Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Toward the Black Conclave

With five days and counting 'til the opening of the General Congregation of the Jesuits in Rome, it'd be a bit of understatement to say that anticipation is building.

Convening its top body for only the 35th time in its 470-year history -- the first since 1995 -- the meeting will chart the course of the church's largest religious order, whose numbers have shifted decisively to the global south as lay cooperation becomes ever more crucial to the future of its influential apostolates in Europe and North America.

All told, 226 delegates will represent the world's 19,000 Jesuits, including 34 Americans, 69 Europeans and 64 from the community's new largest regional bloc -- Asia and Oceania.

The marquee order of the three-month event's business will be the unprecedented transition of the Society's leadership from a living "Black Pope" to his successor as Father-General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach steps down after a 25-year reign. The acceptance of Kolvenbach's resignation and election of the 30th Superior-General are expected to take place around mid-month.

The Society's Fr Raymond Schroth offers a preview of the agenda in NCR:
[D]elegates will consider 262 postulates (proposals), from which the new general and the delegates will set priorities for the new generation. Soon the leadership of Jesuits will belong to men born after the 1960s, with no memories of Vatican II, Vietnam, civil rights marches, the movement in those years of the Jesuit seminaries from remote suburbs into the big cities, and the thrill of turning the altar around and saying Mass in English.

This year the American assistancy ordained only 16 men. By 2021 the 10 geographical provinces will be five. For example, the New England, New York, and Maryland plus the South Carolina and Georgia provinces will all be one.

The new general, says Fr. Howard Gray, former rector of John Carroll University and now adviser to Georgetown’s lay president, will be in the mold of Fr. Pedro Arrupe, who served from 1965 until 1983 and whose influence and skills set the tone of the modern Society. Kolvenbach has continued Arrupe’s priorities, while he improved relations with the Vatican by keeping a low personal profile and establishing links between the Jesuit curia and Vatican offices....

They are expected to reaffirm the sometimes controversial statements of Congregations 32-34 on the relationship between faith and justice, inculturation and the Society’s relationship with lay men and women. But of the 262 proposals, 42 concern justice, and the next 41 are on ecology, the new generation’s Vietnam.

Dedication to the environment, said Fr. Roger de la Rosa, a California Jesuit chemist, will move the Society into the 21st century, in dialogue with culture and science. The other issues -- governance and lay collaboration -- are linked. How will new initiatives be received?

The following assessment of what can be expected in the upcoming General Congregation is based on the planning documents, a lecture by historian Jesuit Fr. John Padberg and interviews with a cross section of American Jesuits from different age groups and different parts of the country, including: Frs. Howard Gray, George Coyne, Ross Romero, Paul Mueller, Thomas Greene and Roger de la Rosa -- the last four of whom are young.
* The delegates will elect a general with international experience and vision. Americans must start thinking internationally. More Third-World young Jesuits will be getting degrees in the United States and living in American communities. In California, with the most vocations, half the scholastics were born outside the United States, including de la Rosa. A high percentage of men in formation have already spent many months in Latin America and the Third World. The East will teach the West about dialogue, said de la Rosa. Some older Jesuits must quickly adjust to the fact that the Jesuit complexion will darken and the new generation will be sensitive to any whiff of racism.

* Lay leadership of Jesuit institutions will be the norm. Leaders will have to experiment in training laypersons in the Jesuit ethos. From novitiate to final vows, it takes about 13 years to “form” a Jesuit. Now the hope is that through a series of experiences -- doing the Spiritual Exercises, attending workshops on Jesuit identity and international tours or pilgrimages, such as those run by Gray and Fr. Patrick Samway of St. Joseph’s University, to visit St. Ignatius’ birthplace in Paris, and the Jesuit-founded AIDS orphanage-hospice-and village in Nairobi -- lay leaders will emerge with a Jesuit “brand.”

* Jesuit leadership will think nationally more than locally. The new governance structure will likely give powers to a national superior who can override province structures and decide that this school will be closed or handed over to lay leadership and that school will get Jesuit personnel.

* Local communities will be asked to face their weaknesses. A provincial’s statement, “Responding to the Call of Christ,” says successful communities have a weekly community Eucharist and meal where all are expected to be present; regular community meetings for prayer and conversations; days of reflection twice a year; and regular hospitality, especially for apostolic partners.

Mueller notes that some Jesuits see their community as a “place of refuge,” away from apostolic obligations. This, he said, is no way to reestablish our credibility. We must deliberately design our communities, he said, for both hospitality and prayer, where visitors see us at home and are attracted to our way of life.

There’s a story about 16th-century Pedro Martinez, the first Jesuit to land and die in North America. He was a Spanish swordsman who disdained religion, but accompanied friends to a Jesuit community one day just to mock them. Instead, he was so impressed that he wanted to join. Could that happen today?
For further background, Omaha's Creighton University has a comprehensive GC35 page up and running.

And, of course, stay tuned later this month for word that black smoke has been spotted in the Roman sky.

PHOTO: Don Doll SJ/Creighton University