Pope Francis: Halving of Jesuit Numbers Worldwide is a Lesson in Humility

“We will continue to diminish in number,” Pope Francis said to seven members of the Jesuits serving in Greece. “This situation is common to many religious orders and congregations.”

Pope Francis speaks to Jesuits at the apostolic nunciature in Athens, Greece, Dec. 4, 2021.
Pope Francis speaks to Jesuits at the apostolic nunciature in Athens, Greece, Dec. 4, 2021. (photo: Vatican Media. / Vatican Media)

VATICAN CITY — In a private meeting with Jesuits earlier this month, Pope Francis said that a sharp decline in the prominent religious order’s membership is an opportunity to learn humility.

“One thing that calls for attention is the diminution of the Society. When I entered the novitiate, we were 33,000 Jesuits. How many are there now? More or less half,” the pope said during a private meeting with Jesuits in Athens, Greece, on Dec. 4. 

His comments were published on Thursday in the Jesuit-run journal La Civiltà Cattolica.

“What does the Lord mean by this? Humble yourself, humble yourself! I don’t know if I have explained myself,” said Francis, the first Jesuit Pope. “We have to get used to humiliation.”

Data published in 2018 by the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) in Washington, D.C., showed that the number of Jesuits had declined by more than half since 1965.

At its peak 56 years ago, there were 36,000 Jesuits worldwide. In 2017, that number had fallen to 15,842, CARA reported. But the Jesuits remain the world’s largest male religious order.

The center said in September that 61% of Jesuits are now in South Asia, Latin America, Africa, and Asia Pacific and only 39% in Europe and North America.

“We will continue to diminish in number,” Pope Francis said to seven members of the Jesuits serving in Greece. “This situation is common to many religious orders and congregations.”

He noted that, ultimately, a decrease in vocations to the order does not depend on them, but on God, who calls men to that vocation. 

Vatican Media.

Vatican Media.

Pope Francis, who joined the order founded by St. Ignatius in 1958, and was provincial superior in Argentina from 1973 to 1979, said that beyond sociological reasons, there is “a deeper truth” to why there are so many fewer Jesuits today.

“I believe the Lord is giving us a teaching for religious life,” he said. “For us, it has meaning in the sense of humiliation. In the Spiritual Exercises, Ignatius always points to this: to humiliation.”

During the hour-long meeting, Pope Francis also spoke about death and how a Jesuit should spend his last days.

“It is to arrive at old age full of work, perhaps tired, full of contradictions, but with a smile, with the joy of having done one’s work,” the 84-year-old Pope commented.

“This is the great weariness of a man who has given his life,” he said, drawing a contrast between “an ugly, neurotic weariness” and a “good weariness.”

“When you see this old age smiling, tired, but not bitter, then you are a song to hope. A Jesuit who reaches our age and continues to work, to suffer the contradictions and not lose his smile, then he becomes a song to hope,” he said.

The Pope recalled a movie he saw as a boy about a soldier returning from war, “tired, wounded, but with a smile at being home and having done his duty.”

“As in life, so in death, the Jesuit must give witness to the following of Jesus Christ,” he said. “This sowing of joy, ‘shyness,’ smiling, is the grace of a full, full life. A life with sins, yes, but full of the joy of God’s service.”

Ivan Aivazovsky, “Walking on Water,” ca. 1890

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