Remembering Frs. de Smet & de Marneffe
Today Jnana-Deepa Vidyapeeth (JDV) is the largest internationally reputed Pontifical Institute for Philosophy and Religion, in the Asian Sub-Continent. This well-earned reputation and recognition has come through the hard work and selfless dedication of several highly-gifted men and women in the past. In this short paper we recall two such stalwarts – Fr. Richard De Smet, SJ, and Fr. Jean de Marneffe, SJ. At we think of the three Wise Men from the East (the Magi). In this context I wish to think of these great men as “Wise Men from the West,” because that is what they were – wise in every way, intellectually, academically, religiously, and socially. It is more than a happy coincidence that they are honoured and recognized together because they were closely intertwined both in their lives and in the service they rendered to JDV in particular, and the Church and the nation in general. Indeed, there were differences too, but, as I will point out later, these differences were complementary and mutually reinforcing, and JDV has been the lucky beneficiary of this creative confluence.
Looking at commonalities, both were Jesuits from Belgium belonging to the same South Belgian Province before coming to India (Calcutta Jesuit Province) after they made India their home. Their years of life and service in JDV were also almost contemporaneous: De Smet was born in 1916, and after arriving in India served JDV from 1954 till his death in 1997, whereas de Marneffe was born in 1918, joined JDV in 1955 and died in Pune in 1998. Their scholarly and intellectual pursuit also had much in common. De Smet was a specialist in Indian Philosophy, particularly Sankara, while de Marneffe was a scholar in Western Philosophy, particularly the British philosopher Bradley. Both made sure that their erudition, expertise and scholarship did not remain confined to the four walls of JDV. They actively participated in and contributed to the developments in Philosophy and related areas both in national and international scholarly circles. Both were life members of the Indian Philosophical Congress and commanded great respect and recognition among scholars, leaving an indelible mark of their excellent erudition, acute intellectual acumen, balanced views on complex issues and appreciative attitude towards other cultures and religious traditions. Both were considered good role-models who could blend harmoniously serious, rigorous scholarship with genuine, loyal religious life. Indeed they were the best brand ambassadors for JDV as an excellent temple of learning and a dynamic centre of all-round formation.
At the same time, they were no identical twins. Each brought with him his own unique identity and aptitude to enrich JDV and lead it to greater heights in a remarkably complementary confluence. For instance, De Smet was an internationally recognized Indologist who opened a new chapter in the interpretation of Sankara’s advaidic philosophy. He was a prolific writer with more than 8 books and over 350 scholarly papers to his credit. On the other hand, de Marneffe was an outstanding classroom teacher whom students respected for his clarity of thought and depth of knowledge. He was loved for his humane, fair and gentlemanly personality. De Smet was a solitary, rigorous researcher who enjoyed being lost on his intellectual island churning out scholarly papers, whereas de Marneffe was a genial team-player who teamed up with erudite colleagues, particularly in the long planning and publishing of the massive Marathi Encyclopaedia of Philosophy to which he contributed almost 40 papers. In their leadership styles they showed great diversity coupled with enriching complementarities: De Smet gave leadership mostly to scholars outside the confines of JDV, being elected the first President of ACPI (Association of Christian Philosophers of India). On the other hand, de Marneffe gave a magnificent account of his leadership talents largely on the JDV Campus, having held all the major offices of JDV, including being the President for three years. He was the chief architect of the new Philosophy Programme of JDV in the mid-1970s, particularly the credit system. With regard to their concern and sensitivity to the poor and the underprivileged, their approaches were different but their focus was the same. De Marneffe had a delicate soft corner for JDV’s non-teaching staff, especially laypersons, a lasting testimony to which was the housing programme he started for them. De Smet in his own quiet, non-conspicuous manner lent a helping hand to many a needy person whenever possible.
Perhaps the best way to conclude this brief tribute to these great men is to quote their own words about each other. Summing up his perception of Fr. Jean de Marneffe, Fr. De Smet recalls: “Ever since I became acquainted with Father Jean, I was struck by the quality of his religious life and faithful observance of the rules, the assiduity of his work, the keenness of his intellect, and the delicacy of his personal relations with all the members of the community.” In Fr. de Marneffe’s view, Fr. Richard De Smet was “a friend of truth, a friend of Christ, a friend of students, a friend of the poor and a friend of his colleagues.” Indeed, these two “Wise Men from the West” have left us a great legacy to be proud of, an admirable example to emulate, and a creative challenge to respond to. May JDV continue to be blessed with many more such able and noble men and women!