These are tough but inviting times for Jesuits

By  Michael Higgins
  • January 17, 2008

{mosimage}This is a momentous time for the Society of Jesus. The Jesuits are currently holding their 35th General Congregation in Rome, a gathering of 219 electors from around the world who will be considering such matters as promotion of justice, ecology, governance, Jesuit-lay collaboration, interreligious dialogue, etc., as well as electing their new general. As the respected historian and director of the Institute of Jesuit Sources, John Padberg, says in his "Preludes to General Congregation 35":

“A general congregation is an extraordinary experience of the Society of Jesus, its union, the diversity of its membership and personalities, the variety of its activities and emphases, joined with the extraordinary experience of its universality. A congregation brings out our basic unity of minds and hearts, our love for the Society, and a faith in Jesus and in the church that is both deep and realistic as was that of Ignatius.”

In the year 2040 the Society of Jesus will celebrate its 500th anniversary. It if makes it. The Society has, of course, survived persecution at the hands of enemy and friend alike, withstood the assaults of violent change in government and society, faced down oppressor and foe, and known the cost of suppression and the price of restoration.

But the world and the church have altered so profoundly in the last 40 years that all the reserves of the order will need to be called to attention if there is to be a future. The ranks of the Society have been significantly reduced — from some 36,000 in 1968 to 23,000 in 1995 and to 19,000 in 2007 — and the numbers could fall more drastically still. In a bulletin issued by the Jesuit Curia in April 1994 stark reckoning was the order of the day.

“If we assume that the current intake of 600 novices a year will remain stable, that the number who leave will continue to be 1.75 per cent each year, and that the number of deaths will gradually increase from 2.1 per cent to 2.3 per cent, a mathematical computation shows that the Society will not reverse its downward trend until it has been reduced to 14,814 members, which will occur approximately the year 2040. This is not a prediction of what will certainly happen, but a projection. If the trend is to be reversed more quickly, then either the number of vocations must increase, or the percentage of those leaving must decrease.”

It is a time of crisis for the Society of Jesus, itself a microcosm of the turbulence afflicting the universal church. The loss in clerical numbers, the empowerment of the laity, the emergence of an articulated and restive body of Catholic theologians, the postmodern critique of authority, the intense struggles between the local and central powers of religious leadership — these and many other contemporary issues cut to the heart of Jesuit conflict. In addition, liberationist theological and pastoral strategies have called into question the long tradition of Jesuit commitment to structure, system and sodality. The contemporary Jesuit is more inclined to rugged independence, grassroots networking, and conscientizing than to the maintenance of dying institutional enterprises.

But the future is not bleak; it is inviting. The Jesuits after all have known darker times. They have felt the threat of extinction and tasted the joy of resurrection. They have yet to be cut to the quick.

They survive because they do not conform to that homogeneous block of rigid soldierly virtue that history and polemics have made them. Douglas Letson and I discovered while writing The Jesuit Mystique the rather simple fact that Jesuits are utterly diverse in their talents, various in their undertakings, increasingly eclectic in their training, but nourished all at the same source: the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius Loyola. The spirituality of the  Exercises and the persistent appeal of the order’s founder define the Jesuit essence. All else is moot and malleable.

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