20 October 2016
All aboard for a mission impossible
The election of Venezuelan Fr Arturo Sosa Abascal as the new superior general of the Jesuits presents the order with both an opportunity and a threat
Historically, the Jesuits have been the Church’s “marine corps”. Think of The Mission, Roland Joffé’s Oscar-winning film drawn from the order’s audacious initiative in Latin America, featuring rugged and bearded missionaries risking their lives to win over indigenous communities to Christianity. But at the heart of the Society of Jesus’ charism there has always been a fiercely guarded independence, and today this independence may be under threat. Not only is the current occupant of the Chair of St Peter a Jesuit, but the new leader of the Jesuits is a fellow South American, the Venezuelan Fr Arturo Sosa Abascal, who was elected last Friday. This is unchartered territory for the Catholic Church.
To understand the long history of tension between Rome and the Jesuits you have to go back to the stories of people such as Matteo Ricci, the missionary to China at the turn of the seventeenth century who became such an expert in the country’s culture and history that he was able to present Christian teaching using traditional Chinese concepts with remarkable success. This integration of the gospel into local cultures is a characteristic of the Jesuits – and was a feature of their work in Latin America – but it has worried some in the Vatican, who have accused the order of syncretism, or compromising the distinctiveness of Catholic teaching.
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