Email to me from Myron Pereira, SJ, 9 Oct 2012
You may remember me from a brief visit to Divyadaan several years ago to address your students of philosophy. We met briefly then; you went on later to become provincial; and I see that now you’ve returned to your first love, philosophy.
I’m writing to compliment you for your biographical note on Father Richard de Smet SJ (Divyadaan, vol. 23/ 1). I came upon your article by sheerest chance, browsing in the reading room of a local seminary, and moved by curiosity I went it through it at one sitting. You have been very thorough, not just in noting his academic accomplishments and his intellectual contributions, but also in recording the details of his personal life much of which I was unaware of, even though I always had a great affection for him. For he was a significant influence on me as a young Jesuit several decades ago.
I was Fr De Smet’s student during my years at JDV (then the Athenaeum), 1964 to 1967, as an uncomfortable student of philosophy. But somehow we struck up a relationship right from my first year, and I would love to listen to him talk and ask his opinion on various issues. In this, as I realize now, he was filling in the role of mentor, of the Jesuit teacher, something which has always been a glorious part of our tradition. Fr De Smet too acknowledged this himself, speaking of his early years as a schoolboy under Father Rene Debauche, “the most gifted Jesuit teacher I have ever met”.
Incidentally, the excerpt about his teacher quoted by you from Jivan, was sent by him to me, sometime in 1991, when as editor of that magazine, I had requested an article from him on ‘Excellence’ Simultaneously I had also asked for a contribution from Father Josef Neuner, and both Neuner’s and De Smet’s autobiographical details are memorable: De Smet spoke of Debauche (“Subjugated by his excellence, I became a Jesuit.”), and Neuner spoke of the young Karl Rahner who taught him for one memorable year in the juniorate (“he encouraged us to ask him many questions…”).
Not for the first time, the influence of the Jesuit teacher on a young mind and heart made all the difference. It was like that with me and De Smet, and though our paths diverged completely after I left Poona, the memory of those times has never faded.
You rightly locate De Smet within the grand tradition of Christian approaches to Hindu philosophy and theology, a tradition which began with De Nobili, Beschi, Coeurdoux and others, and whose more recent mainstay was the ‘Calcutta School’, Belgians all of them -- Johanns and Dandoy, Antoine and Fallon, and others. In this Richard De Smet, erudite, polymath, but always accessible, was the true jnana-yogi. Today as you pointed out, with the rise of ‘subaltern studies’, such classicist approaches interest us less and less.
This is why I’m grateful that you chose to remember De Smet and record his accomplishments, when so many of his own Jesuit brethren have failed to do either.
Myron J. Pereira SJ