Rome: JRS appoints new International Director

14 October 2015

Newly appointed JRS International Director Thomas Smolich SJ (right) stands with outgoing Director Peter Balleis SJ (left). Photo: Christian Fuchs/Jesuit Refugee Service.

As president of the Jesuit Conference of the United States for the last eight years, Tom Smolich SJ has traveled to the far corners of the world as the US Jesuit liaison to the global Society of Jesus. With his new assignment as the next international director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS), Fr Smolich will need to free up pages in his passport.

Founded in 1980 by former Jesuit Superior General Fr Pedro Arrupe, JRS accompanies, serves and advocates for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people. Headquartered in Rome with 10 regional offices around the world, the organisation has more than 1,800 staff and volunteers, including 70 Jesuits, and serves upwards of 950,000 refugees per year. In addition to health and social services, JRS offers formal and informal instruction – from pre-school to vocational training to computer and language classes – to approximately 280,000 children, young people and adults each year.

Appointed by Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolás SJ, Fr Smolich officially started at JRS last week.

“I’m deeply honored and grateful that Fr General would ask me to do this because JRS really speaks to the heart of Jesuit identity and our Jesuit mission. It’s going where the need is greatest,” Fr Smolich said.

“JRS tends to go to places where others can’t go or are unable or unwilling to go. It says who we are as evangelising people – whether someone is a Catholic or not is not the question. We are there to preach the good news.”

Because of its work in war-torn regions, JRS employees and volunteers often find themselves in the crosshairs of global conflict. In June last year, JRS Country Director Alexis Prem Kumar SJ was kidnapped in Afghanistan and his whereabouts are still unknown. Fr Smolich admits that “the Church often is called upon to do dangerous work. I think one has to prepare for this as much as one can, but ultimately, realise that this is where we are called to be – on the frontiers – and the frontiers are sometimes dangerous.”

Outgoing International Director, Fr Balleis said, “Over the last ten years JRS has doubled in size. Fr Smolich is the right man to lead us in this period of continued expansion given his previous commitment to social issues. He understands JRS and what drives us, the importance of accompaniment and our closeness to refugees. The time he has spent with JRS field staff before he took over as JRS International Director has allowed him to experience the compassion and love which drive our projects.”

Ordained in 1986, Fr Smolich’s first assignment was to Bolivia to learn Spanish. He was supposed to stay for a year but his visit was cut short by typhoid because “you’re supposed to peel the fruit, but I thought I had been there long enough that I didn’t have to do that. My fault.”

He came back early and was temporarily assigned to Dolores Mission, a Latino parish in east Los Angeles, so he could practice his Spanish. The three-month assignment lasted seven years, with Fr Smolich serving as associate pastor and running the church’s community development non-profit, Proyecto Pastoral, which was “a lot of fun, but I couldn’t read a balance sheet.”

He wanted to stay in community development work and asked his provincial if he could acquire some financial management skills, so he headed to Stanford University, where he earned an MBA in 1996. After an assignment with an affordable housing developer, Fr Smolich was tapped to serve as the director of planning, formation and vocations for the California Province Jesuits. From 1999 through 2005, he served as provincial of the California Province, followed by his most recent assignment for eight years as president of the Jesuit Conference.

As he considers his new assignment, Fr Smolich laughs as he recalls how his life as a Jesuit is nothing like the one he imagined when he entered the Society as a 19-year-old novice.

“I was attracted to the Society when I was in high school, and I imagined that after ordination, I would return to teach at a Jesuit high school. That didn’t happen, but it’s been a terrific run.”

To read Fr Smolich’s first letter to JRS staff and friends please click here.