Editor’s note: Austen Ivereigh is Crux’s contributing editor. Recently he spoke to Jesuit Father Antonio Spadaro, a close friend of Pope Francis, about the 36th General Congregation of the Jesuits, a gathering of members of the order from around the world in Rome that elected a new Superior General and set a course for the future. The following is the result of that exchange.

Crux: When we spoke in Bogotá before the start of the GC, we were speculating on the effect on the Jesuit governing body’s gathering for the first time under a Jesuit pope. In a nutshell, how did it go?

Spadaro: The first to be really aware of the significance of this was the newly elected Father General, Arturo Sosa, who asked us to prepare spiritually for our meeting with Francis. Because this was the first time in history that we had had a Jesuit pope, and therefore the first Jesuit pope to be part of a General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, his speech was very special and powerful.

And even before he had made that speech, the pope’s very presence was enormously meaningful. Our audience with him in the very hall of the Jesuit curia where we were meeting was extended by more than three hours. He met us in a totally free and spontaneous way in an open and relaxed atmosphere in a way that has not happened with a pope for a very long time, if ever.

As to the effect of it all, I think that Jesuits are becoming more conscious that the Petrine ministry today is unfolding from a person who has been formed in the Society’s own womb and in its spirituality of discernment, which really explains many of the contours of the current pontificate. In that sense Francis represents for the Society a real challenge in the positive sense.

What kind of a challenge?

Not to miss our tryst with history! The temptation of the Society of Jesus is to believe that this could be considered business as usual, that this is normal, when it is really not. Great reform movements in the Church take shape in new and disconcerting ways.

The Society of Jesus is right now called to take part in a reform of the Church that in some ways goes beyond what we are used to. We have long thought of ourselves as being out in front, in the trenches and at the crossroads. But now one of our own is pope, and the frontier has shifted in an unexpected direction, so that we are no longer “conservative” or “progressive,” liberal or traditional.

Ancient wounds make the picture more complicated. And fears about what will come after Francis, lead some to want to adopt a wait-and-see approach that leads to a diluting of the challenge of the moment.

So the real challenge for the Society of Jesus is grasping the nettle of this moment?

Right. How to understand this period we’re in? Are we in ordinary time, or something special? I believe these are not ordinary times for the Church because the Holy Spirit is at work. In particular periods of the Church’s history special charisms come to the fore in service of the whole. Particular charisms — one at one moment, a different one at another moment — take on a particular relevance.

That was the challenge facing our general congregation: how to embrace this historic kairós or special time and take responsibility for it, rather than trying to ‘normalize’ the moment, adopting an attitude of reasonable caution, falling into the temptation of looking only at what is ‘feasible.’

And did the Society respond?

I think the response has been the delightful awareness of finding ourselves, for the first time in decades, without the problem of sentire cum Ecclesia. There was no problem with the Church understood as magisterium, as hierarchy, which has always been there in one way or another in previous years. But not this time. Those Jesuits who have lived through three or four general congregations kept saying this.

Father Antonio Spadaro (center) arriving with fellow Jesuit delegates for their 36nd General Congregation in Rome (photo: GC36 Communications)
Father Antonio Spadaro (center) arriving with fellow Jesuit delegates for their 36th General Congregation in Rome (photo: GC36 Communications)

If anything, there was an awareness that the pope is running ahead of the Society — it came up more than once in our gathering. The Society now regards itself, in many ways, as lagging behind the pope’s forward thrust and his capacity for change. But it’s true that there was an opposite reaction in some: the fear of what comes next, which I see as a temptation — this wanting to proceed cautiously.

Thinking of this it’s good to recall what St. Ignatius of Loyola said about Pope Marcellus II in April 1555, when he scolded the Jesuits for believing that one pope was as good as another, and that a pope who was good for the Church would also be good for the Society.

It was a temptation under guise of good: the good in this case is the obedience a Jesuit owes to the pope, whoever he is; the temptation is not to understand the singularity of the time we are living in. The Society today is receiving the clear call to embrace the reforms of the Church and to work for them sub Romano Pontifice, not to miss our tryst with history — not only with the history of the Church, but the history of the Society itself.

Speaking of that history, Bergoglio as a Jesuit lived through a very difficult period for the Jesuits, in the 1970s and the 1980s, a time of internal division and loss of vocations. How do you interpret his attempt in his GC address to vindicate Blessed Paul VI’s warnings to the Society back in 1974 not to surrender its identity?

As an Argentine provincial, Bergoglio attended the historic GC-32 in 1974-75, and eight years later, when he was rector of the Colegio Máximo, he was present at GC-33.

The period between these two general congregations was the Society’s most turbulent in modern times: as you say, a time of a fall in vocations in the midst of deep disagreements over the way of understanding and living the issue of justice in the mission of the Society.

The most critical moment came with the intervention in the Society by St. John Paul II in 1981 after the then General, Father Pedro Arrupe, suffered a stroke. In his place the pope placed a vicar-general to govern the Society for a time prior to calling a General Congregation to elect his successor. Fr Paolo Dezza — later made a cardinal — governed the Society as a pontifical delegate for two years.

On December 3, 1974 Paul VI addressed GC-32 with a speech which Bergoglio deeply appreciated. The speech revealed both his love for the Society as well as his anxiety that it was diluting its identity and mission. The underlying risk he perceived was that of falling into ideology.

So it was no surprise, in a way, that Francis gave the delegates at this GC a book bringing together the texts of the speeches Paul VI addressed to the Society in 1974-5. In fact the book the pope gave us included a copy of a note in Francis’s handwriting, dated 8 December 2015, which reads: “We should be grateful to Paul VI who loved, did, prayed, and suffered so much for the Society of Jesus. Francis.”

