ROME— Beginning October 2 and running until needed, the Society of Jesus is holding its 36th General Congregation. That means that for the foreseeable future, 215 delegates of the leading men’s religious order of the Catholic Church are gathered in Rome not only to appoint a new leader, but also to determine the path the Jesuits will take in the near future.
Since there are 16,740 Jesuits scattered across the four corners of the earth, including about 12,000 priests, 1,300 brothers, 2,700 scholastics, and 753 novices, here’s a primer as to what the General Congregation means and why it matters.
The Society of Jesus
Founded half a millennium ago by the Spanish soldier-turned-mystic St. Ignatius of Loyola, the Jesuits, as most people call members of the Society of Jesus, “seek the glory of God, the service of Christ and availability to the pope.”
As members of a religious order, they are bound by three vows – poverty, chastity and obedience. Most of them also take a special fourth vow of obedience “in regards to mission” to the pope. They’re also bound by oath not to seek higher office within the Church.
This means that they’re both not supposed to be in positions of authority, but they must be obedient to Rome if the pope calls. Although there have been many Jesuit bishops and cardinals, Francis is history’s first Jesuit pope.
Throughout their history, Jesuits have wielded power as advisers to monarchs and princes alike. They’ve produced notable scientists, professors, and missionaries, and many of them have been at the forefront of social movements.
It’s the Jesuit missionary zeal that allowed the Catholic Church to reach the Far East, Africa and the Americas. For instance, in the 16th century they evangelized much of Asia, acting as emissaries to the Emperor of China, among other kingdoms.
In the modern era, they’ve focused much of their work in alleviating poverty, fighting for social justice and providing education, which is the reason why they run hundreds of schools and universities in what amounts to the world’s largest school system.
In the U.S. alone, there are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities and almost 60 middle schools and high schools, such as Georgetown University and Boston College.
It’s for both St. Ignatius’s military past and their missionary outreach that they’re often dubbed “God’s Marines.” Because of the power they’ve held in the past, their Superior General is informally known as “the Black Pope.”
With their emphasis on missionary work and intellectual pursuits, the Jesuits at times move on the margins of the Church, and for some of them it’s a point of pride to color outside the lines despite St. Ignatius’s allegiance to the Vatican and the pope.
In an address at Fordham University in 2006, late U.S. Cardinal Avery Dulles, a Jesuit, said that even if in St. Ignatius’s day popes “may not have been the holiest and the wisest of men, but he looked upon them with the eyes of faith and saw in each of them the vicar of Christ for the teaching and government of the universal church.”
Thus popes are, technically, the highest superiors of all Jesuits.
A general congregation is always summoned on the death or resignation of the head of the Society —to choose his successor, or when the General decides action is needed on serious matters that he cannot or does not want to decide alone.
The general congregation currently taking place in the Jesuit Curia, located a few feet away from the Vatican, is the 36th meeting of the Jesuits’ supreme governing body. As such, it even outranks the superior, who until last week was Spaniard Adolfo Nicolás.
It was convened by Nicolás in 2014, when he expressed his desire to resign as superior general. Of the 215 delegates participating, 212 will choose his successor.
Yesterday they began the four-day process of prayer and discussion known as the murmuratio, when they discuss the merits of the candidates by means of conversations. On Friday they will begin voting for the new leader, who needs over 50 percent support (107 votes) to become the 31st leader of the Society.
Participants in previous general congregations say the process of discernment is so effective that only five elections in more than 450 years have required three or four ballots, and none has ever needed more. (Kolvenbach in 1983 was elected on the first ballot, Nicolás in 2008 on the second.)
At a press conference introducing the general congregation, Jesuit Father Orlando Torres explained that once the new General is chosen, the pope will be informed and the congregation will turn to discussions of other issues regarding “the renewal of the life of the Society in her mission within the Church.”
Father Federico Lombardi, also a Jesuit and former papal spokesperson, noted at the same press conference that the percentages of participants in the GC36 reflect the global percentages of the society, currently growing in the so-called global south, particularly in Asia and Africa.
Although the list is too long to name them all, three quick facts:
- They come from every continent except Antartica.
- The country with most delegates (49) is India, where there are currently 4,000 Jesuits. With 33 delegates, the U.S. comes second, followed closely by Italy, with 31. Several countries have only one.
- The oldest participant is the outgoing Superior General, Nicolás, and the youngest elector comes from Lebanon, Father Dany Younès.
As Venezuelan Jesuit Father Arturo Sosa says in a video made available by the GC36, “seeing the picture of the Congregation is enough to realize [its] immense cultural diversity,” with people from over 60 countries.
Each of the delegates, Sosa says, has their own culture, but also a common one, that comes from the Spiritual Exercises and discernment. “There’s a great training and desire to hear the same voice, which is the voice of the Spirit,” he said.
Though almost as old as Christianity itself, the word “discernment” is often related to the Jesuits, and during Francis’s papacy it has taken an even more universal turn, so it’s worth unpacking it.
In the words of Father Damian Howard, an Englishman currently in Rome participating in the General Congregation, discernment “is not rocket science, but it is something to learn.”
