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The Jesuits’ next chapter

Pope Francis with outgoing superior general Fr Adolfo Nicolás (AP Photo/Riccardo De Luca)

A general congregation meeting of the Jesuits is always a major event. But this year’s, the 36th in history, is unique in a number of respects. It is the first time that a general congregation will occur “under and with” a Jesuit pope. It may also be the most ethnically, racially and linguistically diverse congregation yet: the Society of Jesus at present numbers more than 16,000, with membership rapidly increasing in areas such as Vietnam, Africa and India, and decreasing in the Americas and Europe.

Those 16,000 members will soon have a new leader. Along with discussing other questions, GC36 (as it’s been dubbed) will elect a successor to superior general Fr Adolfo Nicolás. He decided to step down in 2014, feeling that a younger person could better serve God’s people. A few months after Pope Francis granted his request, Nicolás sent a letter to the universal Society announcing the convocation of GC36. That letter opened a period of discernment.

For me, as a young Jesuit, the discernment process is especially interesting. I underwent my own discernment in the spring of 2013 while studying at the University of Oxford. Like St Ignatius, I was left deeply unsatisfied by the “vanities of the world” and I was searching for something more, for God’s very self. A Jesuit priest, Fr Simon Bishop, helped me name the Holy Spirit’s movements in my heart. Within a year and a half, I entered the Jesuit novitiate.

This sort of discernment is really what the general congregation is all about. There are several options in front of us: which is God’s will? Generally, we do this discernment in community, as did the founding fathers of the Society of Jesus. What is the “vocation” of this religious order at this time? What are the tasks at hand?

Fundamentally, this meeting has two intertwined tasks: to elect a new superior general, and to reflect on the Society’s mission. Assuming that the delegates confirm Fr Nicolás’s decision to step down, the group will proceed to elect the next superior general. Fr Brian Paulson, Jesuit provincial of Chicago-Detroit, says: “I imagine that we will look for a virtuous, holy man who has a proven track record as an excellent leader, with significant international/intercultural experience, demonstrated administrative abilities, someone in excellent health, with very good language abilities, lots of patience and a great sense of humour.”

The new leader will, together with his advisers and the rest of the Society, have to address a number of challenges and opportunities that face the Jesuits and the world today. Fr Nicolás has already encouraged members of the Society to reflect on the “most important calls that the Lord makes to the whole Society today”. The results of that reflection, gathered by Jesuit provinces, have formed the agenda of GC36.

One challenge on many Jesuit minds is the situation of refugees. The Jesuit Refugee Service, founded in 1980, has expanded operations into 50 countries. Its work involves accompaniment of, service to and advocacy for some of the more than 60 million refugees on the planet. A current project called “Lampedusa” consists of a series of concerts raising awareness and resources for refugees. Several Grammy-award winning artists, such as alt-country stars Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle, are participating.

It will be interesting to see how this congregation and this superior general seek to express their solidarity with the poor, and offer concrete solutions both to the immediate and long-term needs of migrants.

Another challenge will be the future of Jesuit education. The Society’s schools and colleges seek to educate their students in accord with a characteristically Jesuit perspective, which views the promotion of justice as an integral part of the Catholic faith. Jesuit educational institutions aim to form a new generation of faithful “women and men for and with others”.

The next superior general will implement, in union with the Jesuit conferences and provinces, the plans of recent general congregations to add depth and breadth to Jesuit primary, secondary, and tertiary education. In North America alone there are now more than 60 high schools with the Jesuit name. Even as the number of Jesuits is decreasing in the US, the Society continues to open new institutions thanks to fruitful collaboration with lay colleagues. Expanding this collaboration is an extraordinary opportunity.

But refugees and education are only two of the many subjects which may turn up in conversation. The resulting decrees will be online at

In the second edition of the Formula of the Institute, approved by Pope Julius III in 1550, the Society’s founding fathers declared that a Jesuit “should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged … and to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.”

This fundamental orientation to the outcast for the greater glory of God characterises Jesuit life and ministry. Whatever the outcome of GC36, Jesuits will continue to go where others will not, and, in going there, find our Lord.

This article first appeared in the September 30 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.