Very few Jesuits have actually enjoyed the humbling experience of participating in the Society of Jesus’ highest governing body known as a general congregation. In fact, only 35 such meetings have occurred since St. Ignatius of Loyola and his companions founded the Jesuits in 1540. From Jan. 7 until March 6, it was my privilege to be one of the 225 delegates to attend such a gathering in Rome. Collectively, the delegates represented the approximately 20,000 Jesuits who serve the Church in 112 countries throughout the world.
Normally congregations are called to elect a new father-general when the previous general, who is elected for life, dies. Recent congregations have also been convened to assess the society’s mission after the Second Vatican Council and to update the society’s policies in light of revisions to canon law. This congregation was unique, in that its main impetus came in direct response to Pope Benedict XVI’s granting of Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach’s request to resign his post as general in anticipation of his 80th birthday and after faithfully serving at the society’s helm for almost 25 years.
During the opening week of the congregation, the Holy Father sent a personal letter to the delegates in which he publicly expressed his deep gratitude to Father Kolvenbach for his years of service and revealed his deep affection for the Society of Jesus and its works. His words invited Jesuits to serve the Church in the contemporary world, a world that he described as “so marked by many complex social, cultural and religious challenges.”
After a preliminary period in which the delegates discussed and evaluated the present state of the society, the congregation moved on to the election. Prior to the actual voting, four full days were devoted to deep prayer invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. During this time, called a murmuring or a “murmuratio” in its original Latin, the electors were encouraged to speak with one another in private about the qualities of those who might be worthy candidates. On the day of the election itself, after a concelebrated Mass and an hour of communal silent prayer, the delegates cast their votes and chose Father Adolfo Nicolás to be the 29th successor of St. Ignatius.
Born in Spain, Father Nicolás spent most of his adult life in Asia. There he served for many years as a professor of theology at Sophia University in Tokyo and as provincial of Japan. Most recently he held the position of moderator of all the Jesuit provinces in East Asia and Oceania and oversaw the work of the region.
Following the election, the new general guided the delegates through a legislative phase that produced five documents having to do with the way in which Jesuits live and work throughout the world. These documents deal with issues of governance, Jesuit identity, the vow of obedience, our mission in today’s world, and the manner in which Jesuits collaborate with others in our apostolic works.
The delegates also spent considerable time examining a number of other topics that were recommended for discussion at the congregation by members of the society from across the globe. Among these topics were the intellectual life, the promotion of vocations, work with refugees, youth, migrants and indigenous peoples, and ecology. While these discussions did not produce documents, recommendations were made to the father-general as to how these issues might be handled.
One of the true highlights of the congregation occurred on Feb. 21 when Pope Benedict XVI received all the delegates in a private audience at the Vatican. The audience was held in the “Sala Clementina,” a room in which popes have received guests since 1595! The meeting was extremely warm and cordial. In his allocution, the Holy Father invited us to “build bridges of understanding and dialogue” and to set out once again in the tracks of our Jesuit predecessors. He specifically mentioned the great missionaries Matteo Ricci and Robert de Nobili, and urged us to draw upon not only their same courage and intelligence, but also and equally their profound motivation of faith and enthusiasm to serve the Lord and his Church. In response to his letter and allocution, the congregation wrote to the Holy Father to thank him for his expressions of affection and support and to answer the issues that he raised.
To mark both the beginning and the closing of the general congregation, the delegates gathered for a concelebrated Mass at the Gesù, the mother church of the society in Rome which contains the tombs of St. Ignatius, Father Pedro Arrupe and a number of other Jesuit saints and blesseds. At the final liturgy the members recited a grateful “Te Deum” in thanksgiving for the many rich blessings that the Lord has granted to the society throughout its history. We departed Rome praying that Jesuits throughout the world may respond both faithfully and generously to the congregation’s call to renew our charism and be authentically “contemplatives in action,” seeking to find God in all things!
Father Thomas J. Regan, SJ, is provincial of the New England Province of Jesuits.