By Tracey Primrose
The headquarters of the Society of Jesus in Rome, the “Curia,” is a cavernous 1927 brick building just steps from the Vatican. From its rooftop, which boasts a jaw-dropping view of the dome of St. Peter’s, to the first-floor chapel that houses the relics of 16 Jesuit saints, 4 Borgo Santo Spirito is a special place.
The Curia is both office and home to more than 50 Jesuits who work in the building and hundreds of guests who visit each year. Despite its storied history and prize location, the building needed some warmth, particularly along the vast marble-floored corridor that leads to the offices of Jesuit Superior General Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ.
Fr. Sosa himself had decided to remove the 31 portraits of Jesuit Superior Generals that had previously lined the walls. The gallery of mostly black and white etchings, starting with the Society’s first Superior General, St. Ignatius of Loyola, and concluding with Fr. Sosa, pointed to the past, and the incumbent General was looking for something very different to fill the space.
After an assistant pulled together an impressive portfolio of work by Jesuit artists around the world, Fr. Sosa selected Fr. Arturo Araujo, SJ, for a special commission. A member of the Jesuits West Province, Fr. Araujo is both an artist and an associate professor of visual arts at Seattle University.
In June of 2021, when Fr. Araujo was summoned to Rome to discuss the project, he remembers thinking, “Is this for real? It was such an out-of-the-world proposal.” But before long, he was on a flight to Rome and deep in conversation with Fr. Sosa about what the Superior General envisioned for the lengthy corridor with 16-foot ceilings.
After hours of brainstorming and conversation, including formal meetings and quick hallway chats, the Frs. Arturo decided that the walls would bring to life the Society’s four Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs): showing the way to God; caring for our common home; walking with the excluded; and journeying with youth.
The UAPs, the product of two years of discernment across the global Society of Jesus, provide a point of reference for the work of Jesuits in the coming years. At the time of their release in 2019, Fr. Sosa said, “They capture our imaginations and awaken our desires. They unite us in our mission. The new preferences are four areas vital for our world today.”
With his theme in place, Fr. Araujo began to envision how this significant commission could come together. From the outset, he knew three things: He wanted to convey the four UAPs in a dynamic and integrated way instead of illustrating individual concepts; he would not use models, only real people; and he couldn’t do it alone.
Returning to Seattle after two weeks in Rome and aware of the Superior General’s ambitious one-year delivery date, Fr. Araujo looked for inspiration where he knew he would find it—the extensive photo archives of Jesuit Refugee Service, which serves displaced people around the globe. Almost immediately, Fr. Araujo was captivated by the image of a young Kenyan refugee writing on a blackboard. “What I saw was not a boy but God himself in the act of creation, drawing. God is a small Black child learning how to write.”
Although Fr. Araujo is a painter and printmaker, he has been working for the last dozen years to perfect a complex, multilayered, multimedia photo manipulation technique. After three months of thinking, planning, measuring and drawing, he was ready to make his concepts a reality in the form of 10 large scale works on paper, including four diptychs, that would animate the General’s walls.
His greatest brainstorm, though, might have been in realizing that the best way to secure the assistance he needed was to create a class for five of his undergraduate art students. With the dean’s approval and under the close supervision of Fr. Araujo, each of his students spent a semester on one of his designs; the other five pieces were done by Fr. Araujo. “That actually was a big benefit because they are fresh artists, they work hard, and I needed that.”
In his artist’s statement Fr. Araujo said, “We titled this art collection Haven’s Heart because, at the heart of the apostolic work of the Society of Jesus, there are motions of the Spirit expressed through the Universal Apostolic Preferences. The preferences help us Jesuits and collaborators in the mission to be united in the same Spirit that guides us in the Ignatian desire of God’s greatest glory for our times.”
His favorite piece is one depicting three young refugees from Syria playing outside. Fr. Araujo says, “They are very similar, the same race, and in my imagination, I saw the Trinity dancing, and I connect with that. I was playing off the iconic painting of the Trinity by Andrei Rublev, but in our work, we started recreating the context. So, these kids are not in a backyard playing anymore, they are creating the universe. They are dancing with color, and nature is coming alive. There is something deeply spiritual in this piece.”
In May, Fr. Araujo shipped the completed pieces to Rome. A month later, he flew to Rome to ready the studio for the arrival of his students, who would assist with mounting and installing the pieces. When the students arrived, several of the shipping tubes were still in customs. The clock ticking, Fr. Araujo was worried about when he would be reunited with his artwork. Then, the Holy Spirit intervened in the form of a Jesuit at the Curia who called a friend at the Vatican, who was able to get the shipping tubes released that same day.
After each piece was carefully hung, Fr. Araujo and his students were invited to talk to the Jesuit community at the Curia about their process. “The students were really happy, and the community, I think, was very impressed by the professional work we did there.”
And the Jesuit who commissioned the work, what did he think? “Father General was very pleased. Literally, he said, ‘It’s exceeded my expectations,’ and I couldn’t ask for anything more than that.”