He described it as the idea of the human soul being subject to the influence of two different spirits: The Holy Spirit and the bad spirt, “deciding which one it is, and on the basis of that, I’m able to interpret my experience.”
Despite popular belief, he insisted, it’s not “something Ignatius made up” but a deep Christian tradition which the saint formulated “in a simple, pedagogic way.”
“I understand why people have always found it deeply threatening, because it [could] seem as a private source of revelation, ‘I have a direct line to God,’” Howard said.
However, the priest told Crux, Ignatius is very clear that that’s not what discernment is. “And that’s why I think people get scared. They say ‘I know what the rules are, and discernment sounds like breaking the rules, saying they aren’t really necessary.’”
Francis has been a strong advocate of discernment. For instance, last July he asked the Jesuits in Poland to teach this spirituality in the seminaries. On his way back from Georgia and Azerbaijan earlier in the month, talking about pastoral care of transgender people he said that without undermining the fact that sin is sin, in each case the Church is called to “welcome, accompany, study, discern and integrate.”
Howard believes that the spirit of discernment is particularly helpful for the postmodern self, “for whom God is a very difficult idea.”
“There’s something about the spirt of discernment that can bring up the mystery of God to modern people in a way that the Catechism doesn’t,” he said, adding that even though the Catechism – a compendium of Catholic teaching – can do many great things, “it doesn’t necessarily open up that living relationship. Which Pope Benedict said very clearly, is the center of Christian life.”
Francis explained this spirituality early on in his papacy, in an interview with fellow Jesuit Antonio Spadaro: “My choices, including those related to the day-to-day aspects of life such as the use of a modest car, are related to a spiritual discernment that responds to a need that arises from looking at things, at people, and from reading the signs of the times.”
The Jesuit pope
If the relevance and independence of the Jesuits was somewhat questioned in the early 1980s – Pope John Paul II suspended the normal workings of the Jesuit Constitutions, removed Father Vincent T. O’Keefe, appointed by the physically infirm Superior General Pedro Arrupe as vicar general, and replaced him with a staunch conservative Italian Father Paolo Dezza – things are looking differently now.
John Paul’s takeover happened after many Jesuits, particularly in Latin America, were embracing the sometimes Marxist-inspired Liberation Theology. This was a movement which Francis, back then Father Jorge Bergoglio, never embraced – and many claim he opposed.
Bergoglio was ordained a Jesuit in 1969, and was soon after appointed the local superior of the order, at the young age of 36, and during Argentina’s tumultuous “Dirty War,” during which the military regime threatened many priests, particularly from the Society.
“If you want to understand what Francis is doing, you need to understand, first and foremost, that he’s a Jesuit,” said fellow American Jesuit Michael Rogers.
Francis’s relationship with the order was at times strained, with critics labeling him as a collaborator of the military junta- though many biographies show he clandestinely worked to save many lives.
He was virtually exiled in the early 1990s but, paradoxically, it was his virtual estrangement from the society that led to him becoming an auxiliary bishop of Buenos Aires.
“I had to deal with difficult situations, and I made my decisions abruptly and by myself,” Francis told Spadaro in 2013, acknowledging that his “authoritarian and quick manner of making decisions led me to have serious problems and to be accused of being ultraconservative.”
Yet despite his personal up and downs, Francis is, at heart, a member of the Society of Jesus.
“He very much identifies himself as a Jesuit, in his way of praying, in his way of thinking,” Rogers told Crux. “It’s not foreign to us, but it certainly keeps a lot of people on their toes.”
As Austrian Cardinal Christoph Schönborn put it in 2015, talking at the Napa Institute: “My impression is that with his daily homilies and catechesis, he is conducting a kind of Ignatian retreat with the whole church.”
As a footnote, considering the current College of Cardinals, there’s presently no possibility of a second Jesuit pope succeeding Francis when the time comes: There are currently two cardinals from the society, but both are over 80, meaning no longer eligible.
There are, however, several Jesuits working in the Roman Curia, meaning the Church’s governing body in the Vatican, such as American Robert Geisinger, currently Promoter of Justice for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith (CDF), and Spaniard Luis Francisco Ladaria Ferrer, secretary of the CDF.
Why they matter
Despite the offices they occupy -or don’t- the Jesuits will continue to be an influential part of the Church.
According to Rogers, the Society of Jesus matters because its schools and universities are at the forefront of serving the poor, such as the Cristo Rey and Nativity schools. It also matters because many of the new religious congregations imitate the laws left by St. Ignatius, and many model their general congregations after the one taking place in Rome these days.
For Howard, the Society matters because the Jesuits try to “be authentic followers of Jesus Christ, try to understand how that has deep social consequences in the life that we lead, so it’s not just connected to sacramental life, but it’s about the way that you build the society.”
“The Jesuits matter because Jesus matters, and he animates all our ministries,” said American Jesuit James Martin, explaining that he’s not equating the works of the society to those of Jesus or what “he would have us do.”
“We surely fall short on that, daily,” he told Crux. “At least I do.”
“But any Jesuit would tell you that what we do, which St. Ignatius defined broadly as ‘helping souls,’ is all about Jesus. That’s why our Society is in his name. So as long as Jesus matters, so will we.”