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Defining the mission for the Society of Jesus in the years to come

By Michael G. Boughton, S.J.

As the 225 delegates came to Rome for the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus earlier this year, we didn’t know who we would elect to lead the Society.

Santa Clara's President Paul Locatelli, S.J., and I were there as delegates. Most of us attending were fairly sure of one thing: We didn’t need to produce a lot of decrees. Our most recent Congregations had written excellent documents about many aspects of Jesuit life. Jesuits around the world sent proposals of matters we might address; Peter–Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., who was stepping down as leader of the Society, suggested that a decree on our vow of obedience would be appropriate. We also received a letter from Pope Benedict XVI.

The Holy Father’s letter engendered much discussion about how we might best respond. But our audience with him on February 21 clearly confirmed the direction we would take. Pope Benedict was clear about his respect and affection for the Society: “The Church needs you, counts on you, and continues to turn to you with confidence,” he told us, “particularly to reach the geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find it difficult to reach.” He challenged us to be true to our mission as Jesuits—“people of solid and deep faith, of a serious culture, and a genuine human and social sensitivity…religious priests who devote their lives to stand on those frontiers in order to witness and help to understand that there is in fact a profound harmony between faith and reason, between evangelical spirit, thirst for justice, and action for peace.”

The Congregation issued six decrees, the first of which is the response to the Pope.

undefinedWith Renewed Vigor and Zeal acknowledged that “mediocrity has no place in Ignatius’ worldview” (quoting Fr. Kolvenbach) and affirmed that “what the Church expects from us is sincere collaboration in the search for the full truth to which the Spirit leads us, in full adherence to the faith and the teaching of the Church.” The document calls on every Jesuit to examine sincerely how he lives our mission: “among the poor and with the poor,” in the ministry of the Spiritual Exercises, in our “concern for the human and Christian formation” of others, and in “harmony with the Magisterium which avoids causing confusion.”

undefinedA Fire That Kindles Other Fires: Rediscovering Our Charism is an unusual decree for a General Congregation: It’s a poetic evocation of our identity. We “trace the footsteps of God everywhere”; our mission “‘to feel and to taste’ the presence and activity of God in all… persons and circumstances…places us Jesuits at the center of a tension pulling us both to God and to the world at the same time.” Thus, “our deep love of God and our passion for his world should set us on fire—a fire that starts other fires!”

undefinedChallenges to Our Mission Today strongly reaffirms with gratitude the graces God has given the Society since the Second Vatican Council; led by the Spirit we are convinced that “the aim of our mission received from Christ…is the service of faith. The integrating principle of our mission is the inseparable link between faith and the promotion of the justice of the Kingdom.” In addition, “Dialogue with people [of] different cultures and religious traditions” has enriched our service. Today, we continue our mission in our global and rapidly changing world by seeking “to establish right relationships with God, with one another, and with creation.”

undefinedObedience in the Life of the Society of Jesus is so solid and thorough that it will become a classic commentary on this vow. It presents a careful study of the development of the decision by Ignatius and his first companions to take the vow, noting that their first promise was to place themselves at the service of the Pope if they could not go to Jerusalem. The decree presents a fine theological understanding of the vow and an astute look at the ways the contemporary worldview both enhances and challenges our living as obedient men, “grounded in the desire to be sent effectively, to serve completely, and to create ever stronger bonds of union among ourselves.”

undefinedGovernance at the Service of Mission is a thoughtful review of the governance structures of the Society: How do they stay focused on the universal mission of the Society and respond to changing demographics, needs, and opportunities? The decree examines the role of General Congregations, our Superior General, the increasing importance of regional conferences, provinces, local superiors, and the directors of Jesuit works, who may or may not be Jesuits.

undefinedCollaboration at the Heart of Mission articulates what many of the delegates felt already when we arrived in Rome: Collaboration is simply a fact of life for the Society around the world. The decree begins with a heartfelt expression of thanks: “We are humbled and grateful that so many…have chosen both to work with us and to share our sense of mission to reach out to the men and women of our broken but lovable world.” These colleagues are people who share our faith, or are from other religious traditions, people from “all nations and cultures,” who bring their generosity, skill, intelligence, and leadership to Jesuit ministry.

Thus, “all Jesuits, as men on mission, must also be men of collaboration,” which requires ongoing formation. Likewise, diverse programs of ongoing formation are necessary for all those who share mission with us, with respect for their “various levels of connection and understanding.” Of great importance is the formation of those non-Jesuit colleagues who serve as directors of a Jesuit work, or in leadership positions. “Many hands are surely needed” as we gratefully accept the grace of “our mutual responsibility for the mission of the Christ.”

The decrees of the 35th General Congregation don’t break any new ground for the Society of Jesus. But neither are they a simple repetition of what has gone before. The election of Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., as our new Superior General and the promulgation of these six decrees are the product of a Society that has weathered the storms that have rocked the Church since the close of Vatican II, and been energized by the presence and the movements of the Holy Spirit in our midst during these years.

These decrees are offered by the Congregation in humble and grateful confidence that God is at work, transforming hearts, our Society, our Church, our world. As Fr. Arrupe loved to say, the response of a Jesuit (and our colleagues and friends) to this movement can only be: Amen! Alleluia!

Michael G. Boughton, S.J., is director of the Center for Ignatian Spirituality at Boston College.