What will the Jesuits do next?

The Society of Jesus can ill afford to implement yesterday’s solutions to the challenges of the future
What will the Jesuits do next?

Father George Pattery, SJ, Provincial of South Asia and President of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia (Photo courtesy jcsaweb.org) 

Father George Pattery SJ, New Delhi
September 28, 2016
The Society of Jesus consists of 16,376 priests and brothers worldwide committed to the integral development of all peoples. Central to their means is the struggle for justice, that is, a right relationship with God, other human beings and the cosmos. On Oct. 1, a group of about 220 elected members will meet in Rome to take stock of the life and mission of the entire organization.

In its 476-year history, the Society of Jesus has had only 35 such General Congregations, mostly convened to elect a new leader on the death of the previous incumbent. The forthcoming one will accept the resignation of the present Superior-General Father Adolfo Nicolas after nine years in office, elect a new one, and provide a road map to the organization for implementation in the immediate future.

Thereafter the work of the congregation will continue to deliberate upon the state of the world and the works undertaken by the Jesuits, to see how it can improve upon the quality of its service to the church and the world. The presence of Pope Francis, himself a Jesuit, will add special significance to this General Congregation.

No organization can survive if it does not keep adapting its goals, structures and strategies to present needs. Given the fast pace at which the world is changing, Jesuits can ill afford to implement yesterday’s solutions to the challenges of the future.

To take just one example, digital technology has revolutionized not just the way we communicate with each other, but also the way we behave, think, feel and act. Though evaluation and discernment is built into the very structure of the way the Society of Jesus functions, there are moments when a corporate discernment, leading to a fresh mandate for mission, is called for. In this light the meeting will focus on revitalizing the life and mission of the Jesuit body, in keeping with the world as we know it today.

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Going by the discussions held so far, there are some things we can expect the congregation to make its mind clear on. Two major areas come to mind.

First, the internal life of the organization, where it will have something to say about how to renew the lives of individual Jesuits and the communities they live in. It will call for a more thorough assimilation of the inspiration of its founder St. Ignatius of Loyola. Are the founder’s values still relevant?

It will also call for structures of governance that are prompt to respond as a corporate body to exigencies that crop up on a routine basis, as well as those that are emergency situations like the April 25, 2015 earthquake in Nepal.


Modern times for the Society of Jesus

Changing demographic trends have left their mark on the Society of Jesus, and unlike earlier times, the largest number of Jesuits today is to be found in South Asia — India, Sri Lanka and Nepal — with the United States coming second.

This also means that South Asia’s urgent issues will take priority in the thinking of Jesuits worldwide. These are inter-faith harmony, climate change, and social justice.

For taking a stand in favor of the poor, Jesuits around the world have been persecuted and killed. Jesuits in South Asia too have paid the price for their courage — Father Tom Gaffney in Kathmandu and Father A. T. Thomas in Hazaribagh, both of whom were murdered in 1997; and Father Alex Prem Kumar, kidnapped for his work with  refugees but later released unharmed by the Taliban in Afghanistan in 2014.

Another important area is that of the formation or training of younger Jesuits to keep pace with the changing contours of mission across the world. The challenges of the 21st century are digitalization, globalization, consumerism, growing nationalism, fundamentalism, compromises made on value-based choices, a genuine concern for the poor and marginalized.

A ‘new formation’ will invite trainees to expose themselves to these challenges, cultivate a critical, analytic mind and prepare them to commit themselves to working alongside mixed teams of people: religious and non-religious, men and women, believers and non-believers.


Meeting new challenges

Yet another area in which the General Congregation could show the way is by pointing out the challenges coming from outside the Society and how they are to be met.

It will surely have something to say about how we must be more ecologically pro-active, to save and protect our common home — Mother Earth. How we need to adopt ways of living, and insist on the need to go beyond mere rhetoric and get down to action on behalf of the environment.

Another major issue is that of the exponential increase of migrants and refugees across the world in the last decade, with every war and area of strife.

It will reemphasize the need for collaboration, with those who are partners with the Jesuits in mission, and not just paid colleagues. It will at the same time indicate the need to extend collaboration within the Society itself through inter-provincial and inter-conference common ventures. Thus newer frontiers will be opened, and the universal dimension of the Jesuit vocation taken more seriously.

There is a demographic shift taking place within the universal Society, wherein a majority of the Jesuits now live and work in the continents of Asia, Africa and Latin America. This will surely call for a different approach to formation and the way it addresses the challenges of mission.

It will undoubtedly point to the need to refocus on the option for the poor. In the context of South Asia these consist of the Dalits, indigenous people, the unorganized sector, women and children, migrants and refugees. All of them are easy victims of unscrupulous elements and exploitation in society, whether from individuals, groups or systems.

The congregation will also draw our attention to the growing threat of religious and political acts of terror being perpetrated in our world, causing untold suffering, insecurity and leading to mistrust among peoples. There will have to be a renewed effort at dialogue with all religions to get them to desist from using religion as a means of division; and work towards building a world safe for all peoples, based on justice, love, mercy and amity, for all.

The congregation will complete its work in a matter of six to eight weeks. It will not define everything in solid stone, but will provide pointers and guidelines to possible solutions. On returning from Rome, the delegates will have to initiate a process of reflection on its decrees; elicit the support of the Jesuits in the provinces, and translate the guidelines into concrete plans of action for the next few years.            

Father George Pattery, SJ, is Provincial of South Asia and President of the Jesuit Conference of South Asia, comprising of India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Pakistan, Afghanistan. He is based in New Delhi.



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