BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, which opened yesterday in Rome, is that it’s the first gathering of the order’s governing body to take place under a Jesuit pope.

After electing a new Superior General to succeed Father Adolfo Nicolás, ‘GC36’, as it’s known, will get down to the business of examining its mission. What effect will Francis have on its deliberations, either directly or indirectly?

I recently caught up with the editor of Civiltà Cattolica, Father Antonio Spadaro SJ, in Bogotá, Colombia, where we were both speaking at an  international theology conference at the Javeriana Pontifical Catholic University, and asked him precisely that question.

Ever since memorably interviewing the Pope in 2013, Spadaro  — who is at a general congregation for the first time, as a delegate of the General — has been seen as the Jesuit who perhaps best knows and understands Francis. He sat down with Crux in the library at the Javeriana university residence.


Crux: The GC is probably the most radical, open-ended model of discernment anywhere in the Church. In the election of the new Superior General, you have 2oo-plus guys who know little of almost everyone there, yet somehow at the end of the week, he is elected with over 50 percent of the vote, usually on the first or second ballot. I’m guessing you haven’t yet experienced a GC, but you’ve heard a lot about it?

Spadaro: Yes, it will be my first time, so I haven’t been through it, but those who have all say it’s a unique experience, of great convergence and communion, which is difficult to explain if you haven’t been there.

One particular element of this GC is that it takes place, for the first time, under a Jesuit pope who knows the Society of Jesus deeply. Has he already had an influence over it? 

Pope Francis has already spoken a number of times to Jesuits. At Civiltà Cattolica we recently published a kind of resumé of the things that the pope has said to us, a sort of — as we’ve called it — discorso previo [‘speech prior to the GC’].

This is the first time that a GC has happened under a Jesuit pope, and we need to understand how he has acted towards the Society: in short, his attitude has been one of deep involvement. The pope feels Jesuit, refers to “us,” and during his trips abroad in those places where the Society is present he almost always meets with Jesuits, either in their communities or in the nunciature. The pope is so involved with us because he has never forgotten his Jesuit roots.

At the same time, however, the pope has a deep respect for the internal dynamics of the Society. It’s clear from our Constitutions that the true General is the pope himself, who can send the members of the society wherever he considers it important. But Francis very much respects the freedom of the order, so there will be no direct external influence over the GC.

But what about his address to the Jesuits in Poland, the first time, I think, you’ve published one of those speeches — 

The first time at such length, and in its entirety, yes. In fact, I published part of his speech in Korea.

In that speech, in Poland, he spoke very directly and ambiguously about something he thought the Jesuits should do, namely teach discernment in seminaries. How can this not affect the Jesuits’ own discernment about their mission at GC36? 

When he spoke to the Polish Jesuits, I realized this was something that he cared very deeply about. I recorded the meeting, as I always do — I have these recordings for myself, for a future history of the story of the pope and the Society — but this time I felt there was something extra there, and I asked him if I could publish it.

He asked to see the transcription and he read and eventually approved it, and I published it, because it struck me that this was more than a request to the society, he was talking about a need, in general, for the Church. He has said more than once that the Church needs to learn the art of discernment, and of course the Jesuits are called to be involved in this because they have discernment as a vital element of their charism.

The pope wants priests to learn discernment, and the Jesuits are the great experts in this, so it’s logical he should ask them to get involved in teaching it. But my point is, how can this not affect the deliberations at the GC36?

The role of the pope is to entrust the mission to the Society. Pope Francis, in this sense, is like every other pope. And in this case, this is a mission to which the society must respond. But this doesn’t affect the Society at the level of the GC, so much as at the level of its mission.

But isn’t its mission precisely what is discussed and determined at a GC?

Yes, but the society has a life of its own which exists beyond a GC, and which a GC in a general way guides. Of course, this could also be discussed at the GC. But without doubt, the Pope’s appeal will have an effect on the Society’s own understanding of its mission, whether or not it’s discussed at the GC.

What the GC decides to discuss is determined by the postulates which are submitted previously by the provincial congregations to the Coetus Praevius [planning commmittee] which determines the agenda of the Ad Negotia [ordinary business] part of the congregation. And this might or might not be a postulate.

