This morning Jesuits around the world woke up to find a letter from Fr. General Adolfo Nicolás, SJ in their inboxes. Nicolás is the Superior General of the Society of Jesus and he has announced that at end of this year he will convoke General Congregation 36 which will be held in 2016. These meetings are huge deals, we’ve only had 35 in the over 450 year history of the Society of Jesus, excluding of course the years where the Society of Jesus was “frozen in carbonite” (the role of Darth Vader being played by Clement XIV).1
As Fr. General noted, he is currently 78 years old and he intends to retire. This is a new and interesting trend in the Church. The superior general holds office for life, and up until the 20th century, they died in office.2 That expectation began to shift with Fr. Pedro Arrupe, SJ, who resigned after a stroke. Fr. Nicolás’ predecessor Peter Hans Kolvenbach, SJ retired in 2008 after receiving permission from Pope Benedict XVI. He was the first general to retire in otherwise good health. I remember being surprised that Benedict allowed that to happen, but in hindsight, it’s no surprise Benedict allowed the change, given he did the same thing a few years later.
As you can see from the recent trend that whole idea of serving as the head of a massive international organization until you died or were otherwise incapacitated worked a whole lot better when most people didn’t live well into their 80s and 90s. I blame antibiotics, but opinions differ.
The run-up to GC36 will involve a lot of consultation as well as everyone’s favorite thing: MEETINGS… lots and lots of meetings.
Joking aside, it will be an exciting time for Jesuits and their colleagues across the globe to engage in some very important and serious discernment about how the Society of Jesus can best serve the needs of the Church and the world. While there will be a lot of focus on the question of who will be elected to succeed Nicolás, the General Congregation is actually not an exercise in internal politics (a fact that even surprises us sometimes) — and nobody is crazy enough to want to be a “candidate.” So instead of speculating on who the next general will be, the real question for us is: where is the Spirit leading us? And how will we respond?
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- The suppression of the Society of Jesus is actually a very complicated subject, and Clement XIV was actually not a villain, of course: the whole story involves accusations of regicide, expulsions of the Society from one country after another, political pressure on the Pope, large swathes of land in South America, and much more. Though as far as I know, it doesn’t actually involve any Jesuits going over waterfalls tied to crosses, even though it makes a wonderful movie poster. ↩
- Attention know-it-all Jesuits and know-it-all Jesuit fans, we know that history is complicated so please spare us the minutia of arguing whether Fr. Lorenzo Ricci, SJ died in office, or whether since the Society was suppressed at the time of his death he was no longer general. That is all. ↩