The four delegates representing USA Central and Southern Province

World's Jesuits Elect a Leader, Chart a Path

By Cheryl Wittenauer

In October, roughly 200 Jesuits from throughout the world will gather in Rome to elect their new leader and consider the state of the Society of Jesus and its future.

General Congregation 36, consisting of provincials and Jesuits elected from each province, was summoned in December 2014 when Superior General Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, announced his wish to resign at age 80.

And while the election of his successor may garner the most attention, GC36, as it is known, also will look at other matters of importance to Jesuits. For example, after the Second Vatican Council, the Society grappled with how to adapt to the then-new and sweeping changes in the Catholic Church. In the 1990s, the Society renewed its own constitutions and decrees in accordance with Church law.

As a conversation starter for GC36, Fr. Nicolás asked each Jesuit, and each province, to reflect and discern the three most important calls God makes to the Society today.

Congregation delegates also might be asked to reflect on Pope Francis’ call for Jesuits to go to the “frontiers and peripheries of the world,” said Fr. Orlando Torres, SJ, one of four delegates representing USA Central and Southern Province, along with Provincial Ron Mercier, SJ, and Jesuit Fathers Tom Greene and Hung Pham. Delegates were selected by secret ballot last June at province congregations.

Individual Jesuits and provinces from throughout the world also were asked to recommend postulates or areas they felt needed to be examined or discussed at GC36. First-time delegate Fr. Greene is on an advance committee sifting through all those suggestions that relate to matters of governance, community life and social issues.

A General Congregation is the supreme governing body of the Society of Jesus. It meets rarely; this is only the 36thgathering since 1556. While in session, it has even greater authority than Father General himself.

A congregation is summoned only to elect a new Superior General when one has died or wishes to resign, or to address matters of great importance, said Jesuit historian Fr. John Padberg, SJ. A general cannot of his own accord resign.

The General Congregation starts Oct. 2 with an opening Mass, and could last one to two months, or longer. Yet, that’s not likely this time. Much of the preparatory work is being done by commissions working remotely and occasionally meeting in Rome. Tablet computers will be issued to delegates when they arrive for this “paperless” conference in Rome.

“A long congregation is helpful to no one, unless there is a real need, as when the Society had to deal with the implications of Vatican II or the new Code of Canon Law,” Fr. Mercier said. “Technology makes it possible to do some of the work ahead of time.”

In the months leading up to GC36, committees have been at work:

  • coordinating the event that will take place in the Aula or hall, a large U-shaped meeting room next door to the Jesuit Curia or administrative offices in Rome,
  • looking at the state of the Society, the issues before it, and the qualities needed in a superior at this time,
  • considering governance, or rules for running the Society of Jesus,
  • evaluating the Society’s mission.

After the opening Mass, Fr. Nicolás, the 80-year-old outgoing superior general, will address the congregation on “The State of the Society.” That will be followed by a period of prayerful discernment of possible candidates, including the delegates’ quiet, one-on-one consultations known as the murmuratio.

Campaigning for the world’s top Jesuit job, or attempting to persuade someone to vote a certain way is strictly forbidden. Rather, the murmuratio is a prayerful exercise that combines insights into a potential successor from those who know him well, with the movement of the Spirit, Fr. Mercier said.

That’s followed by the voting for a new superior general; the whole process takes about a week. But whoever is elected, he need not be in the Aula. “Anyone can get a call that says, ‘come to Rome,’” Fr. Mercier said. Pope Francis will be notified immediately and asked to give his blessing.

After the election, the delegates will discuss and debate Fr. Nicolás’ question about the three calls as well as topics suggested by individual Jesuits and provinces.

For their part, the Jesuits of the Central and Southern Province said they feel called to

  • be more free and agile to respond to the needs of today,
  • engage in the work of reconciliation in a poor and violent world, and
  • care for and encounter the excluded, and be changed by them.

General Congregations regularly issue decrees or documents that help shape the lives of Jesuits and their mission.

“We may or may not have a decree (or decrees) come out of this congregation,” Fr. Mercier said. “Maybe we just need to live the ones we have.”

Follow what's happening at the General Congregation, and join the world's Jesuits in prayer, on the official website.


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