesuits and, since my novitiate began then, it has been a succession of confirmations that this was the right decision to take at that time.

Following this, I spent 5 years studying philosophy and theology in Paris with a year abroad in Toronto where I learned to approach social and ecological affairs through new perspectives. Here, I engaged with Pr. Cécile Renouard, Sister of the Assumption, who was teaching in engineering and business schools in France and who also had been my tutor at the Jesuit faculty. During this time, she had launched a project called Campus de la Transition: she was offering different universities a place where they can send to students to experiment a simple way of life while receiving university lectures. I joined her project, a true adventure where I spent two years and with which I still have contact.

Afterwards, the Spirit of Laudato Si’ was still calling, my Province told me to move forward
and keep advancing through my Jesuit formation. I discovered that the Jesuits had started a master program called “Theology, Ecology and Ethics” in London which started just one year ago. I joined, and by next year I will be back in Paris to finish my Master 2 in ecotheology. In a way, I can say that the Society of Jesus has been the frame which has allowed me to connect together my background in engineering, my deep spiritual vocation and my interest for social and ecological justice.

Qs: Now you have recently been appointed Laudato Si’ delegate at the French West Europe Province. What does this new position brings to Jesuit justice and ecology efforts? Do you see this role becoming useful for other European Provinces too?

With regards to this role I think there are two points to be made. The first one is that, if you want to answer the Pope’s calling on the care for our common home, you will need to invest time. That’s it. You will need people that will be responsible for developing this movement – you cannot simply just wait and hope for this change to happen.

In this regard, I am very happy to see that my province has decided to step in and dedicate resources. I also need to mention that I will not be alone in this, we will also be recruiting a lay person to work full-time and bring new skills.

 

Together with this, this role is also related to the fact that my provincial has decided to undertake the important task of converting our spiritual centre close to Lyon into an eco-spiritual centre. This is a big move, and we require means and resources to make it happen.

Attending at other provinces nominating a Laudato Si’ delegate for ecology, I really don’t know if this will happen – maybe they can find their own solutions. The important point here is to answer the call from the Holy Spirit. The truth is that we still don’t know what the job description for the role of the delegate will be. This will ultimately depend on the recruitment of this lay person, so both roles can become fully complementary. Maybe other Provinces will consider that this set-up is not needed and decide to have one person per community or institution to manage this task. Maybe, following Laudato Si’s spirit, they will make the Delegate for Social Apostolate also the Delegate for Ecology. This was the case during the last five years in my own province, and the result was very positive. The main point here is to act, the form comes as a support for this active conversion.

Qs: What are your goals and expectations based on the mandate you have received with this appointment?

My provincial was quite clear on this. The fourth universal apostolic preference on the care for our common home can now be found in schools curriculums, in our social programs, and in our engagement with the youth – but ecology also needs to have its own body and resources to carry out this mandate. The roadmap for this was already presented last November. My nomination was announced at the end of December. Now we are preparing the next recruitment, and consulting the stakeholders. So everything should be ready to move on in six months.

The first area we want to bring change into is lifestyles within Jesuit communities and Jesuit institutions. There is a strong conviction among our Ecojesuit team that you cannot simply preach ecology and then live in a way which is not coherent with this preaching. There is also the recognition that conversion is hard task on itself, and that accompaniment is needed. We want to be heard but also to reach hearts. In relation to this, another area of work would be the development of Ignatian spirituality – converting our spiritual centres in eco-spiritual centres. This project has a lot to do with how spiritual exercises can help and drive ecological conversion, and there is a lot to learn from others on this. We have to listen to those who have been working on this for a long time in the past.

The last area we want to bring development into is the intellectual apostolate. We have Jesuit Social Centres, CERAS, Centre Sèvres, Centre Avec and, in a way, also our schools to promote and engage in the big intellectual debates which are happening now in the field of ecology and social affairs. These must be kept alive, it is also an important component of the Jesuit tradition.