In the light of this history, I’d say, in sum, that Francis has opened up a new space for fidelity between the papacy and the Society.

What did you make of his address?

It was a speech by a Jesuit, of the kind only a Jesuit could make, one that displayed an awareness of the charism of the Society from the inside. So Francis spoke both as a Jesuit and as a pope. Many of us were expecting a mission, an address that would set out our priorities. It’s not quite true that he didn’t do that, but he did it in a very particular way: by returning to the sources, to the origins of the Society, to what is known as the “Formula of the Institute.”

The pope seemed to give preeminence to the original Formula of Pope Paul III in 1540, Regimini militanti Ecclesiae, which describes the objective of the Jesuits as concern for “the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.”

So the pope at this congregation entrusted to the Society its primary mission, “the progress of souls.” He did not lay out a list of tasks to develop nor objectives to attain nor terrain to conquer, but recalled that the life and the mission of the Society are all contained in the Formula.

It is enough to return to that root, not for a simple ‘deepening’ or ‘renewal,’ but to touch the very source, the burning heart, of the Society of Jesus. He stripped away the layers built over that heart, and showed it to us to remind us of what is essential. Francis spoke in his address of a return to the “fire.” And he quoted one of the first Jesuits, Fr Jerónimo Nadal, who said: “the Society is fervor,” which derives from the Latin meaning the ‘boiling point.’

The Society has often asked itself about its identity, and has sought many different definitions. But the pope in his address told the Society that its identity is mission, and there’s no need to go into a complex deliberation about the meaning of that. The Formula has an extremely dynamic value all by itself.

So this was not a Congregation focused, yet again, on the question of ‘identity’?

There was an attempt to define the life and mission of the Society. But fortunately, in my view, it was understood that we need to be more humble and to write documents about specific missions, rather than exhaustive documents.

Francis has said that the Jesuit is a man of “incomplete thought, of open thought,” because he always has one eye on the horizon, on God’s greater glory which endlessly surprises us.

I think Francis has issued a very strong challenge — which produces anxiety even in some of us Jesuits — to the desire for clarity and certainty. So to speak of identity seems almost an oxymoron, and we need instead to replace it with a far more dynamic word: “life.” Life is in the coming together of opposites, it’s the place of tensions that must be embraced and nurtured. The congregation was challenged to speak in terms of “life” rather than “identity.”

The quest for identity blocks the flow of life in the search for an imaginary stopping place which at the moment it is identified has already been left behind. Worse still is to speak of ‘renewing our identity’ as if it were about breathing new life into a corpse.

A favorite idea of Francis is that time is greater than space, and that it’s about initiating processes rather than occupying places. So in the light of the General Congregation, how do the Jesuits now see their mission?

The mission has to abandon the logic of priorities and rigid objectives. That doesn’t mean to proceed blindly, but rather being able to respond flexibly and rapidly to the movements of the Spirit. The Society must never try to work out its own mission.

In an interview prior to his recent visit to Sweden we published in La Civiltà Cattolica, the pope said: “I know they are needed, but I have a hard time putting hope in an organizational flowchart. The Spirit is ready to push us, to go forward. And the Spirit is in the ability to dream and the ability to prophesy. This for me is the challenge for all the Churches.”

There are at least three words that Francis uses to define the Society’s mission: restlessness, tension, and process. The last of these has created certain tensions, because the word has different connotations in different languages.

In his address to the General Congregation, Francis in so many words warned against having ultra clear objectives or business-type planning. The Society must move ahead keeping its eye on a horizon which is always changing and getting bigger.

So the picture of the Society the pope painted was dynamic, ‘incomplete’ in itself, and therefore ‘open’. Jesuits are called to accompany the processes in which human beings are involved, keeping in view the Glory of God. Accompany processes and not conquer spaces.

We are called to walk with the Lord and to go where He leads us, which will often be places we are not familiar with. We discover the path by walking it, always ready to change, with Him, our direction, our moves, and our methods. Only if the Society walks with Jesus towards its horizon will it risk discovering itself. The Society is on the move, and for a Jesuit everywhere in the world is his home.

In his Q&A with the congregation delegates which you published yesterday at La Civiltà Cattolicà, Francis expressed his deep concern at casuistry and rigidity in a number of seminaries, contrasting these with discernment, at the heart of Ignatian spirituality but also, he says, of the “great scholasticism” of St. Thomas of Aquinas. And he repeated the invitation he made to the Jesuits in Poland to teach spiritual discernment in seminaries. Did you, in your discussions in Rome, discuss how that could be done? Will you be writing to seminary rectors to offer to teach St. Ignatius’s rules for discerning spirits? 

Certainly the congregation delegates reflected on the importance of discernment, both in the discussion about the governance of the Society and in the drawing-up of the document relating to it. But I think the Society, prodded by Francis,  is also recognizing that this is also a mission. Discernment is at the heart of Jesuit spirituality, but we need to realize that nowadays we are being called not only to live it but also to teach it, specially in places of formation such as seminaries.

The pope is asking us to form priests in the discernment of spirits, because this will help people in their concrete situations.  In life not everything is black and white; mostly the shades are gray. We are being called to teach how to discern within the gray. 

The reform of the Church for Francis rests on two pillars: discernment and mercy. The Society is called to take part in this process of reform putting their spiritual goods at the disposal of the Church. We haven’t yet discussed how to do this, but I’m sure that this will be discussed by the individual provinces and by the regional conferences.

One thing’s for sure: we can’t be deaf to this call of Peter’s.