Defining moment for the JesuitsMichael Walsh
- 5 January 2008
The meeting in Rome this month to elect a new Superior General is the most important gathering of the Society of Jesus for 25 years. It could signal new approaches to both mission and governance
On 7 August 1981 Fr Pedro Arrupe, the popular and charismatic Superior General of the Society of Jesus, suffered a stroke at Rome's Leonardo da Vinci airport as he returned from the Philippines. He was never again capable of governing the order. Unable to speak, he indicated that his American assistant, Vincent O'Keefe, should take over as Vicar General until a General Congregation could be called to elect a successor.
Then the Pope stepped in. In place of Fr O'Keefe, John Paul II simply appointed Fr Paolo Dezza as his own papal delegate/Vicar General. Fr Dezza, known to generations of Jesuits and other seminarians for a singularly tedious Latin tome on metaphysics, was nearly 80 and almost blind. He was therefore to be assisted by Fr Giuseppe Pittau, once rector of Sophia University in Tokyo and at the time provincial superior in Japan. What John Paul II hoped to gain by this is unclear. Jesuits around the globe protested, but obeyed. The surprisingly feisty Fr Dezza governed for a couple of years, and the Society continued much as it had before, until a Congregation was called for September 1983 to accept Fr Arrupe's resignation and elect the present Superior General, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. In 1991 the Pope rather sportingly made Fr Dezza a cardinal.
Fr Kolvenbach is Dutch, but spent much of his life in the Lebanon - his beard marks the fact that he belonged to one of the Eastern rites - and before his election had moved to Rome to take charge of the Oriental Institute. Whereas Fr Arrupe had been charismatic, Fr Kolvenbach is often described as pragmatic. Fr Michael Holman, the British provincial, told me he was a conscientious administrator, which sounds faint praise but in the circumstances is not. He has helped to rebuild confidence between the papacy and the Society, whose members continue to work in education, missions, social justice and interfaith dialogue.
But his period of office, said Fr Holman, has taken the Society "to new geographical frontiers, to Albania, for example, to Kosovo, Russia and to many other places by promoting the Jesuit Refugee Service ... he has encouraged us in whatever ministry to meet the challenge of secularism and unbelief with a witness to the Gospel made credible by our witness to the poor, to use effectively the tools of technology and the media, to adopt new forms of ministry with young people and young adults".
After 25 years in office, and at the age of nearly 80, Fr Kolvenbach wants to retire and return to the Middle East. Alone among Superiors of Religious orders, the Jesuit General is elected for life, so the forthcoming General Congregation, the 35th in the Society's 468-year history, will first have to accept his resignation before choosing a successor. When I asked Fr Holman about possible Vatican influence on the voting, he diplomatically restricted himself to saying that the Prefect for the Congregation for Consecrated Life would preside at the opening Mass on 7 January and that the Pope, whom delegates are to meet in February, will be the first to be informed of the name of the new General.
There is, however, rather more to it than that. After the problems of the early 1980s, the Jesuit powers-that-be hope that the person selected will be acceptable to the Pope. It is said that a long list of some 60 names of likely candidates has already been submitted to the Vatican, just in case there are problems. And there is another issue where Pope Benedict has had an input. The Society's various provinces send in postulata, or topics they would like to be debated at the Congregation. Several provinces made the suggestion that in future the General should retire, perhaps at 80. Discussion on this, which would be a major change to the Society's Constitution, has been vetoed by the Holy See. Benedict XVI, a Rome-based Jesuit suggested to me, was alarmed by the thought that if the "black pope" was obliged to retire at 80, people might start to expect the same of the "white" one.
The Jesuit HQ, just to the left of the Bernini colonnade as one looks at St Peter's, is too small to house all the 219 delegates (all the provincials plus a varying number elected according to the size of the province; Britain has one elected member, David Smolira, recently provincial and a member of the planning committee) so hotel rooms have had to be booked. They have been reserved for three months, although the expectation is that the Congregation will not last quite that long. Its first task will be to accept the resignation of Fr Kolvenbach. Then follow four days of conversations, quaintly called murmurationes, when delegates discuss among themselves the possible candidates. The election is by written, secret ballot, although all further voting is electronic.
Inevitably some possible candidates have already emerged. A leading contender, if that is the word, is Fr Mark Rotsaert from Belgium, who is currently a "super provincial" over the whole of Europe, and an enthusiast for the EU. The election of Fr Rotsaert would be particularly significant. Early last year a working party on "Globalisation and Marginalisation" wrote of the need "to develop an ‘attitude of universality'", by which was meant "progress in functioning as a universal body". These concerns cut across two of the groups of postulata to be discussed at the congregation, the mission of the Society in the context of globalisation and marginalisation, and the question of the Society's governance. Fr Rotsaert's current role in itself constitutes a novel form of governance, and an example of the greater cooperation between provinces that some have called for. Not that such cooperation is missing at the moment: as Fr Holman remarked to me, there are around 220 British Province Jesuits, but there are no fewer than 90 non-British Province Jesuits working in this country.
A considerable number of British Jesuits were transferred to the Zimbabwe Province when it was established in 1978, but there has still been a steep decline in the size of the British Province from the high point of the mid-1960s. That is, of course, symptomatic of the decline not just in the Society but in most if not all religious orders in the closing decades of the last century. When Fr Arrupe was elected there were 36,000 Jesuits; the next General will have charge of just under 20,000, of whom, Fr Holman told me, some 4,000 are still in formation. Despite the decline, the Society of Jesus remains the largest male religious order in the Church. But given its decrease in manpower, it is surprising that there was only one postulatum asking for a discussion on recruitment. Recruitment will, nonetheless, form an agenda item for the delegates.
The decline has not been worldwide. Some 20 per cent of Jesuits now come from India. It is not surprising, therefore, that at least two possible candidates come from the Subcontinent. Fr Lisbert D'Sousa is one of Fr Kolvenbach's General Assistants, and is a former student at Heythrop College, University of London. The other, Fr Davadoss, was in charge of the formation of young Jesuits in India before going to Nairobi to work for the United Nations. In overall charge of formation within the Society is the Puerto Rican Orlando Torres, a very popular figure, although the fact that he is, technically, an American may count against him in a body that looks increasingly to the developing world. Fr Mark Raper is an Australian, and a former provincial, who has headed the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS). That the JRS has been one of the Society's great success stories in recent years may bring him votes.
The Jesuit Constitution distinguishes between Ordinary and Extraordinary General Congregations. The former meet, like this one, to elect a General, before going on to other matters proposed for discussion. The Extraordinary ones are called by the General to debate particular problems facing the Society. One Jesuit commentator has recently remarked that, in terms of giving the Society direction, the Extraordinary Congregations have been the more successful.
But this Ordinary Congregation is extraordinary in its own way. Some of the postulata have already been mentioned - recruitment, and governance. Whatever delegates' wishes, it will not discuss the arcane subject of "grades" (status) within the Jesuits, a topic banned at previous Congregations by Popes Paul VI and John Paul II. It will instead talk about such traditional topics as community life, Jesuit identity and obedience. Never before, however, has the Congregation discussed ecology. Yet no other single subject drew so many postulata from around the world. One may not be able to predict who the next General of the Society will be, but one thing looks certain: the Jesuits are going green.