Editors note: The Jesuit General Congregation is currently meeting in Rome to elect a new general to succeed Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. S.J. In 1983 historian John W. OMalley, S.J. took a historical look at the congregation that elected Fr. Kolvenbach.
On Sept. 13 the Jesuits elected a new superior general of their order on an almost sensationally rapid first ballot. That election of Peter-Hans Kolvenbach hit the front pages of some newspapers around the world and was at least mentioned in many others. What relatively few people seem to realize, however, is that the Jesuits who elected Father Kolvenbach--well over 200 of them--continued to meet in Rome for another six weeks. That meeting, officially known as the 33rd General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, did not come to an end until Oct. 25. Did anything happen during those six weeks that is worth reporting to the world at large?
There was no reason to presume in advance that there would be. The Jesuits general congregations, like the general chapters of other religious orders, concern themselves with affairs internal to the order. Their decisions and decrees usually make dull reading even for members of the orders themselves. There are exceptions, of course, and the two previous Jesuit congregations issued, in the wake of Vatican II, a series of lengthy documents that were almost paradigmatic for a religious order attempting to revise its ministries and its internal policy after the council. As such, they aroused interest and sometimes stirred controversy both inside and outside of the order.
Will the same be true for the 33rd General Congregation? Probably not. This time the delegates returned home with a single document of some dozen pages, plus a few short decrees on technically juridical matters. The document deals with the basic orientations of the Society in its ministries and with the attitudes, training and religious discipline that are prerequisites for them. It is a thoughtful and sophisticated piece of legislation, but like any committee document, it is not innocent of compromises or of lapses in logic and style. A merely casual reader might find it bland. The conclusion that some will surely draw is that nothing of significance happened at the congregation after the election of the new general.
Quite the contrary, I believe, is true. For the Society of Jesus, the congregation meant, of course, a return to "normal government" after two years of supervision by a special papal delegate. No one can doubt that that return was crucial for the functioning of the order. But the significance of the congregation extends beyond that election to the dynamics of the meeting itself and to the main document that the congregation finally published. In what does that significance consist? It consists, in the first place, in the consolidation of fundamental decisions made by the two previous congregations. I have recently argued at length in the September issue of Theological Studies that in the long history of the church there have been only a few privileged moments when a radical shift in ecclesiastical paradigm has taken place. By paradigm-shift I mean not merely that some important changes were made in law and rite, but that a new frame of reference came into being that had an across-the-board impact.
Any attempt in the past to effect such a paradigm-shift has always resulted in confusion and bitter controversy. The Gregorian Reform of the 11th century is a good example. It led to the death of Pope Gregory VII in desperate exile. Moreover, not every such attempt has succeeded in fixing the shift into place. Only if the shift received firm institutional grounding has it had long-range effects and resulted in a fundamental readjustment of religious consciousness and church order. Otherwise it has simply disappeared and been forgotten, as was true of the conciliarist movement of the 15th century.
Vatican II represented, in my opinion, an attempt at a major paradigm-shift. Hailed as "the end of the Counter-Reformation" and even as "the new Pentecost," it turned the church in a new direction. The question today, however, is whether that shift is sufficiently grounded in institutions to make a reversal of course impossible. The last two Jesuit congregations reflected the paradigm-shift of Vatican II. They ordained a number of changes in the way Jesuits lived their lives on a day-by-day basis and especially how, for whom and in what fashion Jesuits would exercise their ministries. Not everybody understood or accepted what these congregations attempted. A vocal minority in at least some parts of the world actually resisted the changes. It was not therefore altogether clear whether these changes could or should be consolidated. The most important accomplishment of the 33rd Congregation was such a consolidation. In the long, often tedious and repetitious discussions during the congregation, some delegates may have doubted that this would be the result. But whenever any major issue of principle finally came to a vote, the delegates from every part of the world demonstrated by an overwhelming majority, by practically a unanimity, where the Society stood. A profound conviction pervaded the congregation that the course on which the order entered some 20 years ago was indeed the correct one. Such a conviction may not be news, but it is surely significant for the life of the postconciliar church.
