Jesuit Father Thomas H. Smolich, outgoing president of the Jesuit Conference, has been named international director of Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) by Jesuit Father Adolfo Nicolás, Superior General of the Jesuits.
Headquartered in Rome with 10 regional offices around the world, JRS accompanies, serves and advocates for the rights of refugees and other forcibly displaced people. The organization has more than 1,800 staff and volunteers and provides health, education and social services to upwards of 950,000 refugees per year. Father Smolich.
“JRS speaks to the heart of Jesuit identity and our Jesuit mission,” said Father Smolich, who begins his term on Nov. 1, 2015. “JRS goes where the need is greatest, to places where others are unable or unwilling to go. JRS witnesses to who we are as evangelizing 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, Jesuit Father Alexis Prem Kumar, JRS country director, was kidnapped in Afghanistan, and his whereabouts are still unknown.
Father Smolich acknowledges that “the Church often is called upon to do challenging work. I think one has to prepare for this as much as possible, but ultimately, we realize we are called to be on the frontiers, and the frontiers are sometimes dangerous.”
Ordained in 1986, Father Smolich’s first assignment was to Bolivia to learn Spanish, and served seven years at Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights, where he oversaw Proyecto Pastoral, the parish’s community development nonprofit organization. To develop his management skills, he earned an MBA from Stanford University, and later served as director of planning, formation and vocations for the California Province Jesuits; as provincial of the California Province (1999-2005); and eight years as president of the Jesuit Conference, the organization that represents the Society of Jesus in the U.S. and internationally.
Father Smolich now begins a five-month stay at the Jesuit School of Theology of Santa Clara University in Berkeley, where he will study French and work on special projects. To prepare for his new role, Father Smolich will begin 2015 by spending four months with JRS in Eastern Congo, working with refugees from that country’s war as well as with refugees from Rwanda and other parts of Central Africa.
He then will go to Lebanon to work with JRS Middle East, currently the largest of the organization’s ten regions. Next summer, he’ll travel to Rome to study Italian and will spend the fall of 2015 working side-by-side with Jesuit Father Peter Balleis, outgoing JRS international director.