The Election of the Jesuit General


Adolfo Nicholas SJ (right) with Pope Francis

The next superior general of the Society of Jesus, the thirtieth successor of St Ignatius, will be elected by the General Congregation convening in Rome on 2 October. It is just the thirty-sixth in our 476-year history and will include provincials and elected representatives from each province, the number depending on its size. For the first time, brothers, who are not ordained, will participate in the election. From Britain, the provincial, Father Dermot Preston, is joined by Father Damian Howard, who lectures at Heythrop College, and Brother Stephen Power, the province treasurer.

Ignatius invested the office of General with considerable powers. A centralised government with full authority in the hands of one person was one way he gave the Society, whose members were dispersed on missions to many places, the unity it needed to be preserved and develop. 

Consequently, we Jesuits have high expectations of our Father General. We look to him to set an example of how to live our religious and apostolic lives, for guidance about how to serve Christ and his Church more generously according to our Constitutions and the decrees of recent General Congregations and, with his team, to administer the whole Society such that it effectively fulfils its mission.

Surprisingly, perhaps, Ignatius regarded General Congregations, their preparation and follow-up, as distractions from the Society’s principal purpose, pursuing its apostolic mission. Congregations, therefore, were not to be convened regularly as in other orders and were only for the election of the General, the revision of the Constitutions and other significant business which could not be otherwise resolved.

Ignatius’ insistence that congregations were to be rare is one reason why the General’s term is life-long. The 31st General Congregation in 1965, however, provided for the General’s resignation “for a grave reason that would render him permanently unequal to the labours of the post”. The present General, Fr Adolfo Nicolás, like his predecessor, Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, proposes to resign now he is 80, such are the demands of his role.  One of the first acts of the 36th General Congregation will be to decide whether it will accept his resignation.

Assuming it does, the election later this month will follow the process, with few modifications, stipulated by Ignatius himself. It will take place over five days – four days of preparation before the election on the fifth – in the General Curia building and in secret. In 2008, I was one of some 220 delegates to the 35th General Congregation that elected Fr Nicolás. Participating in this communal discernment of God’s will was the most moving and memorable experience of my Jesuit life during which we were supported by the prayers of the whole Society that, as Ignatius wrote, all may turn out “as is expedient for His greater service, praise and glory”.

The delegates will be guided in their choice by Ignatius’ own description of the qualities to be sought in the General, qualities to which he wanted each of us to aspire. Above all, he is to be “closely united to God and intimate with him in prayer”. Among other qualities, he is to be an example to the Society in virtue, especially charity, and “endowed with great understanding and judgement” such that will not fail him in either “the speculative or practical matters which may arise”. He is to be “vigilant and solicitous to undertake enterprises” and “energetic in carrying them through” and have the energy to fulfil his office and the personal attributes that enable him to be an effective leader.

During the first four days, the delegates individually reflect before God asking to identify the Jesuit who best matches this description given the needs of the Society today. They sift through their various movements of spirits, of consolation and desolation, as taught by Ignatius in the Spiritual Exercises. They are helped by a report on the state of the Society, from a commission elected at the start of the Congregation, highlighting matters which require urgent attention and anything else necessary for a good election.  The delegates are particularly helped by one-to-one conversations, or “murmuratio”, with other delegates, where information is sought about individuals.

Ignatius insisted that delegates were made aware of obstacles to this discernment. They are to manifest to the one presiding over the Congregation anyone ambitioning for the office for himself or another thereby prioritising his or another’s interest rather than God’s will. Nor are they to make up their minds until the election itself lest, as one collaborator of Ignatius, Fr Jerome Nadal, explained, they go ahead of the leading of Christ.

On the day of election, after a Mass of the Holy Spirit, the delegates enter the hall of the Congregation and may not leave until the election is complete. The Veni Creator Spiritus is sung before a fifteen-minute address from a senior member of the Congregation. This is followed by forty-five minutes of silent prayer during which each decides his choice for General.  The secret ballots then take place. On one side of the voting paper is written the oath that he will elect the one whom he judges before Christ “most fit for this burden”. The one who receives the votes of more than half the electors is General. If no one is elected on the first ballot, others follow. Once the election is complete, the Pope is informed of the result. Each delegate then shows reverence to the new Father General, the news is shared with the Society, the ballot papers are destroyed and all go to the chapel to give thanks. 

Having invested full authority in one man, Ignatius put in place subsidiarity and consultation as checks and balances and aids to good government: the General shares his government with the provincials and his assistants and is obliged to consult. As the Congregation proceeds with its other business, Fr General names his assistants and consultors and then, from these or others, the Congregation elects four “assistants ad providentiam” who are to watch with care over his personal well-being and how his office is being exercised.  An “admonitor” is also elected who, after prayer, may admonish the General about anything which he considers is more conducive to the greater glory and service of God.

The volume of the new General’s business will be considerable and its layers of complexity many: Ignatius said the post required “more than the whole man”. In some parts of the world, the Society is expanding while elsewhere numbers are reducing. How will the Society respond to the Pope’s call to care for the Earth? How will it seek more effective ways of evangelisation? How will it help the Church respond to the refugee crisis and how will it nurture the ministry of our co-workers? Guided by the decrees of this and recent General Congregations, the General will lead our response to these and other challenges efficiently, yes, but above all with “discerning charity”, a love that seeks to do God’s will in all things.

How will he manage all this? Ignatius identified three principal helps: the example of his life, his charity and love for the Society and his heart-felt prayer to the Divine Majesty, the source of the graces we pray for and the very best help of all.

Read an article on the  preparation of the agenda for GC36 by Paul Nicholson SJ

The article first appeared in The Tablet