By Mike James
Coordinator CBF for Latin America and the Caribbean (Coordinador FEBIC-LAC)
On Friday 7 October, 215 Jesuit superiors and representatives of the world’s largest male Religious Order, the 16,000-member Society of Jesus, currently meeting in Rome for the 36 General Congregation of the Order are voting to elect a new Superior General, the 30th since St, Ignatius Loyola founder of the order was elected in 1558.
While outgoing Superior General Spanish Fr. Adolfo Nicolas, like all his predecessors, hails from Europe, there is considerable speculation that the delegates may now elect a leader from Asia, Africa or Latin America.
Reflecting the shift in population profile of Catholics around the world where more than 60% are from Latin America and Africa, 32% of the representative priests and religious brothers at the Jesuit General Congregation are from Asia, including 46 from India, 27% from Europe, 16% from Latin America, 15% from US and Canada, and 10% from Africa.
Pope Francis himself is the first Jesuit to be elected Pope, so this is the first time that the Society of Jesus is also electing a leader from the same Order as the Pope, and it is also widely expected that the new Superior General will be a very strong advocate for Pope Francis’ ambitious agenda of reforming the governance of the church while addressing a world wracked by terrorism, massive population shifts from refugees fleeing war, income inequality, and the drastic decline of church participation in North America and Europe.
“The pope has been living his Jesuit vocation without proclaiming it. That has challenged the Society [of Jesus] to reflect deeper and bring about personal and structural changes among Jesuits,” Fr. Varkey Perekkatt, the Jesuits’ Delhi provincial and delegate to the meeting told National Catholic Report.
“Whether we like it or not, most of our institutions are middle-class and above middle-class,” he added, predicting that internal changes of each Jesuit will lead to collective transformation of the congregation as well as society. Such changes are required for the society to get back to its charism of caring for the poor, he said.
Perekkatt told NCR he regrets that the Jesuits’ social action has become increasingly institutionalized and their preferential option for the poor has been watered down. This pro-poor option was the challenge the Jesuits’ 32nd General Congregation in 1974 put forward to the church.
The Jesuits then insisted serving the faith through the promotion of justice and formed numerous grassroots movements that worked for the poor and downtrodden. In the 1970s and 1980s, “we were in villages,” Perekkatt recalled.
However, many institutions emerged over the years as social action became structured.
“Gradually, we became project managers and moved into many institutions,” said the priest, who is the former head of the Jesuits of South Asia and attended the 34th General Congregation in 1995.
Social scientist Fr. Ambrose Pinto, who has headed Jesuit social institutes in New Delhi and Bangalore, southern India, said Francis has taken over from the Jesuits the “prophetic role” of challenging unjust structures and calling for a new world that has a preferential option for the poor.
“What at one juncture was considered the mission of the Jesuits of faith and justice has become the mission of the entire church,” said Pinto
The pope, Pinto told NCR, has “radicalized the church” in such a way the Jesuits’ General Congregation “may have to fall back on many things the Holy Father has said to reinvent its mission for today.
The theme of this week’s Jesuit General Congregation is “Rowing into the Deep” in reference to Jesus’ invitation to Peter (Lk 5:4) to trust Him and cast out for a catch where only failure preceded, and which led to Peter’s courageous discipleship of the Lord and catch of hearts and minds over two millenia.
When the Jesuits this week end present to Pope Francis the choice of their new leader, they too will be pledging to witness to the Pope call for “a Poor Church that is for the Poor” like the one Jesus founded.