This Jesuit leadership program is answering Pope Francis’ call for a ‘missionary church’

Pope Francis leads his general audience in the library of the Apostolic Palace at the Vatican Nov. 18, 2020. (CNS photo/Vatican Media)

In the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, something new is underway in Rome, with the help of the Society of Jesus, and it is the Program for Discerning Leadership. It aims to build the capacity of senior church leaders, including officials of the Roman Curia, general superiors of religious orders, bishops and lay leaders, first in Rome and then worldwide, through discernment, reform and renewal. The program has the ultimate goal of bringing about the transformation of the Catholic Church into “a missionary church.”

It is a response to Pope Francis’s call, issued November 2013 in “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium, n.27), for “a missionary impulse capable of transforming everything, so that the church’s customs, ways of doing things, times and schedules, language and structures can be suitably channeled for the evangelization of today’s world rather than for her self-preservation.”

To provide this “missionary impulse,” Francis asked the Society of Jesus to share “the gift of discernment” with the wider church. His request inspired the founding of this program which was designed by the American Jesuit, David McCallum, S.J., vice president for Mission Integration and Development at Le Moyne College, and the Irish-born Father John Dardis, General Counsellor to the Father General for Discernment and Apostolic Planning, together with the Venezuelan-born Father General of the Society, Arturo Sosa.

“The church is in the middle of a seismic change as it moves to a more synodal and discerning approach under the leadership of Pope Francis.”

Father McCallum, the executive director of the program, explained the initiative to America while the program’s second session, the one for English speakers, was underway virtually in Rome in October 2020, due to Covid-19 restrictions. The first session was held in September for Spanish speakers, while the pilot program took place a year ago.

Father McCallum told America, “The church is in the middle of a seismic change as it moves to a more synodal and discerning approach under the leadership of Pope Francis.” He noted that the pope has convened a synod of bishops for October 2022 on the theme “For a synodal church: communion, participation, and mission.”

He recalled that “Pope Francis has asked the Society of Jesus to make discernment its gift to the wider church, also in the interest of his building on the Second Vatican Council’s focus on episcopal collegiality” and he emphasized that “the key here is synodality, the wider context of that spirit of collaboration, which requires a particular kind of leadership.” According to Father McCallum, Francis “has called for the conversion of heart and mind necessary to that kind of leadership, and believes the structures, policies and procedures would follow from that conversion. We’re working on the praxis of that process at the individual and the organizational levels.”

He said, “Father General and the Society of Jesus launched this program as an initiative of service to the church, in partnership with the International Union of Superiors General of female religious orders (UISG), the International Association of Superiors General of male religious orders (USG) and several Jesuit universities from around the world, including Le Moyne College, which is my host institution, the international association of Jesuit Universities, the Gregorian University in Rome, Georgetown University and E.S.A.D.E., the Jesuit Business School in Barcelona.”

Father McCallum said that “Francis has described how synodality is a way of proceeding that is very different from the bureaucratic, autocratic and top-down procedure which is evident in the way the church operates, at least in Rome. Synodality requires inclusivity, participation, making sure that everyone’s voice is not just listened to but heard. And the decisions that follow from that interaction of encounter and dialogue reflect a discerning approach to what God is bringing into the present from the future. This is a radically different way of proceeding.”

He drew attention to the fact that “under the intense pressures that come with leading complex church organizations, we’ve often defaulted to corporate approaches to decision making. Discernment was something you did on retreat, or when you hit a crisis and there was no other option.” But, he said, “in reality, these approaches don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In this program, we help seasoned leaders discover how they can integrate this deep tradition of discernment with some of the most effective contemporary practices of good management.”

“That mission is ultimately to contribute to the social reconciliation and progress of peoples, especially the marginalized, and to the healing of the earth.”

Father McCallum recalled that “Vatican II talks of ‘the Church in the modern world’,” and said, “we believe that the times we’re living in require more integration of an authentic, mission-driven spirituality in the way we live and lead. That mission is ultimately to contribute to the social reconciliation and progress of peoples, especially the marginalized, and to the healing of the earth. These are the missionary priorities of the Church. Pope Francis has set forth an example in his own leadership.”

