Monday, January 22, 2007

Keeping After the Murmuratio

A year from now, the business of the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus will be well into its slated two-month program in Rome.

As with most of the larger Society, the delegation representing the ten provinces of the Jesuits' US Assistancy has been chosen, and soon each regional grouping of GC electors worldwide will meet to hash out their desired criteria and offer up some names for the gathering's first order of business: the Company's first-ever peacetime transition of leadership from one living Father-General to his successor.

I'm told that four names keep popping up in Jesuit circles, two of which longtime readers will remember from the first master-list aired here a year ago. In no particular order, these are: Fr Mark Rotsaert, the Belgian president of the European Jesuit Conference; Fr Orlando Torres, the former superior of Puerto Rico and currently secretary for Formation at the Jesuit Curia in Rome; Indian Fr Lisbert D'Souza, the current General Counselor at Borgo Santo Spirito, lately president of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia; and the Australian provincial Fr Mark Raper, the onetime head of Jesuit Refugee Services.

Other names bandied about, but not as prominently, include the current and former heads of some of the Society's larger universities, including the aforementioned Frs Franco Imoda, a former rector of the Gregorian, and José Morales Orozco, still rector of Mexico City's Iberoamericana.

Some say that there's "no clear front-runner," others have reported Torres -- viewed among the confreres as more of a Latin American than an American -- as the "strong favorite," discreetly touted and nudged forward by the current regime on Borgo Santo Spirito. Whatever the case, this shortlist is by no means exhaustive but a broad consensus of interest, and each generalabile on it has a particularly strong geographic or political consideration working in his favor. In large part, the making of the 30th Superior General will in large part come down to which of these significant factors can overpower the rest when the famous period of the formal murmuratio wraps and the balloting takes place.

For example, one electoral fault line, for example, will force a choice between the perceived inclinations of the retiring Father-General Peter Hans Kolvenbach, and the region whose surge in numbers hands it the keys to the Society's future. Another will nudge delegates to prioritize either the Generalate's continuance in diplomatic hands or a renaissance of the emboldened faith and justice charism fostered by the Council and the leadership of Pedro Arrupe. But between the cleavages, there's plenty of room for compromise, not to mention a dark horse, as the 54 year-old rector of the Orientale was back in 1983.

As the Society has internationalized, however, some observers can't help but wonder if its growing diversity won't have the same boomerang effect as it did in the last conclave, where the electors, mostly drawn from points afar of the central locus of governance, found that the one candidate a critical mass felt comfortable backing on the basis of their experiences with him was, himself, the one in the midst of... said central locus.

For all that's left to be sorted out, what we do know is this: Five centuries into the Jesuit era, the Father-General, head of the church's largest religious community, has never once come from outside Europe. In the last century, the Company's numerical dominance has passed from the Old Guard of the Continent, to the US, to the Global South, with India now forming its largest Assistancy and set to bring a prominently beefed-up contingent to GC35 over that sent to GC34, which met over the first three months of 1995. The Society's relations with the Holy See, not at their best two decades ago, have been restored, primarily thanks to Kolvenbach's shining skillset and low profile. Yet while he's revered among his men, a measure of restlessness, coupled with the desire for a renewed willingness to think outside the box from the top, remain markedly present in the ranks.

And all this sets the stage for the choice: to maintain the PHK tradition and give a finessed European one last turn at the helm; to return to the Spanish heritage of Ignatius, but with a nod to the emergent Global South; to take a bold step into the future and reward the Company's new frontier by tapping its well-regarded leader; or the even more intriguing step of breaking ranks to entrust the mantle to, arguably, the most widely-traveled and experienced of them all, whose homespun candor, tempered by Romanitá, won hearts over his decade overseeing the Society's activity in some of its most challenging trenches.

It's been a long-running thread on these pages. And with the electors chosen and the preparations coming ever more into place, 07's sleeper story is only going to keep heating up.