Qs: Any particular fear or concern regarding the future?

One thing I might be afraid of is what I witnessed when I worked in the consulting firm I mentioned before – the syndrome of the Sustainable Development Director in big firms. The idea of the “green man” of the system, but a system which does not really change. This is a person who is split between his teams and colleagues and his concern for social and environment issues and the need to spur change quickly. This is very difficult position to be in, because you have to recognize, at least to yourself, that things are not going as they should. And, at the same time, you still have to keep making the case that we are on the right track. Beyond this personal fear, I could also fear failing to bring the necessary change during this upcoming critical decade. But this concern goes well beyond my role.

Qs: It is unusual for someone who has yet to be ordained to be appointed as a delegate of a provincial in any area of activity. Why do you think you were appointed to this role at this early stage of your life as Jesuit? Does this reflect a trend of recognition of the critical role of the youth in ecology affairs?

On this last point, certainly the youth is an important driver of ecological change outside and within the Society of Jesus. Yet, while young Jesuits are important in pushing for ecological conversion, there are also older Jesuits often with a scientific or social background which are equally committed. In this regard, inside the Jesuits, I do not see the generational split being as wide nor relevant compared to what we see today outside. Because of this, I think my age was not the driving factor leading to my nomination.

Farmer in sugar beet field

I believe my province has called me for this mission due to a number of factors. My background as an agro-engineer and my philosophical and theological formation have no-doubt been important, but also my experience at the Campus de la Transition where I engaged with the youth, the intellectual world and professors of different backgrounds. At the campus I received and worked with many different Jesuits, and I think this has rendered me a candidate which can bridge different ecological consciousness levels – a candidate which would not split the body of the society. Together with my apostolic life, I think these factors are the ones which made the Society want me at this new frontier. Much more than the fact of being young.

Qs: Ecology can never be the exclusive concern of any one group, be they Jesuits or others. Do you see a European dimension to your role?

I believe there will be an inevitable tension and exchange between the local and the global. Locally, at the community and the provincial level, there is people with a great experience in ecology affairs and the living of a simple life. I don’t feel like we need to invent or engage in anything fancy. In this regard, I particularly like the formulation of the fourth UAP, it is all about cooperation at the basic level – not necessarily leadership. First we will need to build up the foundations, then we can explore and discover where we can help each other.

That being said, there is a lot that these communities will have in common both in terms of ecological content and in terms of Jesuit identity and spirituality. This is a good base to cooperate at a European level. Plus there is always the ecological need to go beyond the local to address the structural. Locally, in our communities, we can work on changing lifestyles and on spiritual conversion, but not all our goals can be achieved this way. We need important changes in Europe which will not happen just by eating less meat or avoiding travelling by plane. Jesuit network need to cooperate in joint lobbying, and in using education to bring broader change – yet I see the local as a critical piece to bring coherence to these initiatives.

In a way, this emerging role is already intended to play a part at this exchange with the European level. How is it going to link with it in practise? I don’t really know yet. I do know that I will be part, for example, of the meeting of the Social Apostolate Delegates in February, and that this will serve as a good opportunity to learn and share. I cannot say I don’t have dreams about European ecological apostolates working together.

Qs: Following this European perspective, what should be the take of European Jesuits on the EU Green Deal?

From what I understand, now that we know that Green Deal will happen, the important task will be to focus on the details of its implementation – and I would like to see this on two levels. Thinking about Jesuit networks, the first level would revolve around how to directly benefit and take advantage from the resources that the EU is putting on the table. In Paris, we have quite a lot of Jesuit coming from all different parts of Europe and the world, why not dream of having a Jesuit Erasmus programme to foster European and a Green consciousness together? This could be a project. We should think of projects like this to access resources oriented towards ecological transformation and global change.

The second level I am thinking of is perhaps better suited to Social Centres like JESC, CERAS or Centre Avec . Their job would be to work hard and monitor to what extent the European Green Deal is genuinely green, and to use our platforms, our intellectual resources, to challenge those initiatives that are just greenwashing in nature.

