By Clara Atallah
The environment in which we live has a great influence on who we become. Xavier de Benazé, SJ, Laudato Si’ delegate for the French-speaking Jesuit Province of Western Europe (EOF), has been strongly influenced by two ecosystems that have had a profound impact on him and his commitment to justice and ecology.
Between two worlds
At a time when many people feel disconnected from their roots and the land, Xavier finds himself rooted in two different worlds. The first is his family’s small village in western France. He spent two months there every summer until he was 23. It was in this rural setting, steeped in family traditions, that he discovered his love for the Earth and for living things. This passion led him to study agricultural engineering.
The second is the port city of Marseille, where he grew up. Its diversity of people and its proximity to the sea gave him an openness to other cultures and religious traditions, as well as the desire to explore more distant horizons.
Spirituality and commitment
Although his parents were not involved in any Jesuit initiatives, they had come into contact with Ignatian spirituality during their studies at a Jesuit university.
“Their relationship with the Church, the world, science, and faith was informed by this aspect of great openness in Ignatian spirituality, and they passed that on to us,” he confides. His words suggest a tangible spirituality that embraces the Earth and all its inhabitants with profound dignity and sacred love.
His words suggest a tangible spirituality that embraces the Earth and all its inhabitants with profound dignity and sacred love.
His paternal aunt, who was also his godmother and a religious sister in the Ignatian family, was a source of inspiration for him. “My aunt was really the person with whom I spoke about religious questions all my life—not only religious questions but also issues and questions that pertain to teenagers and to children.”
He saw her as a woman who was happy in her religious vocation and who made other people happy. She worked in the disadvantaged suburbs north of Paris, where she encountered many immigrants and Muslims. “The kids my age I used to play with when I went to visit her would say, ‘Ah, she’s your godmother, you’re so lucky!’”
The life choice dilemma
In today’s world, we have to make a multitude of choices on a daily basis, but we also have to make some major decisions. Xavier had considered religious life when he was growing up, and as an adult found himself at a crossroads regarding his life choice. Should he marry and start a family, or was he called to commit himself in a different but equally profound way? The choice was far from easy.
At the time, he believed that he should marry and pursue a career in sustainable development, a field that would enable him to take concrete action for social and environmental justice. However, early in his career, during a pilgrimage to Assisi, he sensed that God was asking him the same question again.
“I think that five minutes earlier, if anyone would have asked me, ‘So, what are you going to do with your life?’ I would have said ‘I’m going to get married and work on development issues.’ At that point, I wasn’t thinking that I had made a mistake … but I just wasn’t able to respond to God’s call.”
After 24 hours of inner turmoil and silence, he contacted his Jesuit university chaplain for help. Ultimately, it wasn’t simply a question of filling a vocational gap, but of bringing together a deep, authentic intuition (religious life) with a desire for justice and reconciliation. He knew that he had the freedom to simply try out the novitiate to see how it felt, to see whether it resonated with his soul.
It was the beatitude “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” that led him to choose Ignatian spirituality. Having always felt called as a Christian to be committed to greater justice and lessening North-South inequality, he entered the Jesuit novitiate.
The issue of the environment quickly became central to his life, becoming interwoven with his concern for equality and social justice. From his earliest days on his new spiritual path, he discovered many resources linking spirituality to ecology. Laudato Si’, Pope Francis’ encyclical letter on the protection of our planet, was published during his time of formation. Later, he was sent to begin a project that focused on sustainable ecology and solidarity, a mission that led him to work in a diverse, nonreligious environment at the “Transition Campus.”
In 2019, Jesuits around the world had made “caring for our common home” one of their main orientations, and Xavier was appointed to coordinate these efforts in France and French-speaking Belgium, testifying to the growing importance of this issue.
The issue of the environment quickly became central to his life, becoming interwoven with his concern for equality and social justice.
Today, he acknowledges that his journey has been full of surprises. “As I reflect on this, from a spiritual point of view, it seems that the Holy Spirit is always one step ahead.” Despite any plans or expectations we may have, life often has a surprising way of guiding us towards experiences and opportunities we could never have anticipated.
In his Jesuit province, concrete steps are being taken, such as carbon footprint assessments and significant changes in the management of buildings, food and means of transportation. A spiritual centre has even been transformed into a place dedicated to Christian eco-spirituality, offering programs and retreats that focus on the relationship between spirituality and the environment.
Charity begins at home
On a personal level, Xavier confides: “I grew up saying the best vegetable is meat. Change isn’t easy.” That said, he has been able to make concrete changes to his eating habits without being too ideological. He is also aware that change can be slow and difficult for others. He sometimes encounters passive resistance, and this is due to the fact that people are not always concerned about ecological issues.
He concludes: “I too go through these phases of hope and joy, as well as of despair and suffering. But my Christian faith allows me to experience the presence of God when I choose to love today. And when I commit to ecological or social issues today, I am choosing to love. God is present. And even if, on a human level, I’m told that we run the risk of going beyond +2º to a world of +3º or +4º, which would be catastrophic, my Christian faith tells me that in my commitment today to the struggle for biodiversity, to the poorest of the poor, I’m already living in God’s love and that’s enough for me, even if at a human level, there’s uncertainty. … In God’s eyes, what’s important is to love today, and that’s enough for me. I’m happy with that.”
In Canada, we often watch helplessly as forest fires, floods, and tornadoes ravage the planet. The planet suffers and governments are often powerless.
How can we make a difference, in our own small way?
Take a moment to reflect on your habits in terms of food, consumption, transportation ... and think of one or two things that you can change in your daily life.