Dutch Jesuits Reflect on War-Time Service to Beirut Catholics

They regularly had to dodge the bullets during Lebanon’s civil war. But, while many people were fleeing the country, four Dutch Jesuits stayed to carry on with their work. During a recent ordination Jubilee celebration, they took a break from the festivities to take a look back at their wartime service.

The four tenacious Dutch clerics were celebrating their 50th anniversaries as Roman Catholic priests and their 60th anniversaries as members of the Jesuit order. Their time in Lebanon has meant that Jesuit Fathers Theo Vlugt, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, Paul Brouwers and Michael Brenninkmeijer have become devoted to the country.

“If you make yourself at home somewhere, it becomes your home. It’d take us a long time to get used to the Netherlands again,” Fr. Brouwers explains. He, like his colleagues, is in his eighties. For years, he headed a successful Beirut publisher.

Fr. Theo Vlugt, who was born and bred in Amsterdam, sometimes had to eat tinned brown beans for weeks on end during the long and bloody civil war (1975–1990). “I occasionally think back and ask myself: did it really happen?” He was often seen by Dutch people as the face of Lebanon during the civil war.

For instance during the ‘One million for a shoe’ appeal in 1989, which raised three million Dutch guilders to buy shoes for Lebanese children. The campaign was inspired by Vlugt who headed a primary school in a poor district of Beirut. “They sometimes came to school with plastic bags tied round their feet,” he explains.

Africa and Asia
Vlugt has spent the last decade in charge of a centre for migrants in Beirut. Over 200,000 women from Africa and Asia live in Lebanon. Many of them work as maids. They often encounter problems and can get help from his church.

“The people here at our party today are the lucky ones. Most of them don’t have free days and are locked up in their employer’s house. At the end of the afternoon, they have to put their uniforms on again and get back to cleaning the toilets.”

Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was not able to attend the anniversary party. After his exhausting years in Lebanon, he was elected Superior General of the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuit order is officially known. He is now retired and leads a quiet life although he still writes a lot. “He has a cold today,” said to Fr. Brouwers.

Syrian demonstrations
“This is a real happening,” says Joyce Azar who’s lived in Lebanon for 60 years. She’s come to the church with her son to offer the priests her congratulations. Marja Saab also wanted to join the party: “I know for a fact that they’ve helped very many people in Lebanon. You can see that,” she adds, pointing to the people from Asia and Africa packed into the church.

Fr. Brenninkmeijer now lives in neighbouring Syria but has travelled to Lebanon for the anniversary party. He lives in Homs where there have been months of demonstrations against President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. “That’s where it’s happening now,” he mutters, but he doesn’t give much more away. “We’ll wait till it gets better,” he adds in a matter-of-fact way.

After mass, there’s lunch in the square outside the church. There’s a range of international dishes and singing and dancing. Members of a Philippine choir are wearing T-shirts with a photo of Vlugt printed on them. “Without him, life would be far harder,” explains Maria, who came from the Philippines to work here years ago. She comes to Mass every Sunday and also takes courses which take place in the church.

“This is my family here,” says Vlugt, tucking into a big piece of cake. “This is also the moment to thank all the people who have supported me. I’ve lost touch with many of them, but I’m forever really grateful.”

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