The Discernment Process in the Preparation for GC36

POST BY PNicholson

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Saint Ignatius Loyola didn’t like meetings. More accurately, living in an age of slow and dangerous travel, he felt that frequent international meetings risked disrupting the work that Jesuits would be doing more locally. So rather than having regular general chapters, like the older religious orders, he stipulated that the Society of Jesus would only summon a General Congregation when a General Superior had died, and it was necessary to elect his successor, or “when it is necessary to deal with long-lasting and important matters”. As a result, there have only been 35 such Congregations in the Jesuits’ 476-year history. The 36th is starting this week in Rome.

So what are the “long-lasting and important matters” that will concern the delegates this time, and how have they been decided upon? The first will be the election of a new General, dealt with in Michael Holman’s article. Once that is done, it is impossible to be sure what will be discussed. Ignatius set up the Society as a hierarchy, and at the top of the pyramid is not the person of the Jesuit General, but the General Congregation itself. It alone, once gathered, can determine what matters it should take up, how it should deal with them, and how long its deliberations should last. Just as in the lead-up to the Second Vatican Council, much preparatory work has already been done. But, just as happened at that Council, it is possible that GC36 (as it is known) will decide to address different issues, or move in other directions, attentive to the promptings of the Spirit.

One factor makes this General Congregation unlike any other ever held. It is the first to take place while a Jesuit is Pope. Pope Francis will not be part of the Congregation, but he is likely to meet with and address the delegates, as each of his immediate predecessors has done. Those attending the last Congregation were both inspired and challenged when Pope Benedict chose to remind them of some words of Paul VI: “Wherever in the Church, even in the most difficult and extreme fields, in the crossroads of ideologies, in the front line of social conflict, there has been and there is confrontation between the deepest desires of men and women and the perennial message of the Gospel, there also there have been, and there are, Jesuits”. Francis may well be as inspiring, and as challenging.

Nevertheless, there are a number of key concerns that seem certain to be dealt with. These are matters that have  been discussed widely in the Society since the last General Congregation, held in 2008. The formal process of preparation for this Congregation started with a letter from Fr General Adolfo Nicolás on 8th December 2014 convoking it. In this letter he asked the Province Congregations which would be the following preparatory step to reflect prayerfully on one question: “Meditating on the call of the Eternal King, what do we discern to be the three most important calls that the Lord makes to the whole Society today?” Any Jesuit was able to put forward to these regional gatherings those concerns that his meditation on this question had suggested to him.

Once a General Congregation has been convoked, an international preparatory committee, the Coetus Praevius, is responsible for distilling all the materials generated at local level. In the first half of 2015 this body considered the reports of the eighty-or-so Province Congregations that met in those months. Fr Nicolás then wrote again to the whole Society in October of that year, summarising their work under the theme of “integration”. How might Jesuits better integrate their responses to the world-wide apostolic challenges facing the Church today, challenges like the ecological crisis, the situation of migrants and refugees, and the urgent need to promote reconciliation in situations of conflict? So too, looking to ourselves, how might we integrate the various facets of our own religious life more effectively – our spiritual experience, our community life, and the apostolic service we offer?

The Coetus Praevius has prepared a more detailed document for those who have been elected by the Province Congregations to attend the General Congregation. A new feature of the present General Congregation is that those delegates (or “electors” as they are technically called, since a main aspect of their work will be to elect the new Fr General) met in Conference groupings at the end of 2015 to discuss this document. In Jesuit organisation a “Conference” is a group of geographically-related Provinces that for some purposes work together. The Society has six Conferences, roughly corresponding to continents – the British Province is (pace Brexit!) part of the European Conference. These meetings appointed another international group to draw up a report on “the state of the Society”, which will be used to inform GC36. They also put forward names for two specific Commissions, one considering “the Renewal of Jesuit Life and Mission”, and the other “Renewed Governance for a Renewed Mission”.

The first of these is a familiar topic. Each General Congregation held since the years around Vatican II (and this will be the sixth of them) has asked itself how Jesuits can best react and adapt to a fast-changing world. The second is likely to be a particular concern of the present Congregation. In the governmental structures Jesuits have inherited from Ignatius, there is no level between the General Superior, as the head of the order, and the Provincial Superiors, currently 77 men each responsible for the mission in his own country or local area. Although the Conferences mentioned above have co-ordinating Presidents, these Jesuits have no formal authority to co-opt or appoint, to open one work or close another. They can only seek to persuade, cajole or otherwise hope to bring Provincials around to their way of thinking. Does an adequate response to globalisation mean that new, more streamlined,  instruments of government are needed? Or are the present ones sufficiently flexible to cope? To many, including many Jesuits, such questions will seem dull and technical. Yet the answers given to them could have a great impact on our mission in the decades to come.

These Commissions have been meeting in the first part of 2016. They have drafted documents which have been sent out to those who will be attending GC36 for discussion, and received back comments to be incorporated into further drafts. By the time the 200+ delegates to GC36 gather in Rome this week, a huge amount of prayerful reflection, discussion and discernment will already have taken place. No General Congregation in Jesuit history has had this amount of preparation, which has only been possible with modern communication media. This, though, is only the first chapter of the story. In a few weeks’ time, when the delegates return to their Provinces, the work of implementing the Congregation’s insights will begin. All, as Ignatius insisted, Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam, for the greater glory of God.

Read an article by Michael Holman SJ on the election process for the new superior general

This article first appeared in The Tablet