Fr. Peter Bisson, SJ, provincial of the English Canada Province, at his province's congregation in July. (Photo: Pierre Bélanger, SJ) 

Banner: The delegates of the Maryland Province Congregation.

Preparing for General Congregation 36: Rules, Ritual & the Holy Spirit

By Becky Sindelar

August 20, 2015 — St. Ignatius was nothing if not meticulous about every aspect of the “Company of Jesus,” the Jesuit order, he founded almost 500 years ago. So last December when Father General Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, the Jesuits’ Superior General convoked the 36th General Congregation to elect his successor, no one was ruffled. Jesuit provincials around the world just pulled out the handy guidelines they’ve been relying on for half a millennium, the ones originally created by St. Ignatius and updated countless times throughout Jesuit history. 

St. Ignatius was truly a man who believed that the devil was in the details. As a result, there are rules for every aspect of a General Congregation — from how to alphabetize the ballots to who gets to go.  And it’s the who gets to go part that’s been keeping Jesuits busy this summer —more than one year in advance of the actual Congregation itself.

Before several hundred GC 36 delegates from around the world converge in Rome in October of 2016, there had to be an orderly process to select delegates. So over the course of the last few months, each of the nine Jesuit provinces of the U.S. and Canada held its own congregation where members cast ballots to elect the delegates. When the final tallies were counted, 26 delegates were selected to represent the U.S. and Canada at GC 36.


The delegates of the USA Northeast Province Congregation at the Campion Renewal Center in Weston, Massachusetts.

Neither the number of delegates nor the delegates themselves were chosen haphazardly. The 43-page “Formula of a Province Congregation,” covers, in exhausting detail, how to select the province congregation delegates, including that the ballot should be organized alphabetically by a random letter of the alphabet — a letter that’s pulled out of a hat. 

Fr. Tom Lawler, SJ, provincial of the Wisconsin Province Jesuits, explains: “The random letter is for fairness. That way the people with last names beginning with A, B and C don’t have the advantage of always being seen first.”

The Formula is so intricate and precise that even Jesuits well versed in the minutiae chuckle at its specificity. Fr. Lawler’s personal favorite:  “The Congregation is not to last longer than ten, or at most twelve, days.”

There are rules for how to compromise after the tenth ballot and rules for the free, albeit brief, expression of opinions. “Speakers are not to repeat what has already been said with its consequent loss of time and boredom of others.”

There are rules prohibiting electioneering and rules regarding the secret majority needed for each delegate to be elected. There’s even a rule about the order in which the men sit at the congregation— alphabetically by last name, and if two men have the same last name, “the person older in the Society is to come first, then the person older in years.”

While the rules might seem overwhelming, Fr. Lawler says that when the delegates are finally selected, “there’s a palpable sense in the room that the Holy Spirit has chosen this person.  And that the people who are going to go to Rome have a very sacred trust that has been given to them and a very sacred role. We pray over them and mission them to this important duty.”

In addition to selecting delegates, each province congregation also discussed a question Fr. Nicolás posed: “Meditating on the call of the Eternal King, what do we discern to be the three most important calls that the Lord makes to the whole Society today?”

“It’s really a beautiful question,” says Fr. Lawler. “Father General is asking every congregation to pray about it and discuss it and then to write a one-page description of the conversation, listing the three calls and send it to Rome with the delegates. He’ll get that from every province from across the world.”

The delegates of the Wisconsin Province met at Loyola University Chicago.

While General Congregation 36 is still more than a year away, there is plenty of advance work to be done.

The delegates from the U.S. and Canada will meet this October in St. Louis to establish a coordinating commission, which will do prep work, such as gathering all the postulates, issues Jesuits think should be discussed at GC 36. A General Congregation does not accept all postulates; for example, the third General Congregation in 1573 rejected one that said that “such was the wickedness of men and the times” that the Society should set up prisons for its members.

They will also elect a brother from the U.S. and Canada to attend as a delegate; while brothers have attended general congregations in the past, GC 36 will mark the first time brothers will vote for a superior general.

The delegates of the French Canada Province Congregation. (Photo: Pierre Bélanger, SJ)

The delegates also begin to think about who would be a good superior general and what they’re looking for in their leader. The only requirement for a superior general is that he has taken final vows in the Society, though often those who are chosen have served as a provincial in the past.

One former provincial who won’t be considered for the job is Jorge M. Bergoglio, SJ, better known now as Pope Francis. Before being elected pope, Bergoglio served as a provincial for the Jesuits in Argentina and attended both GC 32 in 1974 and GC 33 in 1983.

While he won’t attend GC 36, Pope Francis will still have a role to play at the general congregation. After a new superior general is elected, the pope meets with delegates and the new general in the papal palace. Tradition has it that the pope is the first to be informed when Jesuits elect a new general.

Pope Benedict XVI meets Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, shortly after Fr. Nicolás was elected Jesuit superior general in 2008 at GC 35. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano via Catholic Press Photo)

Tradition runs deep in the workings of the congregations, sometimes evoking the 1500s more than the 21st century. But there have been nods to the digital age. GC 35 in 2008 was the first congregation where the Internet and e-mail were used for communication. Fr. Tom Smolich, SJ, former president of the Jesuit Conference, attended and explained that electronic communication “changed the dynamic of our large-group meetings. Information was better provided online …meetings could then focus more on discernment, listening to where the movement of the Holy Spirit was taking us as we reflected and commented on the various documents.”

While St. Ignatius laid out many rules to keep the Society of Jesus on track, the spiritual dimension is paramount.

 “We realize this is part of a very serious process of prayer and listening to the Holy Spirit. This isn’t a process that is just random and created frivolously,” says Fr. Lawler. “This is a process that’s been honed and revised over the course of 500 years. We’re part of a sacred process.”

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Ignatian Spirituality Center
The Ignatian Spirituality Center of Kansas City gives, fosters, and witnesses to the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola by giving the Spiritual Exercises in various forms, offering ongoing formation in Ignatian spirituality and discernment, and training prayer guides to give the Spiritual Exercises.