Towards the 2016 General Congregation

POST BY JHellings

Jesuit IHS monogram at Gesu Church in Rome

When Ignatius of Loyola was structuring the new religious order that he was setting up to serve the Church in the mid-16th century, he was determined that the Company, or Society, of Jesus would be notably different from the traditional monastic and mendicant forms of religious life, by being more streamlined, more mobile and flexible, to meet the apostolic needs of the contemporary Church.  In addition to deciding against having his men tied down to singing the Divine Office in choir every day, and against dressing them in a religious habit, Ignatius was opposed to so-called capitular government, or government by chapter; that is, the common practice in religious orders of holding regular community meetings in chapter to elect their superiors for fixed terms of office.

ignatius_holding_the_constitutions_engraving_by_hieronymus_wierx_1556In his Constitutions the practical minded Ignatius wrote that spending time and energy in travelling often long distances to attend regular assemblies, and preparing for them and following them up, all for the purpose of electing superiors, would be a “distraction” for his men, when they could be getting on instead with all the apostolic works that he foresaw the new Society would be undertaking as needs were identified and opportunities emerged. So far as government was concerned, he felt, once you’ve got a good man as General Superior of the whole Society, keep him on as long as you can, desirably for life, and let him appoint all the lesser superiors, who will keep in regular contact with him and be answerable to him in a tight effective chain of command. Only when a new general superior is required at the top, or some other matter of real importance calls for attention, Ignatius decided, should a chapter, or General Congregation, of the whole Society be convened to deal with it.

This is the situation in which the Jesuits find themselves today, and why they are beginning to talk about a forthcoming 36th General Congregation, or “GC 36” in Jesuit-speak, which is being planned to assemble next year in Rome.  The current Superior General, Fr Adolfo Nicolás who will be 80 next year, was elected at the last General Congregation in Rome in 2008, GC 35.  He has recently announced that he is convoking a General Congregation in October 2016, so that he can submit his resignation, and it will elect a successor.

Taking steps

This formal convoking of a General Congregation to elect a new General Superior has set in train a series of preparatory events, the most obvious one being to create a representative body of electors who will meet in Rome and vote in secret to choose the next General Superior, since the Society is now far too large for all its members to exercise a direct vote. To prepare for this, the more than ninety local Provinces and Regions throughout the Society are currently engaged in each electing by post forty of their members to meet locally for a few days in what are called Province Congregations, for the purpose of their voting for an elector, or two, depending on the size of the Province.  These electors will next year accompany all the Provincial Superiors to Rome to form the 36th General Congregation of the Society, numbering over some 200 men, and lasting at its own discretion probably for several weeks, with the task of formally accepting Fr Nicolas’s resignation and electing another Jesuit as his successor.       

Any other business

A General Congregation of the Society is the ultimate governing body of the Jesuit Order as long as it is running. In addition to its primary role of electing and mandating the Superior General of the whole Society, it can take the opportunity to assess the state of the Society and legislate for it as it judges appropriate, issuing often detailed Decrees on any matter affecting the life and apostolates of its members. At the preliminary level of the local preparatory Province Congregation, in addition to its primary role of electing one or more delegates to accompany the Provincial to vote for a new Superior General at the General Congregation, any member of a Province can propose for consideration matters judged important for the Society’s, or the Province’s, life and work; and the Provincial Congregation can, if it so decides, address requests (postulata) concerning such matters to Rome, to be dealt with by the General Congregation, or to be passed on to the new Superior General after he has been appointed. 

Pope Paul VI and Pedro Arrupe SJThe Decrees of the modern Jesuit General Congregations 31-35, show a striking expansion of this kind of Jesuit reflection and legislation aimed at updating Jesuit life and missions, initially in the aftermath of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65) and in the light of the Church’s growing preoccupation with evangelical justice, as evidenced in the more than two thousand  postulata which were received in Rome from all over the Society in preparation for its post-Vatican II 31st General Congregation. It was in 1965 that GC 31 met and elected the Basque Fr Pedro Arrupe as Superior General. The event thus provided a golden opportunity for the Society of Jesus in its General Congregation to respond promptly to Vatican II by taking immediate steps to apply the conciliar teaching to the whole of Jesuit life and ministries in often revolutionary ways.