It’s obvious that so many of the mission priorities of this papacy, such as refugees and ecology, are also those of the society. It’s as if the Jesuits, who have been on the frontier for so long under John Paul II and Benedict XVI, now find that the frontier has moved to Rome. 

Yes, but the society is part of the Church, and like the rest of the Church receives challenges from the Pope. It’s true that the pope is a Jesuit, but first of all the pope is the pope, he’s the universal pastor. So the Jesuits like any other order have this spur from the pope.

It’s true that the pope speaks of frontiers — it was one of three priorities he spoke of to us in his [2013] interview with Civiltà Cattolica, i.e. discernment, dialogue and frontier — specifying that we’re called to walk on the frontier, not to decorate it, but because we are called to live there.

These elements are part of the society’s DNA. In this sense, Pope Francis shows himself to be a Jesuit pope because he has the frontier in his heart. But it was Blessed Paul VI who said very clearly that wherever there were crossroads of tensions in contemporary thinking, Jesuits are called to be present there.

So Francis is very similar to Paul VI in this sense, that he respects the Jesuits’ call to the frontier; but he has assimilated it and made it a part of his pontificate.

I understand he has also given his opinion on the vexed question of the grades. Before he became pope he was consulted, I believe by the Secretariat of State, on the question of abolishing the distinction between those who take the fourth vow of loyalty to the pope for mission, and he made clear that he was not in favor of that, believing it was a recipe for mediocrity.

Yes, a view shared by other popes, including Paul VI, who did not feel in conscience happy to modify the structure of the society.

Father Nicolás has also said that the Society has returned to a kind of normality now, after a number of post-Vatican II GCs concerned above all with identity. I get the impression he thinks those questions have by now been largely resolved, and that the focus now can be on discerning the mission. Do you think there’ll be a different dynamic this time?

I think that’s right, that the question of identity will not occupy such a central place. I think it was expressed with great clarity in the previous GC [in 2008] what it means to be a Jesuit. Certainly, the question is now the mission, what should be the central mission of the society today.

In this sense, the pope has spoken of the challenges to the Society of Jesus and the Church at the moment. And it’s clear that the question of the mission is important. I think that here we get into the big question of the relationship between the Church and the world, which was dealt with in GC35, but requires further development.

You think this will be a central question for GC36?

To go deeper into this, yes. Ignatian spirituality is a spirituality of the Incarnation. The Jesuit is sent to places where at times it can require a real effort to find the presence of God, and is called to accompany that process. It is one of our specific competences — to make a reading of reality.

Although he doesn’t have to, we’re assuming that Pope Francis will come at the end and address the GC. But it won’t necessarily be an easy speech to hear. The then-Father Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1974 attended GC32, when Paul VI gave his famous address warning the Society that it was losing touch with itself, and Bergoglio, by all accounts, liked it a lot. Do you think we can expect the same kind of thing — or at least a speech that is deeply challenging?

One of the characteristics of the Jesuits is that each person thinks for himself, so the Society is already a challenge to itself! I think we can be sure it won’t be a speech of mere formalities; the pope is usually frank and direct — and he is even more like to be in these circumstances.

Certainly the pope will give his vision and will challenge the Society in its mission. What he will say partly depends on what happens during the GC. There may be some surprises. But it definitely won’t be a speech rich in form and lacking in content.

I imagine it will be hard for you, as a communicator, not to be able to give us as-it-happens commentary…

I’ve already lived through this frustration with the synod. But I’m convinced it’s very important. I totally agree with Francis telling us during the synod not to communicate with the outside world, and not to give out summaries of the individual presentations — this was very wise.

Why? Because the synod, like a GC, is not a parliament; it is a place where we carry out discernment. So a person could — as I did — change his speech right at the last moment, after having heard the others. The GC is not a place for fine speeches and beautiful interventions, but a place in which everyone is part of a process which must be respected in its privacy.

Precisely to conserve the freedom of the Holy Spirit?

Exactly. An environment in which everyone can truly express themselves in total freedom, knowing that what they say will remain confidential within the GC and that a result can be achieved in peace. So, on the one hand, there is the desire to immediately publicly communicate something; and on the other, they’re aware that it’s extremely wise not to do so.