Ignatian Year: Embracing God and His people

31 July 2022

Related: Ignatian Year
Fr Tom Smolich SJ, JRS International Director, standing in front of “Angels Unaware”, a sculpture in St. Peter’s Square, Vatican City, by Canadian artist Timothy P. Schmalz dedicated to the world’s migrants and refugees.

When did you join JRS and what do you do in your current role?

I have been the International Director of the Jesuit Refugee Service since October 2015.  I was named as the incoming international director in 2014 and before coming to Rome, I spent four months working with JRS in Masisi, Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Masisi was a great experience of how JRS works, although it was not my first experience in working with migrants and refugees; I had worked at Dolores Mission Parish in East Los Angeles soon after ordination. But it was my first experience of the JRS way of proceeding, and I learned a lot.


What brought you to serve refugees? Do you have a “cannonball” moment that led you to dedicate your life to the marginalised?

I’m not sure that I’ve had a cannonball moment… in terms of my own Jesuit formation, [I had] a gradual and deepening desire and experience of working with marginalised people. But I can say perhaps the most important moment was the discernment I made, in the context of my ordination discernment, to finally learn Spanish. I had dabbled in Spanish for many years.

Learning Spanish opened a door to a different way of looking at the world, to being able to accompany marginalised people, especially in California. That opened a whole new way of being, and I’m profoundly grateful for that.

We do it together or we don't do it at all.
Fr Tom Smolich SJ

Is there something from the life of St. Ignatius that inspires you in your work for JRS?

What I find most inspiring is that when the Society was founded in 1540, St. Ignatius imagined himself going off and doing great things for God—who knows where! But he spent the rest of his life in Rome.

Ignatius had an incredible openness—an incredible abandonment, shall we say—to what God had in mind for him.  That inspires me, at this point in my life more than ever, to be as close as I can to God and the people of God, and to do what I can to embrace them, embrace God, and to be called, to be taken where I should go.


Pope Francis says, “No one saves himself. We are either saved together or we are not saved.” How does this message speak to you and your experience with forcibly displaced people?

We are all in the same boat as he says—the incredible image of the Angels Unaware in St. Peter’s Square continues to inspire me every time I see it. We are in this boat together, wherever we are going. It’s a reminder that for JRS, in our way of trying to accompany and serve and advocate… especially in the accompaniment, that encounter is a two-way street.

I cannot be saved from my egoism, my stubbornness, my whatever’s of my background and my privileges, without accompanying and listening to the people with whom we are called to engage, those we are called to share life with.

We do it together or we don’t do it at all. A real grace.