The delegates were not blind to the problems, both in the past and for the future, that this course entailed. They expended considerable effort in trying to isolate causes for deficiencies and excesses that may have been occasioned by some of the decisions of previous congregations. The Holy See insisted that this be done, and the delegates were themselves convinced that it was necessary. However, the old Catholic maxim, "Abusus non tollit usum," prevailed. In the document of the congregation, therefore, what is not said is just as important as what is said; there was no turning back from the basic directions of the preceding congregations. The congregation was also shrewd enough to recognize that to consolidate is not the same thing as to freeze. For instance, the 32nd General Congregation, 1974-75, committed the Jesuits to the proposition that the promotion of justice had to be an integral part of all its ministries in the service of faith. The present congregation not only reaffirmed this commitment but now explicitly extended the concern of the Society to related problems like world peace and refugee populations. An attempt was made, in other words, to build a dynamism into even what was basically a work of consolidation. The same would be true about what the congregation said about the education and religious formation of the members of the Society, and about other issues as well. Every effort was made to avoid a codification that would immobilize the Society into a status-quo position.
Another factor made such a codification impossible, and in it lies the second reason for the importance of the congregation. Present at this congregation in relatively large numbers were Jesuits who were representatives of other than Western cultures--from Africa, East Asia and especially India. Eighteen of the 21 delegates from the Indian Assistancy were native Indians. More important still, those 18 delegates were among the most articulate, self-assured and highly respected of the whole congregation.
In the previous congregation eight years ago, one still had the impression that India was a missionary church. In the present congregation it was clear that the church in India, at least as represented in the Society of Jesus, is standing--or running--on its own two feet. All the delegates were aware that almost one-third of the young Jesuits in training around the world are in India. In the next congregation, whenever it is held, the non-Western component will therefore be even stronger.
Inculturation of the church in non-Western cultures was much discussed in the congregation, and it was one of the issues especially commended to it by the Pope himself in his homily to the delegates on Sept. 2. But inculturation was much more than a theoretical issue. The Jesuits from non-Western cultures are asking themselves and others probing questions and are trying to act on the basis of the best answers they come up with. This fact of a church actually inculturating itself was one of the most encouraging signs of the congregation. It was also one of the problems. How does a congregation, which is basically a legislative body, give directives that apply not only to a variety of national differences within the framework of Western Christianity but that must now also make sense in non-Western cultures? The congregation became a kind of laboratory reflecting a major problem of the church at large.
If the main document of the congregation seems to have excessive recourse to general principles and be lacking in the codifications or specific regulations that some would like to have seen articulated, here is another reason for that lack. The delegates realized that specification of principle was for the most part possible only on the local and regional levels, where both national and cultural diversity could be taken into account and respected. But there is another side to the picture. Despite the immense cultural diversity in evidence at the congregation, the delegates grew ever more aware of deep bonds that united them to one another. Fundamental, of course, was their common faith, which found daily expression in their liturgies and in hundreds of other ways. On another level they recognized in each other a shared religious vision deriving from lives formed by the experience of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. In the long six weeks after the election of Father Kolvenbach and under the influence of the heavy procedures of a committee-of-the-whole, the delegates tasted many hours of exasperation and frustration with one another. But the deeper experience was without question that of brothers in the Lord. That experience gave them ground to hope that the efforts of the church to find expression in different cultures would not loosen the ties of parts to the whole.
The genius of Catholicism through the centuries has been that it has known how to be catholic. That is, it has known not only how to tolerate diversity but even to foster it and to channel it into broader institutions. The congregation was in many ways an attempt to participate in that genius in the new multicultural situation in which the church now finds itself. In this perspective (and in retrospect), the election of Father Kolvenbach takes on a new significance, for he spent most of his life as a priest working outside the boundaries of "the Latin West." Taken as a whole, therefore--in its choice of the man to lead the Society and in the central message of its document--the 33rd General Congregation seems to point to the future of the church rather than to its past.