There are plenty of conspiracy theories about the Jesuits, despite the fact that most Jesuits will tell you that given how complicated it is to get a community to agree on a shopping list, we simply don’t have the spare time to secretly run the world. Nonetheless, largely because of our history of effective international coordination of a far-flung network of Jesuits and institutions, it seems like there’s some deeper secret to our organization, and especially to the superior general (the leader of the Society of Jesus, sometimes called the “black pope” because of his black cassock).
With the 36th General Congregation, begun this week, we Jesuits have just started a process to elect a new superior general, and that process does have a lesser-known feature that helps explain much of the effectiveness of Jesuit governance: four days of private one-on-one conversations called the murmuratio. With a name like that, it’s begging to be associated with rumors and intrigue. The first time I read about it, I imagined smoke filled rooms and people in black cassocks slinking through the catacombs under the Vatican City. But the murmuratio is actually designed to help Jesuit governance avoid the conspiracy and power-brokering that so often affect elections and transitions in leadership.
Acutely aware of the scandals and problems created by the campaigning and politicking that plagued the church of the 16th century, St Ignatius was adamant that members of the Society of Jesus should not ambition for offices. The basic logic was and is that anyone who wants the job very badly probably shouldn’t get it. That doesn’t mean we want someone who is incompetent; far from it. We want the very best man for the job. But what we need is someone who is fundamentally free.
Freedom in the sense we use it here is not freedom to do what you want when you want. It’s quite distinct from the exercise of power. Freedom in this sense means being detached enough, even from our own well-reasoned plans, insights and ambitions, to listen to the world and what God is doing in the world and then respond accordingly. And that kind of freedom starts from fundamental transparency and honesty and from a willingness to acknowledge exactly those attachments and failings that make us unfree.
We rarely see that kind of honesty in public elections or campaigns for political office, because we generally don't reward officials who admit faults and failings, but instead drive them out of office and public life. The competitive nature of political elections leads to using any failing as a way to score a point against the opponent, and as a result candidates tie themselves in knots hoping to broadcast a consistently perfect image. It must be exhausting. Even worse, it’s self-defeating We are witnessing the crisis of an electorate that wonders if the whole system is built on lies.
In contrast to political elections built on the logic of competition, the election of a Jesuit superior general is based on a spiritual reality. It’s based on the recognition that we are radically dependent on God, and this alters the entire tenor of the election.
That's why this election is different. The “candidates” aren’t interested in preparing a perfect campaign pitch or assembling a winning platform; they aren’t even candidates. Anyone who wants the job, as pointed out above, is effectively disqualified in advance. In this election, we are called to prefer God’s plans to ours.
From that vantage point, Jesuit elections have nothing to do with proving an individual case. We don't “run for an office,” because there’s nowhere to run until we’ve discovered what course God has laid out before us. All the delegates who have gathered in Rome spend four days having those one-on-one conversations in an atmosphere of penitent prayer. They reflect on the needs of the Church and the Society of Jesus and then ask how the challenges and successes they have witnessed around the world speak about God’s action and movements. When they consider who to elect, they ask how that man’s strengths and weaknesses meet the needs they’ve discerned.
The election of the superior general is a response to God already at work and to discernment in prayer and conversation. Campaigning or running for office makes no sense in this system. There is nothing to present or polish. No candidate “wins” this election; instead the new general is called into service.
The reason the delegates spend four days “murmuring” together isn’t to build up their own plans for who to elect. The murmuratio is more about listening than it is about talking. It’s to make sure that they’re paying enough attention to God’s plan that they, along with the new general and the entire Society of Jesus, can follow it through.