Nine years later, in 1974-75, Fr Arrupe while remaining Superior General convoked GC 32, to review the Society’s progress in implementing Vatican II and to confirm the directions in which he was leading the Society, especially in the controverted field of relating religious faith to social justice. After some years, in 1981, Fr Arrupe suffered a serious and irrecoverable stroke, and Pope John Paul II appointed a stand-in to lead the Society, until in 1983 he permitted GC 33 to be convened. This formally accepted the revered Fr Arrupe’s resignation and elected Fr Kolvenbach as the next General, taking the opportunity also to clarify its earlier statements on faith and justice and other matters. Fr General Kolvenbach subsequently convoked GC 34 in 1995 for the technical purpose of revising, updating and harmonising with the Church’s revised Canon Law the whole body of Jesuit legislation, starting with its original Constitutions meticulously composed by St Ignatius himself, and highlighting the new implications for the Society’s mission and activities. When Fr Kolvenbach later convened GC 35 in 2008 to submit his resignation to it on grounds of health, it duly elected his successor, Fr Nicolás, adding Decrees on the identity, governance and challenges facing the Society today.  It may be expected, then, that next year’s GC 36 will not only elect a new General Superior for the Society, but may well also continue the modern tradition of composing and issuing Decrees aimed at assessing and promoting the life, works and governance of the Society in and for today’s Church.

A papal mission?

Another valued development surrounding modern Jesuit General Congregations held in Rome in recent years has centred on the papal audience and the formal address given to commend, direct and encourage the Fathers of each Congregation by their ultimate religious Superior, the pope of the day.  Thus, on 7 May 1965 Pope Paul VI formally received the Fathers of GC 31 as the Congregation was beginning, and praised the Society’s “special characteristic…to be champion of the Church and holy religion in adversity”, ending by formally charging the Jesuits in virtue of their special vow of obedience to the Pope with the task of applying all their resources to combatting the threat of atheism in all its current forms.  By the following year, on 16 November 1966, with the Second Vatican Council completed and GC 32 drawing to a close after a year’s adjournment, the Pope had broadened his concern and expressed a greater expectation of the Society. “Wherever in the Church, even in the most difficult and exposed fields, in the crossroads of ideologies, in the social trenches, there has been or is confrontation between the burning exigencies of humanity and the perennial message of the Gospel, there have been and are Jesuits.”

Pope Benedict with Fr General at GC35 in 2008At the Society’s last General Congregation in 2008, Pope Benedict XVI in his turn repeated Pope Paul’s words of praise and encouragement: “As my predecessors have often told you, the Church needs you, counts on you and continues to turn to you with confidence, particularly to reach the physical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find it difficult to reach.” Pope Benedict went on to observe that the major obstacle challenging evangelisation today was “the frontiers that, due to a mistaken or superficial vision of God and of man, are raised between faith and human knowledge, faith and modern sciences, faith and the fight for justice.” He called on the members of the Society to continue to “devote their lives to stand on those frontiers in order to witness and help to understand that there is in fact a profound harmony between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice and action for peace.” “This”, the Pope concluded, “must therefore be the preferential task of the Society of Jesus”. 

On the same occasion, responding in the name of the Society, the newly elected Jesuit Superior General, Fr Nicolás, expressed deep gratitude to the Holy Father “in feeling confirmed in our mission to work at the frontiers where faith and science, faith and justice, and faith and knowledge, confront each other, and in the challenging field of serious reflection and responsible theological research.” What he called this Ignatian tradition of service precisely where the Gospel and the Church suffer the greatest challenges, the new General went on, is “a service which at times also lends itself to the risk of disturbing a peaceful lifestyle, reputation and security”; so much so, he concluded, that it is a great consolation to the Society “to note that Your Holiness is more than aware of the dangers that such a commitment exposes us to”.

What now?

Apart, then, from next year’s Jesuit General Congregation being of great importance for Jesuits throughout the Church in producing a new Superior General to lead them, and in addition to the comment and speculation that this event and any other decisions of the Congregation may raise, the dramatic public climax of GC 36 will surely be the exchange it will involve between the present Pope Francis and his fellow-Jesuits gathered from around the world.  Of course, Pope Francis, or rather, Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio SJ, is no stranger to Jesuit General Congregations. He was a popular appointment as a young Provincial Superior of the Argentinian Jesuits in 1973 and as such he attended GC 32 in 1974 and was supportive to Fr General Arrupe, who had visited him the previous year in Buenos Aires. After his provincialate ended in 1979 Fr Bergoglio was elected in 1983 by his fellow Argentinian Jesuits as a delegate to GC 33. Pope Francis knows the Jesuit Order thoroughly from the inside, and at the same time he is in the process of unfolding and developing his plans and aspirations for the Church that he has been appointed to lead.

What will the Holy Father have in mind to say, with the refreshing frankness to which we are becoming accustomed, to his fellow-Jesuits and their new Superior General, for the future good of the Church and the more fruitful proclamation of the Gospel?  What requests might he have? And how will they respond?  There can be no doubt that the pope will give careful thought to how the Jesuit Order can serve him, and the Church, under its new General Superior in the years to come.  Nor can there be any doubt that the Society of Jesus will be totally responsive and will gladly commit itself to fulfilling whatever he asks of it, not just as the Bishop of Rome to whom its members as Jesuits are specially bound by their vow of obedience, but also as a brother-Jesuit, dedicated as they are to working in all they do for the ever greater glory of God.

Jack Mahoney SJ
Honorary Fellow at Campion Hall, Oxford