There is a little scrap of paper hidden in a safe in a Vatican basement on which are written the words anyone but me. Today in Rome, as the 215 Jesuit electors choose their new superior general, someone may well be writing the same words on a scrap of paper not so far from where that paper is stored — and there’s a lesson from a saint in this for all of us.
At the first general congregation of the Society of Jesus in 1558, sensing that the walls were closing in — that he would be chosen as the first Superior General of the Society of Jesus — St. Ignatius of Loyola cast his vote for “whomever, myself excluded, get the majority of the votes.”
It didn’t work. Ignatius was elected, cementing forever in history his role as the founder of the Jesuits.
At the Jesuit Curia in Rome, the 31st such ballot is taking place to elect yet another successor to Ignatius — and he may be thinking the same thing when it happens.
When Iñigo de Loyola chose his new path after being wounded at the battle of Pamplona, he intentionally refused the honors that went with being a member of the Spanish court, choosing instead the life of a pilgrim and a beggar.
Years later, in founding the Society, he demanded that its members eschew ecclesial office and serve simply as “helpers of souls.” He also made it clear that anyone seeking some sort of ecclesial honor or office — including that of Superior General of the Society of Jesus — should be reported to his superiors.
The election process that Ignatius put in place reflects that idea. Nothing could be further from the type of king-making process that we associate elections with in this day and age.
Rather than a way of deciding the winner in a contest of rivals, it is a discernment process designed to allow the Holy Spirit to move the Jesuit electors towards a consensus. It is what has been taking place on the Borgo Santo Spirito in Rome since Monday.
Ignatius called it the murmuratio. Each of the electors spends time in pairs speaking with other Jesuits from around the world about potential superior generals. Usually in Spanish or English — though sometimes with the help of a translator sworn to secrecy — these one-on-one conversations ask about the qualities of the man in question, and always include some reference as to how the two interlocutors came to their knowledge.
Even in this process, Ignatius put safeguards in place. No one may promote a candidate, either himself or another — Ignatius called this ‘ambitioning’ — and if they are suspected of doing so, they are to be turned in to a panel of judges who will decide what action to take.
It is a time of prayer, fasting, and the sorts of “fraternal conversations,” that Ignatius held so dear. Jesuits who have been through the murmuratio refer to it as more retreat than election, and many describe it as one of the richest spiritual experiences of their lives.
That no one can or should be able to choose such an office for themselves implies, necessarily, that, as far as Ignatius was concerned, they would need the help of the Spirit to guide them through their term as Superior General.
This discernment process looks not to the interest of individuals or groups, but to the good of the whole Society of Jesus, seeking the person that the Spirit has chosen to lead it. It is little wonder, then, that once they do begin to vote, after four days of such conversations and prayer, it rarely goes beyond one or two ballots.
Ignatius understood something that we perhaps don’t always: that a life in the Church is, first and foremost, a life of service. It can’t be about power, and it shouldn’t be about position.
Ignatius neither wanted nor sought the office of the first Superior General of the Society of Jesus, and neither should the man who will succeed him. Ignatius understood, as his successor will have to, that life in the Church is about the greatest becoming the least, and the servant of all.
It’s all too easy to confuse positions of responsibility in the Church with power, when they are about service.
That means not just avoiding the pursuit of those positions, but also accepting them when they fall your way. Ignatius understood that if anyone knew what the pope, bishops, or religious superiors go through, they wouldn’t want the job, which is why he made sure that being elected superior general was an act of obedience to the Society — “an offer you can’t refuse.”
The truth is that when we confuse any ecclesial office with power — when even ordination itself is seen as gaining a place of power — we miss the mark entirely. We forget that all of us, Jesuit or not, by virtue of our baptism are called to the humble service of being helpers of souls, not their rulers.
So today, in Rome, it’s likely that another man will be writing, or at least thinking, “anyone but me,” and we should all be praying for him: not because he is taking on one of the more demanding jobs in the Church, but because he needs to do so in the same sense of humble service that Ignatius did — and that’s a model for all of us.