The 35th General Congregation of the Jesuits

The Jesuits’ 35th General Congregation (GC35) in Rome lasted from 7th January to 7th March 2008. There cannot be many organisations in the world that afford themselves the luxury of a meeting lasting two months. Jesuit General Congregations – the highest authority of the Society, outranking even the Superior General – are supposed to be rare, called only for serious business. We certainly enjoyed being together; but many of us did wonder whether GC35 needed to take so long. What came out of it?

Congregations and decrees

Previous Congregations produced weighty volumes of “decrees” for Jesuits to reflect on. GC31 met during the Second Vatican Council; apart from electing Fr Pedro Arrupe as Superior General, it was the Jesuits’ first attempt to adapt to the momentous changes in the Church, in the theology of the Church, and in religious life. A decade or so later, GC32 gave the Society a radical reformulation of its mission, linking the proclamation of the Gospel with the promotion of justice. The decrees of GC32 were especially influential and controversial. By no means everyone inside or outside the Society agreed with its account of the Jesuit vocation, and the 1970s were years of excitement for some and pain for others. The dramatic haemorrhaging of Jesuits from the Society had already begun; and in 1981 an unprecedented event took place – the most significant papal intervention in the internal governance of the Society since the Suppression. When Fr Arrupe had the stroke that incapacitated him, the normal procedures were suspended by Pope John Paul II, who appointed his own Jesuit delegate to govern the Society. Only in 1983 were the Jesuits allowed to call GC33 to elect Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. Even after 25 years, the trauma can still be felt.

GC34 was called primarily to adopt changes in the Society’s legislation required by recent congregations and the new Code of Canon Law. However, that congregation also produced a very large number (26) of decrees on a variety of subjects. In particular, it ‘fine-tuned’ the GC32’s linking of gospel and justice by giving it a broader and more generous interpretation to include issues of dialogue and culture. This was the Jesuits’ first consciously ‘postmodern’ Congregation: the Society tried to adapt itself and its mission to the realities of globalisation, the communications revolution, the end of the ‘cold war’, and so on. Its many decrees adopted the genre of GC31 and GC32, which had perhaps modelled theirs on Vatican II.

When GC35 met earlier this year, there was a repeatedly expressed desire not to produce yet more documents. Most felt that the three previous General Congregations had said much of what needed to be said: what remained was implementation. Something would need to be written, of course: but any decrees should be few, short, and “inspirational”! This, however, was not so easy. The issues that had been sent to the General Congregation by Jesuits from all over the Society were real, and they needed to be addressed. Other important issues had come through preparatory commissions appointed by the General. Also in the background were certain hints dropped by Pope Benedict XVI in various letters and addresses. In the end, GC35 did issue a small number of documents, but these are of a variety of different types (though technically they are all ‘decrees’).

A decree on obedience

“Obedience in the Life of the Society of Jesus” has the traditional look and feel of the decrees of GC31 to GC34. It completes a trio: GC32 had a decree on poverty, GC34 on chastity. Also, Benedict XVI had asked that the Fourth Vow of special obedience to the pope regarding missions be discussed. This decree, then, is a small treatise on Jesuit obedience, locating the roots in the Spiritual Exercises and in the experience of St Ignatius and his first companions, especially the promises at Montmartre in 1534, the confirmation at La Storta, and later the “deliberatio of the first fathers” in 1539. There is a brief theology of obedience, affirming that “faith in Jesus Christ teaches us that self-realization comes from self-giving and that freedom is not so much the power to choose as the power to order our choices toward love”; such love, it says, requires trustful commitment, including “commitment to the concrete mediations of the Word” that are found in the Church, in the Society, and in our communities. Overall, the decree emphasises the account of conscience, trust between subjects and superiors (for obedience has two sides, each with roles and responsibilities, and requires both effective delegation by superiors and apostolic creativity on the part of subjects), and the role of obedience in community life. Through the Fourth Vow, the Society puts itself “at the disposition of the ministry of Peter ‘for distribution into the vineyard of Christ our Lord’” and is incorporated into the structure of the Church. “Taken together, the fourth vow and our ecclesial spirituality move us to offer the service asked of us by the pope.”

A decree on governance

“Governance at the Service of Universal Mission” is very different. Instead of a continuous treatise, it gives three guiding principles for governance in the Society (the most important being “a perspective of greater universality”), and then gathers together the congregation’s decisions on a variety of matters. So the decree asks Father General to institute a comprehensive review of the Formulae for Congregations (General, Provincial, and Procurators), and of central governance of the Society, i.e., the Curia in Rome. It confirms the role of the Conferences of Major Superiors, and settles a number of contentious issues, in particular that of the proper relation between the conference ‘moderator’ or ‘president’ and the major superiors, including the difficult point of the moderator’s power to assign members of the provinces. At Province level, the decree highlights the increased need, in today’s world, for cooperation and coordination across province boundaries, and encourages a participatory approach to decision-making at all levels, with clarity about the roles of consultors, commissions, delegates, etc. It emphasizes the major superior’s responsibility for the apostolic works of the province as well as for the men, and also the importance of training of Jesuits for leadership and management. At the community level, stress is laid on the local superior’s role in sustaining and developing the apostolic vitality of Jesuit communities, by supporting members in their ministerial as well as their religious lives. The decree ends with some reflections on relations between local superiors and directors of works, whether Jesuit or non-Jesuit.

