What happens at a General Congregation? A Jesuit explains.

The 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus began in Rome with an opening Mass at the Gesú church on Oct. 2, followed the next day by its first plenary session. In this first working day the delegates accepted the resignation of Father General Adolfo Nicolás. The delegates then began several days of studying the current state of the Society. They worked from a paper prepared beforehand, focusing on issues important to the Society, including how it will fulfill its mission, the Society’s greatest needs and the training of young men to do the work that the church has given them.

Stories and images emerging from the opening days draw my mind back to January 2008, when I was attending the 35th General Congregation.


I recall the deep sense of fellowship in mission that the congregation engendered. This happened through the general sessions in the meeting hall, the “aula” of the congregation and committee meetings in rooms scattered throughout the Jesuit headquarters, also known as the “curia.” It happened too in some large Masses in various churches and in smaller Masses in the curia’s chapel. It happened at an audience with Pope Benedict XVI. And it happened in our crowded coffee break room and in dinners in the communities where we were staying. My life was made simple by being assigned a room in the Canisio community, a writer’s house attached to the general curia, so I didn’t have to travel across the city as many others did. I don’t like to think that my age might have been a factor in the assignment.

On Jan. 7, 2008, we gathered for our opening Mass. Early business beginning the next morning included certifying the membership, setting up schedules and electing officers for the congregation. But in its biggest single event, the congregation also voted to accept the resignation of Father General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. Afterwards the congregation began to ask about the state of the Society in 2008—what it needed in new leadership, what were the pressing issues, what were emerging possibilities. And then, the election of our next superior general began.

Here is where the murmuratio comes in. Stories that explain our Jesuit general congregations and the procedure for electing a new superior general often include this peculiar word murmuratio, usually noting that it is indeed a peculiar term. (Just now my spell check automatically added an “n” at the end of it and still underlined it in red as a word that it just does not like.)

Since the congregation brings together Jesuits from all around the world, they need time to get to know each other and to learn who might emerge as a possible Father General. Speculation began over a year ago as it became known that Fr. General Adolfo Nicolás was hoping to resign and so convoked this congregation. But none of that was official; it was simply, well, speculation.

So for four days the delegates get together, seek out persons who know likely names, ask their questions and fill in gaps in their knowledge. The circumstances are strictly regulated. In large open rooms delegates talk one-on-one. No one is allowed to suggest names or to urge voting in a particular way. Some background files are available.

At General Congregation 35 I found the murmuratio a really good experience. Everyone was serious but very positive and pleasant. We were engaged but not nervous. We all had the same goal, to choose a new leader who would inspire and challenge the Society of Jesus, who knew our traditions and our possibilities, who would lead us in the mission the church has entrusted to us. It is a big job, and this process gave us the confidence that with prayer, knowledge and insight we would make the right choice.

Choosing Our Jesuit Leader

When we gathered again in the aula of the congregation on Jan. 19, we spent significant time in prayer before the voting began. One sensed the seriousness in the room. At a given signal, each delegate wrote the name of his candidate on a ballot, and in order everyone went up and placed the ballot in an urn. These were then counted by the officers of the congregation to make sure the number of ballots matched the number of electors. Then, one-by-one, each ballot was opened, and the names written on each were read aloud. If no one received the necessary 50 percent plus one votes, the process was repeated.

We had a bit of a slip up when the first count of the ballots did not match the voting roster. A recount was needed, then another. When the count turned out right, the aula broke out in applause. This sent the wrong signal to the Jesuits who were assembled in the work room below the aula waiting for the big news; these were the support staff—translators, technical support, information officers—who had to leave the aula during the secret voting. They thought they were about to learn the identity of the new general. No, the ballots had not yet been counted.

When they were counted and no one had received the needed number, a second balloting began. This proved conclusive and we applauded our new leader, Father General Adolfo Nicolás. Immediately, Fr. Federico Lombardi pulled out his cell phone and called Pope Benedict XVI to let him know. The delegates again went up in order to shake hands with our new superior general, and soon the word was made public. This was on Jan. 19, 2008.

The congregation continued with committees and commissions studying issues of universal interest to the Society. This work is more routine, less exciting perhaps than the election of a general, but still it is important for keeping the Society on its mission to serve the people of God. In the end we passed six decrees. The congregation met for the last time on March 6, its work finished.

Word on the strada is that this congregation may well wrap up in less time. A lot more preparatory work has been done that should make this possible. Still, anything can happen. A congregation, the highest authority in the Society of Jesus, takes on a life of its own. It is an amazing experience of the whole Society, of its universal mission. We pray for the success of General Congregation 36.

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