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On the Future of the Jesuits

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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 at the general congregation and, if so, in what terms?

Father Kolvenbach: On examining the state of the Society at the meeting of all the major superiors, which we had in Loyola in December 2005, we came to the conclusion that the spiritual health of Jesuits was good. The instrument to measure Jesuits' spiritual health has always been and continues to be, unconditional consecration to the mission.

Today as yesterday it is profound personal identification with the Lord, the one sent by the Father, which characterizes and defines the way to proceed in the Society. However, it will in any case be a topic that the general congregation will address because it is proper to the Jesuits not to be satisfied with what they have achieved.

We must serve the Lord in a society in which trivial thought reigns supreme and tends to undermine a profound love of Jesus Christ and an unconditional commitment to the mission. That is why it is a topic of constant timeliness which undoubtedly the general congregation will want to put on the table, though it is still too early to venture into speculation on the congregation's agenda.

Q: There are many institutions of the world, especially universities in the United States, called Jesuit, but in which the presence of Jesuits is very reduced. Have you thought of some solution?

Father Kolvenbach: This situation has not arisen now. We have already addressed it before and we agreed to accept that this situation of a reduced presence of Jesuits has led us to discover new avenues: the incorporation of lay men and women in our works in consonance with the splendid rise of the apostolic awareness of the people of God, a "sign of authentic hope" as Benedict XVI called it recently.

We believe the desire of the laity to take an active part in the mission of the Church to proclaim the kingdom is a grace of our time, inspired by the Spirit. The last general congregation exhorted Jesuits to be "men for others and men with others."

It is true that the decline of vocations to religious life -- and also to the Society -- has been a stimulus to bring about that cooperation with the laity which the general congregation of 1965 had already urged. But it is not about alleviating a shortage, but about opening ourselves to a latent apostolic reality in the Church.

The "solution" which you refer to is to cooperate in our works with lay men and women who act under Ignatian inspiration. In fact, there is already a number of Jesuit institutions in which positions of responsibility are entrusted to lay men and women. The number of Jesuits physically present in these institutions is not decisive if we have men and women imbued with the Ignatian spirit to serve the Church.

Q: Will some juridical formula be studied, during the next congregation, to integrate lay men and women in the Society of Jesus?

Father Kolvenbach: The last general congregation gave it a green light so that for a decade, on an experimental basis, the provinces were able to establish groups of men and women associates united with a contractual agreement without that implying integration in the body of the Society.

In this way their lay vocation is safeguarded even when they take part in the Jesuits' apostolic work. The experience of these last years will be subjected, without a doubt, to discernment by the general congregation.

Q: The Xaverian and Ignatian Year is being celebrated. What do you expect from these celebrations?

Father Kolvenbach: The obvious desire is that on remembering the three first companions -- the memory of Blessed Peter Faber, next to Ignatius and Xavier, must not be forgotten -- the Jesuits will revive in their lives and in their apostolate the three charisms that they embodied: to encounter God and unite oneself to him through the work to lead everything to its fulfillment, as Ignatius did; to proclaim passionately the Gospel as Xavier; and to deepen one's spiritual life as Faber.

Q: The preferential option for the poor, social justice, interreligious dialogue, refugees, the realm of culture and education, are only some of the Society's priorities. Is there a new field in which the Jesuits want to be involved?

Father Kolvenbach: The Pope reminded us recently -- on April 22 on the occasion of the commemoration of the 2006 Jubilee of the Jesuits -- what the Church expects from the Society with special emphasis on the field of philosophy and theology traditionally cultivated by the Jesuits.

As geographic preferences we feel called to contribute in a special way to the evangelization of Africa and China. But it will be material for reflection on the part of the future general congregation to discern if some of the situations of today's world, such as globalization, the cultural dialogue or relativism, for example, require an adjustment of our apostolic commitment.


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