A decree on Jesuit identity

After some debate, GC35 decided to produce a new document on Jesuit identity and mission (later the part on mission became a separate decree on its own), even though GC34 had said much on this subject that was by no means outdated. This was to be, though, a new kind of decree: ‘inspirational’ rather than ‘legalistic’, giving not one more account of who we are and what we do, but the reason why we do it. In the end, “A Fire that Kindles Other Fires: rediscovering our charism” is perhaps the most original decree of GC35. It uses many images and pictures, of which the overarching one is the “fire that kindles other fires” (a quotation from St Albert Hurtado), employing what was described as a ‘cinematographical logic’ that is difficult to summarise. What is new in it – and hopefully what will help – is not so much its content but its style, its spirit, its enthusiasm.

A decree on mission

A large majority of the postulata that came from the provinces to GC35 concerned the new context of the Society’s mission in the world. It was felt that the identity document, because of its style, could not respond adequately to these concerns, and a separate decree eventually emerged. “Challenges to Our Mission Today: Sent to the Frontiers” begins by reaffirming the formulation of our mission given by GC34: faith, justice, dialogue, culture. It then describes the new context in which we seek to fulfil that mission: globalisation – with all its consequences, good and bad. In this new context, we are called to a ministry of reconciliation, by crossing boundaries just as Jesus did in many different ways, and by living the tension between centre and periphery. The decree describes this in terms of “building right relationships”; with God, with one another, and with creation. The decree ends by confirming the list of ‘apostolic priorities’ of the Society of Jesus that had been announced by Fr Kolvenbach (after consultation with major superiors) in 2003: namely, (i) Africa, (ii) China, (iii) the ‘intellectual apostolate’, (iv) the Roman inter-provincial houses, and (v) migrants and refugees.

A decree on collaboration

Many postulata concerned the issue of collaboration between Jesuits and others (non-Jesuits) in our many works, even though this, too, had been addressed by GC34. It was felt, though, that a new attempt to state the centrality of collaboration to Jesuit mission was helpful, and also to address certain specific questions. “Collaboration at the Heart of Mission” expresses gratitude to the many non-Jesuits who labour with Jesuits in their various works, acknowledging that the variety of our collaborators is growing as well as the modes of collaboration. The decree tries to answer three questions: (1) What is a Jesuit work, and how can it be sustained where non-Jesuits are in leadership positions? (2) What kind of formation do Jesuits and non-Jesuit collaborators need in order to grow in the spirit and practice of our mission? (3) What kinds of bonds can best unite those who work together in the Society’s mission? It ends by addressing a very particular issue that had been left to it by the previous congregation, namely, the future of an experiment inaugurated by GC34 to admit a small number of lay Catholics into a ‘juridical bond’ with the Society.

A response to Pope Benedict XVI

Benedict XVI was, perhaps, ‘the invisible member’ at GC35’. At the beginning, he wrote to Fr Kolvenbach and to the congregation, expressing his real esteem and gratitude for Fr Kolvenbach’s work over nearly 25 years in guiding the Society, and for “the valid contribution which the Society offers to the Church’s activity in various ways and in so many ways”. “The Church,” he said, “has even more need today of this fidelity of yours, which constitutes a distinctive sign of your Order”. He went on to express a hope that GC35 would clearly affirm the authentic charism of our founder “so as to encourage all Jesuits to promote true and healthy Catholic doctrine”, even mentioning a number of particular “neuralgic points” where such teaching is attacked by “secular culture” and where such an affirmation would be, he said, “extremely useful”. The congregation was deeply moved by this letter and gave time and much serious thought to the response that it demanded. On the 21st February 2008, the whole of GC35 had a private audience with the Holy Father, at which he spoke with great warmth, using the language and spirituality of the Jesuits, and ending with the prayer – which, he said, “I almost dare not to say” – Take, Lord, receive. Clearly, Benedict has a high regard for the Society, especially the role it plays in the contemporary battle against secularism, and he is calling for the Society’s help in this great task. “The Church is in urgent need of people of solid and deep faith, of a serious culture and a genuine human and social sensitivity, or religious priests who devote their lives to stand on those frontiers in order to witness and help to understand that there is in fact a profound harmony between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice and action for peace.”

GC35 – so what?

There are many valuable and important issues raised in these documents, worthy of reflection for Jesuits and their collaborators. They do not say everything about being a Jesuit today, or in the future. But what could say everything?

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