He emphasized that “this discerning leadership program is built on Jesus’ teaching that the good servant draws forth from his storehouse the best of the old and the best of the new. And so, we’re working to help senior leaders understand that they’re not simply managing a church that, as Pope Francis has described, is quickly becoming like a museum piece, but rather they are co-creating with God a future church.”

36 persons participated in the October symposium in Rome, he said, including “officials from Secretariat of State, Dicastery for Laity, Family and Life, Dicastery for Communication, Dicastery for the Economy, as well as major superiors of men and women’s religious orders and senior lay people in the Vatican.” The program also involves theologians, and Professor Massimo Faggioli of Villanova University gave an input on the historical reality of synodality in this session, and Sister Nathalie Becquart, consultor to the synod of bishops, spoke on how synodality worked in the Synod on Youth.

Father McCallum hopes that “eventually participants will also come from the lay movements”, and “as the program expands to places like India, Asia-Pacific and other regions, it will include members from bishops’ conferences, and lay people who are chancellors or hold other positions of responsibility in dioceses.” The program is scheduled to be held in Bangalore, India, in spring 2021, and at the Ateneo di Manila, the Philippines, by the end of 2021.

He emphasized that “this is a formation program.” Although “it was formerly billed as the merger of spirituality and MBA programs,” he said, “it’s more of a senior leadership formation opportunity that dives deep into the conversion of the self and the growth and maturation of the self for discerning leadership.”

“If bit by bit we are opening ourselves up to this common humanity, this requires both vulnerability and courage in big doses, and that is what we are trying to foster in this course: courage and vulnerability.”

He recalled that while “the discerning leadership program has begun, in Spanish and in English, with a Rome focus on those who are headquartered here,” the aim is to extend it across the globe following invitations from Cardinal Marc Ouellet, prefect of the Congregation for Bishops, and Cardinal Luis Antonio Tagle, prefect of the Congregation for the Evangelization of Peoples. This means “we have to consider how we move from Rome to really grasp the multipolar reality of the global church, and to bring this program to bishops as well as to senior lay leaders and religious men and women in the different countries.” He revealed that “the plan is that over the next five to seven years, we actually work on building a social movement within the church to empower this kind of leadership and give it capacity and competence.”

There are three modules in the program, Father McCallum stated. The first “is focused on personal discernment.” The second “is how we take discernment into the common space so our corporate procedures are actually infused and integrated with our spirituality in a way that is not simply tacked on in an arbitrary manner, but it’s the heart of what we’re about.” The third model, which begins next year “is for senior teams in organizations, dicasteries, religious orders, to come together with challenges they are facing, with the desire for team building which we recognize is essential for synodality.”

He emphasized that “synodality requires that there’s a culture of trust, without which discernment in common isn’t possible.” The challenge is in how “teams foster this interdependence, but also this culture of trust.” He explained “these are skills to be cultivated, they’re an art” and so the goal is “through these three modules, through the accompaniment, through the common programs and then the consultation at the organizational level, we bring in people who are subject matter experts in Georgetown and E.S.A.D.E., but we also have our in-house expertise.”

Moreover, he said, “in addition to the in-person courses, or the online courses in English and in Spanish, we are forming a global network of Ignatian coaches who are capable of executive leadership development and bringing that together as a resource for people.” Moreover, “We will be launching regular webinars featuring subject matter experts who can keep this growing community of people in contact with each other and building skills, responsive to their needs.”

Father McCallum asserted that “one of the things that’s most deeply innovative about this program is the seamless integration between Ignatian spirituality, the practice of discernment and leadership. It’s debunking many of the assumptions that so many of us carry into this course about what leadership or management is.” He said the task here is “how do we disentangle [our assumptions] from a worldly model, which is often about how do I get more for myself or for my own narrow stake-holder group” and instead opt into what Francis is doing in his encyclicals, which is “moving us to a more universal vision of how our leadership and our organizational input or output as church should be effectively universal with a missionary sensibility.”

He said Pope Francis is calling us “to be a missionary church that has doors and windows open to the world, open to a partnership in the world, open to those of good will who want to be partners in an ethical transformation of the world, so that we come to see each other again as brothers and sisters, as he advocates so powerfully in his encyclical ‘Fratelli Tutti’.” Father McCallum concluded, “If bit by bit we are opening ourselves up to this common humanity, this requires both vulnerability and courage in big doses, and that is what we are trying to foster in this course: courage and vulnerability.”

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