Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach: Jesuits meeting to elect new Black Pope
National Catholic Reporter | Dec 28, 2007
By RAYMOND A. SCHROTH
There’s a story in the 1892 Jesuit review Woodstock Letters where an older Jesuit tells a younger man who is about to start teaching that the order’s schools nationwide the previous year were weak because they had to hire laymen. Now that the faculty are all Jesuits, he says, the secular schools will be coming to the order for advice.
Today, 107 years later, when, although numbers are rising in the developing world, the American Society has shrunk from 8,000 in 1960 to 3,000, Jesuits are turning to lay collaboration and leadership to achieve the Jesuit mission. How to continue doing this will be a central concern of the order’s General Congregation, its highest governing body, when it convenes in Rome Jan. 6.
General Congregations — this is the 35th — are usually held either to elect a general or when the general, having consulted advisers, convenes one for special reasons.
Some 219 delegates from all over the world, including 27 from the United States, both ex officio and elected, will gather to select a new general to replace Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, 80, the first general in modern times to resign. The rest of the agenda of the meeting indicates that while there may be fewer to carry it out, the Jesuit mission in the future will clearly emphasize justice and environmental issues.
After electing a new general, delegates 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. As a result, Jesuits interviewed for this article do not foresee Jesuit-papal friction, in spite of then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s role in removing Fr. Thomas Reese as editor of America magazine, the U.S. Jesuits’ flagship publication. Jesuit Fr. George Coyne, former director of the Vatican Observatory, describes Benedict XVI as bright and open-minded to people who can match his intellectual acumen.
According to Gray, Coyne, the Whispers in the Loggia Web site and other sources, the delegates will be asking about: Fr. Orlando Torres, a Puerto Rican, now secretary for formation in Rome; Fr. Mark Rotsaert, Belgian president of the European Jesuit Conference; Fr. Lisbert D’Sousa from India; Fr. Mark Raper, Australian provincial and onetime head of the Jesuit Refugee Service; and possibly Fr. Frederico Lombardi, former head of the Vatican Radio who is now the pope’s PR man.
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?
* Paradoxically, as numbers fall, the Society takes on more responsibilities. In starting Nativity middle schools and Cristo Rey high schools in poor, racially mixed neighborhoods, Jesuits seem confident that somehow we can staff them with idealistic young lay men and women. Fr. Mark Raper, in a newsletter, grants that prudence may require us to cut back our commitments, but adds that Ignatius counseled that we “be ready to be regarded as fools.” Jesuit Fr. James Brodrick concludes his biography of Francis Xavier with the observation that Xavier’s zeal surpassed his judgment in his decision to go to China, a country he knew nothing about. But Brodrick quotes Robert Browning: “Man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?”
Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth of St. Peter’s College, Jersey City, N.J., has just published The American Jesuits: A History.