On a quick trip to Rome a few weeks ago, I made it a point to visit the Gesu, the mother church of the Society of Jesus, and to pray for the Jesuits and their general congregation opening January 7. I found much of the church’s magnificent Baroque interior concealed by scaffolding set up for a housecleaning before that crucial event.
The symbolism couldn’t have been more apt. Just as the Gesu, in the historic heart of Rome, needed renovating, so does the Society itself. Rather than operating at the cutting edge of the Church, Jesuits in recent decades have fallen increasingly behind the times and, not unlike the Gesu, now stand in need of some serious renewing.
This is not an anti-Jesuit polemic. I am grateful for the education I received from the Society. Over the years I’ve known many Jesuits, and most have been and still are admirable men, loyal sons of the Church deeply devoted to the service of the people of God. Many have been, and still are, my friends. Yet as 217 Jesuits from around the world convene at the Society’s headquarters near St. Peter’s Square for the 35th general congregation in the order’s history, they face the challenge of not only electing a new General Superior but setting directions for a body in long-running crisis.
Business as usual won’t work. The Jesuits need an overhaul and they need it soon.
Numbers underscore the urgency. Forty years ago there were 35,000 Jesuits in the world. Now there are 19,000. The dropoff has been even steeper in the United States, where the Society counted over 8,000 members in 1965 and now has under 3,000.
…Two years ago Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., General Superior of the Society since 1983, announced that he would retire in 2008 when he turned 80. The delegates to the 35th general congregation have the task of choosing a successor and setting policy for the years ahead. People who care about the Jesuits should wish them much success. That’s what I prayed for at the Gesu when I was there.
The problem with so many religious orders and what is evident with the Jesuits that instead of refocusing on their orders charism and jettisoning what gets in the way of it they also jettisoned essentials. It is like the old comedies taking place on a train where pieces of the train are taken apart to feed the boiler and everything else is thrown over the side to keep it moving. Vatican II’s Perfactae Caritatis called for a "constant return to the sources of all Christian life and to the original spirit of the institutes" not throwing the surrender flag to modernity.
Unfortunately Jesuits being faithful to the Magisterium are the exceptions and not the rule, but I certainly do hope and pray that an election of a new General Superior of the Society can help them return to the Jesuits of old that will take their charism into the modern world in a more faithful way.
The questions is will they elect someone who realizes just how far the Society has fallen or someone that will say the parrot is not dead. The current Jesuit General had this to say in an interview this year.
In recent years, the Society of Jesus has seen a drop in candidates for the novitiate. What are the reasons?
Sometimes we forget that a religious family is, in a happy expression of the Second Vatican Council, a gift of the Spirit to the church. The church cant be the church without clergy and laity, but it can be church without religious life in its present form. The church lived for centuries without the Jesuits! Religious families are born and they disappear, not because they did something wrong, but because the church requires other gifts to meet other needs of the people of God. The simple fact that today a young man who wants to put himself at the service of the church doesnt necessarily have to choose between the seminary and the novitiate, but can also find his mission in one of the new ecclesial movements that are also a gift of the Spirit, changes the whole context of consecrated life.
To quote Monty Python once again "What are you going to do? Bleed all over me." Talk about denial.
Over the years, youve handled delicate relationships between some Jesuit theologians and the Vatican. What are the necessary limits, and whats the space for welcoming a plurality of theological reflection in the Society?
[Theology] unfolds today in a nervous atmosphere of conflicts and polarization, in which everything is immediately classified as either right or left, as conservatism or progressive thought. Even a constructive critique by a theologian, based on deep competence, pastoral concern and discernment born in prayer, runs the risk of being taken up by the mass media in a partial fashion (either unwittingly or deliberately) in order to turn it into front-page news. On the other hand, the church cant renounce its right, and its duty, to protect the faithful against errors or possibly erroneous interpretations of a given theological work, even if its valid in itself. In this context, which at first blush can seem discouraging, its important to be grateful for so many theologians among them, not just a few Jesuits who provide the church the indispensable service of positive, clear and creative theological reflection, which serves the greater good of the whole church in its socio-cultural diversity.
No wonder that out of the really small number of theologians that have been investigated by the CDF, four of them have been Jesuits. You also get the feeling the Jesuit theologian he is praising are not in the mode of Cardinal Dulles, S.J. May the next "Black Pope" have a lot firmer ideas about both the charism of their founder and an understanding of the problems.