Jesuit spokesman Father Jose Maria de Vera will be fielding lots of questions this month at the Society of Jesus’ most important gathering for 25 years.
As well as electing a new general superior to succeed Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (brief, page 2), the 225 delegates are likely to decide on changes in governance and mission of the society. Some hope the meeting, called a general congregation, will also tackle the problem of Jesuits who in recent years have tended to dissent from Church teaching.
Father De Vera, spoke with Register correspondent Edward Pentin Jan. 3.
What is the purpose of a general congregation?
St. Ignatius, our founder, had two reasons for having it: Firstly, to choose a new superior general. That is very important for the society because the Society of Jesus is, without doubt, a kind of monarchy, and the superior general has a very important role to play.
The second reason is that when the Society of Jesus, the Church or the world is facing difficulties — such as globalization or ecology — all these matters are beyond the scope of one particular province or nation to solve.
So for that reason, when there are serious matters, the superior general is supposed to convoke a general congregation.
How long will this congregation last?
Normally, general congregations don’t tend to be too long. I don’t know how long this one will be. I’m speculating, but I would be surprised if this year it will go beyond the beginning of March. But some congregations, for a particular reason, go on longer than that.
What goes into the planning of such a conference?
There has been a commission preparing for the general congregation, but its role is only to suggest because, in the end, it is the general congregation that decides [what is discussed].
The commission proposed 11 topics for discussion, but the first part of the congregation — lasting about two weeks — will be mainly preparing for the election of the general. Once the election is over, there will be discussion of other matters — the 11 topics that have been suggested.
These topics are of a general nature. One concerns the mission of the society. We know what the mission of the society is of course, but it should be adapted to the circumstances we have now in 2008.
For instance, Father Pedro Arrupe [superior general 1965-1983] made changes. Refugees were an emerging problem, and they discussed whether that should be a proper concern of the society.
A second topic concerns the identity of Jesuits, another is on governance and then another topic is obedience, including obedience to the pope.
As you know, all religious make three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. We add one vow of obedience to the pope — a special vow that St. Ignatius especially wanted.
In the 21st century, obedience is not easy, generally speaking.
In our constitutions of the past, the pope gave us a mission to fight atheism, for instance. Now, our mission is directed at China, Africa or intellectual life. When the pope gives us a particular mission, we have to accept it without question. The pope is the supreme authority.
Openly dissenting Jesuits have been a problem in recent years. Do you therefore foresee a tightening of this fourth vow?
Some Jesuits interpret this obedience to the pope only as mission. However, there is another interpretation that is wider than that. Our obedience means that we have a special relationship with the pope, which is of love, service and faithfulness.
It’s not limited to saying: “Okay, we’ll do that, and that’s it.” No, Ignatius thought and felt very strongly that obedience is not only intellectual, but there must be a real affection for the pope. He uses the Latin phrase sentire cum ecclesia (think with the mind of the Church).
But the relationship between the society and the pope has not always been easy, historically.
From the beginning, St. Ignatius wanted a religious congregation that was apostolic in nature, but a later pope preferred a kind of monkish, contemplative society, to pray together and recite the breviary. … Then, in 1773, the Society of Jesus was suppressed. It was mandated by the pope who was under the influence, the pressure, of the kings of France and Spain, the masons and enemies of the society.
Apparently he didn’t want to do it but he did, and so until 1814 the Society of Jesus did not exist canonically. So the relationship between the pope and the Jesuits has gone through difficulties.
But hasn’t the situation of the 18th and 19th centuries been reversed in a way? Instead of being so pro-Church and pro-pope, there is this dissent among some Jesuits, which is the opposite of what they used to be. Will that be a major point of discussion?
It will be discussed, but when the present superior general, Father Kolvenbach, was asked how the relations were between the Vatican and the Society of Jesus, with his good sense of humor he replied: “Well, they are normal — as they should be!”
Because it’s well known that even in the time of the previous general, Padre Arrupe, there were difficulties between the Vatican and the Curia of the Society of Jesus. Arrupe was a prophet. He was a person with a great vision for the future, perhaps ahead of many others in the Church, and that caused some misunderstanding.
Obviously, Father Arrupe did not always understand what the pope meant. As we say today, perhaps he was not very fluent in “Vaticanese,” in interpreting the language of the Vatican. He spoke several languages but perhaps he was too intuitive. So there were difficulties and that’s not a secret.
The Pope [John Paul II] took some exceptional measures. When Padre Arrupe was sick, the normal procedure of the society would have been to call a general congregation to elect a successor. But the Pope did not allow that to happen, and chose a cardinal whose mission was to prepare a quiet general congregation, without some of the problems like liberation theology, which at that time was fervent in the society. But these problems are behind us now. The present relationship is very, very good indeed.
That being so, do you think Pope Benedict might enter into some of the discussions? Will he be invited to take part in any way?
No, I don’t think so, because they [popes] have a great trust — always have had — in the society. Father Kolvenbach has the respect and confidence of all the people in the Vatican. They know he is honest, very faithful and close to them, so there’s no reason why the Pope now feels he has to intervene.
The general congregation has been invited by the Pope for a meeting on Feb. 21. Perhaps he will have something to say, but as Father Kolvenbach has said, we have received these warnings of the Pope with humility and gratitude, because he’s our superior.
If he finds something faulty in the society, we are ready to receive it in humility and reflect on it. But that would be in a public speech without any further implications.
But do you think Pope Benedict might bring up this point in a very distinctive fashion, perhaps single out this problem when he meets the general congregation?
The Pope addressed the society in April of last year. We were all in Rome and went to the basilica because we were celebrating 500 years since the death of St. Ignatius. And he made a very good speech. We thought it would be a formal speech saying congratulations. But no, he pointed out some of the things he would like the society to do, and one concerned the intellectual life.
“Do not abandon the intellectual life,” he said. The Pope also wanted us to be aware of the difficulties between faith and reason, and these also would be taken seriously.
Of the 262 proposals on future concerns that have been tabled for discussion, many are on justice and ecology. But shouldn’t evangelization be more of a priority?
Certainly, some people [Jesuit priests and provincial superiors of the society] are concerned about social issues, and whether we are truly involved in these justice and peace issues. But without provincial superiors, all these things will remain merely at the level of conversation.
The superiors are the ones who are really committed to carry it out. On the other hand, many of the superiors are aware of, and are really committed to, social problems, to refugees and things like that. For those Jesuits involved in the social field, sometimes they feel it’s not enough, that the society should do more. And this is the occasion to make that known.
In view of vocations to the society coming from the developing world, is it likely the next leader of the Jesuits will come from there?
I’m regularly asked: “Are you ready to elect a superior general from Africa or India?” And I say, “Why not?”
What are the personal qualities you’re looking for in a leader?
St. Ignatius has a description for what the superior general of the society should be like. It’s a description that nobody can fulfill.
He said if a general superior lacks in any virtue — he should, for example, be understanding, he should be austere — but if he lacks these, he should not lack in goodness and love of the society.
This year is a kind of novelty. Each province has been asked to make a profile of the ideal superior general. Of course, everyone starts from Ignatius, but there are some things that are important today that Ignatius could not foresee. For instance, some people presenting a profile of the new general say he should have multicultural experience and not be a mono-cultural person.
And holiness and intellect are also vital?
Yes, of course they are basic things a superior general has to have. Ignatius starts by saying that he should be a man of profound prayer life — that should be his first duty, to listen to the Spirit and then, of course, to be understanding, to be close to the people, and so forth.
Edward Pentin writes