Monday, September 11, 2006

"Black Conclave" Update

As many of you know, earlier this year the Jesuit Father-General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach called the Society's 35th General Congregation, to begin in Rome in the first week of 2008. The event will be historic, in that it will mark the first seamless transition at the top of the church's largest and most influential religious community; Kolvenbach, elected head of the 500 year-old Company in 1983, is stepping down to clear the way for his successor.

While the legendary Pedro Arrupe was the first to break the Ignatian custom, resigning the Generalate in the run-up to 1983's GC33, he had already suffered a debilitating stroke and, in light of controversies over the Society's "faith and justice" approach, Pope John Paul II had undertaken the extraordinary step two years earlier of placing the Jesuits under the watch of his hand-picked delegate, Fr Paolo Dezza, Paul VI's confessor who was later made a cardinal. Given the incumbent General's good working relationship with the Vatican, and the regard he enjoys both from the Holy See and his confreres, the transition currently underway provides a fitting capstone to the current "Black Pope"'s legacy of deferential accomplishment.

The foundations for the next General Congregation -- called either at the death of a Superior-General or whenever the Society's head wishes to chart out its future course -- are currently being laid as the world's Jesuits vote for delegates to their Provincial Congregations, which'll be held sometime between the end of fall and midwinter. The preliminary gatherings will elect delegates and alternates to the General Congregation, a figure which will vary by the size of the province; all provincials are ex officio delegates to the GC.

But one distinctive aspect of the Main Event is about to change. Citing "a desire on the part of some Provincials to know how they can and ought to act... as regards the election of a new Superior General," Kolvenbach recently announced new norms for a broad consultation of the "Electors" (as delegates to the coming GC will be known) within their national assistancies prior to the gathering of the General Congregation.

While those who will take part in the preliminary soundings have been exhorted to avoid such occurrences as "every explicit expression or indication of ambitioning the office for oneself or for another"; "any attempt to impede the election of another person"; "any attempt to provide false, exaggerated or slanted information about eligible candidates," and "any action that tries in any way to cloud the results of the election or to affect the outcome of the election in any way," the national groups of electors are charged to "outline the desired profile of the future Superior General in a manner similar to that undertaken when proposing the name of a new Provincial" and, furthermore, to "suggest... some names" of feasible candidates for the top post, both from within and outside the region in question.

With this, the famous murmuratio -- the discreet probing of names and backgrounds in the hours leading up to the vote, previously the only sanctioned information-gathering in the selection of the Jesuit chief -- has been emasculated.

While many of the previously mentioned names continue to abound in the buzzmill, we're reminded that Kolvenbach -- then-head of the Pontifical Oriental Institute -- was an "absolute dark-horse" at the time of his election. Probably because of his new-found fame, the name of Fr Federico Lombardi, the recently-appointed director of the Holy See Press Office (and a former Italian provincial) is a new possibility cited in the field. That said, the current is running toward a more visionary, dynamic choice to serve as the Jesuits' 30th Superior General.

With 16 months out until the opening Mass of the Holy Spirit, there's a lot of time and, of course, a lot can change. As always, stay tuned.