On the Future of the Jesuits
Interview With Superior General Father Kolvenbach
ROME, AUGUST 4, 2006 (Zenit) - Last February, Father Peter Hans Kolvenbach, father general of the Society of Jesus, convoked a general congregation for January 2008, to elect his successor.
It was an unexpected announcement, as the office is for life, but the superior general has his reasons.
In this interview with us, Father Kolvenbach explains why he called the meeting, and what other important issues the representatives of the world's close to 20,000 Jesuits will also address.
Q: What symptoms prove that the moment has come to call a general congregation?
Father Kolvenbach: St. Ignatius did not favor the idea of general congregations being called at a fixed period. He thought that the preparations necessary to convoke a general congregation and to call a large number of Jesuits worldwide to Rome might affect the apostolic work in which they were engaged.
Therefore, he prescribed that only "for reason of great importance," when the issues were of such magnitude that they went beyond the capacity of the Society's ordinary government to address, should a general congregation be convoked. In fact there have only been 34 general congregations in the 465-year history of the Society.
The Church and present-day society are facing problems that require careful and creative examination.
Globalization, emigration, massive displacements, relativism, secularization and so many others are challenges that to one or another degree affect all countries and impose important changes on our apostolic planning. The general congregation is the instrument available to the Society to find, with God's grace, the way to serve the Church and the world.
To this very important reason is added another of a personal nature: the many years I have had at the head of the government of the Society and the suitability of electing my successor.
St. Ignatius saw valid reasons to prescribe that the office of superior general be for life. And, of course, it cannot be denied that it entails certain advantages.
However, that decision of St. Ignatius was made in the 16th century when life expectancy was much shorter than now. Ignatius died at 65, a rather advanced age for the time, after having been superior general for 15 years. His two immediate successors died respectively at 53 and 62 years of age, after a generalate that in both cases was reduced to seven years.
Compared to them, my period as superior general is already longer than 22 years, and if God so wills, in 2008 I will be about to celebrate 80 years of age and 25 as superior general. These are circumstances which question legitimately the appropriateness of putting an end to such a long period.
Q: There have been ups and downs in the relationship between the Society and the Pope. Why?
Father Kolvenbach: In the framework of a special relationship between the Pope and the Society of Jesus -- desired and professed by both parties -- it is understandable and human that historical circumstances influence the tenor of this relationship.
On the other hand, as Pope Paul VI said so affectionately, in an address in which points of attention were not lacking in regard to certain tendencies he observed in the Society. The Jesuits have always been in the trenches, at the crossroads where problems have been debated that did not always have a clear answer.
It is not strange that, in the service of the Church, some abandoned the security of the trenches to launch themselves defenseless beyond the orthodox demarcations in search of new answers to new problems.
The case of Father Mateo Ricci is enlightening. Profoundly knowledgeable of the Chinese culture and mentality, he made the effort to show that reverence to ancestors was not an idolatrous worship as was said in the West, but a social and family custom which did not contradict the Christian faith or justify the denial of baptism to those who remembered their ancestors in that way.
This position made him the target of criticisms by other religious and, finally, of Rome's condemnation. There is no doubt that this closed the door to many possible converts. Only in the 20th century was Ricci recognized as ahead of his age in the proclamation of the Gospel and as a precursor of inculturation in the missionary endeavor.
Not all the Jesuits who have been called to Rome can attribute to themselves Ricci's preparation and nobility of intentions, but neither have those who have served the Church with faithfulness and dedication been few, who were not recognized until a long time after. Father Teilhard de Chardin is, perhaps, one of the most representative cases.
Q: The spiritual life of Jesuits is, of course, one of your concerns as superior general. Will it be a topic to address ...
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