Qs: Do you think this is the case?

I think it is too early to judge. Yet, I clearly see a danger. I don’t see a deep reflection behind it. For example: are we sure that green growth is possible? I think green growth is at the core of this proposal, so we’re going just to change the black to grey and keep down the path responsible for our current situation. Because of this, I do believe that the spiritual part can come in and be particularly useful. Today, less is bad, but we can bring a narrative under which your life is not about consumption, but about meaningful relationships. A new idea of a good life which would create the space for change.

That being said, despite thinking that part of the EU Green Deal is about greenwashing, I also see the need to bring important changes to our infrastructure, education etc. in the upcoming decade. And this will require a substantial amount of money. So, in a sense, I feel that there is a lot of room for improvement, but these are means that will be spent in a good direction – so let’s take the opportunity.

Qs: Last month we discussed with JCFJ Director Kevin Hargaden the relation between the paradigm of integral ecology and Christian faith. In particular, we addressed how contemporary Christian approaches to work and wealth could potentially become problematic. What is your opinion on this? Do you see the need for fundamental interpretive change?

I believe that the current ecological and social crisis is a great opportunity to renew and discover part of our faith and to further develop it – particularly a new connection between fundamental theological level and the social doctrine of the Church. This is already happening, and, in a way, one could say that Laudato Si’ has officialised something that has been going in the background for a long time. And the impact has been huge. Before Laudato Si’ the ecological Christian had to justify why he was an ecologist. Afterwards, it is the other way around – it is those who do engage this dimension who have to justify their position in moral terms. And these are increasingly challenged and invited to conversion. For me, Laudato Si’ integrates many of the things that we need to develop. Laudato Si’  may not go into the details -like the nature of work- but the seeds are already here. It is an invitation for discernment and conversion.

Qs: On this topic, what would you say are the features of a society which has fully aligned itself with environmental sustainability?

If I might formulate it in a very theological form, I would say this is the Holy Trinity at work; God as a loving relationship. This is what we are invited to experience and to look for – to develop a relationship with people and with nature. To find our own frame to develop a deeper connection.

A reality where I believe true joy and peace can flourish. What I mean is that this is not the individualistic, okay, yes, I’m doing my yoga, I found peace and the world is beautiful. It is much more than this. It is connecting with people, connecting with Earth’s web of life and getting involved. A deep experience of God through the terms of Christianity.

 

In a way, despite what we are going through, the COVID experience has forced us to reflect on what is essential in life and what it is not. Given us the time to discern, contemplate, and pray. When your life is reduced to your apartment you get to think what is vital and what which you regarded as essential before has gone for good. This is the kind of space we have to create for ecological conversion dynamics to take place.

Qs: Let’s keep with the pandemic. We have heard many times that this upcoming decade will be critical in the fight against environmental collapse and, yet, inertia is still on the driving wheel. Given how disastrous our societal response to the COVID crisis has been, do you still have hope for meaningful change?

Well, I think you mentioned the word. The point here is about hope. On this, I come back regularly to two famous quotes. The first is one by Vaclav Havel, the idea that “hope is not optimism nor the certainty that things are going to go well, but the certainty that what you do is full of meaning”.  I don’t know if change will arrive in time and, if I am honest, I often find myself within the pessimistic camp. But this does not impeach me from being involved at the campus, at my studies, advocating for the ecological transition narrative.

I have one life and, while there are different narratives out there, this is the one I want to spend my life promoting. The other quote which inspires me is a well-known one for the Jesuits, “pray like everything was depending on you, and act as if a thing was depending on God”. This is the frame where I find the call and the energy to embrace that hope.

 

Thank you very much for providing us all with a very valuable insight, and thank you for accepting our invitation to participate in our series.

Telmo

Interview by Telmo Olascoaga
JESC Junior Ecology Officer

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