Under the friendly eye of
Benedict XVI the Society of Jesus can break with past controversies and launch a new era of missionary endeavour, says Simon Caldwell The head of the Jesuits, Fr PeterHans Kolvenbach, was strolling in the Vatican gardens when he spotted Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger beckoning to him. He hurried over only to be introduced to a clutter of feral cats fussing affectionately around the feet of the then prefect of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. "You see, Father General, this is the audience that listens to me:' joked Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Pope Benedict XVI.
This anecdote, circulating among Jesuits in Rome for years, shows a goodhumoured relationship between the "white pope", who leads a billion Catholics, and the so-called "black pope", the name informally given to the leader of the Society of Jesus, not only on account of the colour of his attire but also because the Jesuits, with 19, 200 members, are and have been for centuries the largest and most influential of all the orders of the Church.
Earlier this month, a "black conclave", part of the 35th General Congregation, opened in Rome primarily to elect a successor to Fr Kolvenbach. who at 79 has been allowed by the Pope to resign on grounds of age.
Such a retirement is unprecedented in the 473year history of the order because black popes, like white popes, are expected to serve until they die. Pope John Paul II refused a similar request made in 1980 by Fr Pedro Arrupe "for the good of the order and the good of the Church"; he did step down a year later, but only after a severely debilitating stroke.
Whoever is elected will have to confront a series of challenges faced by the Society in the 21st century. They include the decline of vocations in the West. Militant Islam, globalisation, and climate change mean the new Father General will be expected to spearhead the Society's efforts in the fields of inter-religious dialogue, justice for the poor, and environmentalism. He will consider missions to countries such as China, which the Jesuits left in 1949, and how to take Christianity to new non-geographical frontiers of faith and science and faith and culture.
There is no obvious crown prince but there are strong candidates from every corner of the globe. For the first time there is also a possibility of a Jesuit leader emerging from South Asia, now that the region produces more Jesuit priests than any other part of the world (20 per cent of the total compared to 15 per cent in north America, the former largest sector).
Among the favourites are Fr Jose Morales Orozco, the rector of the Iberoamericana University in Mexico City; Fr Mark Raper, the Australian provincial and former head of the Jesuit Refugee Service; Fr Orland Torres, a former Puerto Rican provincial now with the Society's curia in Rome; and Italian Fr Franco lmoda, a former rector of the Gregorian University and a psychologist highly regarded by the Vatican.
The 217 electors will choose their new leader as early as tomorrow, in accordance with their constitutions. However, Pope Benedict has made two specific requests of the General Congregation.
One was that the Jesuits heeded his reforms of the liturgy and the second was that they clarified definitively what was understood by the fourth vow of loyalty. The latter appears on the agenda of key items to be discussed under the title "apostolic obedience". It is an issue of vital importance because if it is resolved successfully it will mark the end of a particularly painful period for the Jesuits. It represents the best opportunity in decades to restore the Society to the purpose for which it was founded.
That it exists at all is largely thanks to Fr Kolvenbach and his work in establishing dialogue between the Vatican and Jesuits in the field. Now, at the end of his 24 years of office, relations between Rome and the Society are the best they have been for years.
Many Jesuits now see Benedict XVI as the friendliest pope since the wartime Pius Xll. An academic, the Pope is a huge admirer of the order's major educational institutions in Rome — the Pontifical Gregorian University and the Biblical Institute — and his confidence in the Society has been reflected in Jesuit appointments to the Vatican that include his spokesman, Fr Federico Lombardi, who in 2006 replaced the retiring Dr Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a member of Opus Dei.
But when the Dutch-born Fr Kolvenbach succeeded Fr Arrupe in 1983 things were very different. In the period of turbulence that followed the Second Vatican Council the order's popular image changed from being strongly identified with a radical and courageous fidelity to the pope to being, in the minds of some Catholics, synonymous with disobedience and controversy. The source of such discord was confusion over what was understood by the unique fourth vow of loyalty to the Pope. Dating from the foundation of the Jesuits in mid-16th century, this had allowed pontiffs to ensure that what was effectively an elite force of intellectual missionary priests always at the service of the universal Church.
But in the 1960s disputes arose over whether the vow referred to the Jesuits agreeing to go on missions wherever the Pope sent them, however dangerous, or if, as it had been understood for generations, the vow meant they had to embody and preach all that the popes taught.
Within a decade there seemed barely a nation untouched by the crisis. In South America Jesuit priests aligned themselves with revolutionaries, with Nicaraguan Fr Fernando Cardenal taking up office in a self-proclaimed Marxist-Leninist regime, for instance, while in the United States, Fr Robert Drinan was elected to Congress where he voted consistently for abortion. In Witness to Hope, George Weigel said that by the time Pope John Paul II was elected "leading Jesuit intellectuals had become accustomed to publicly challenging the teaching of the Church or the wisdom of its official teachers".
pope Paul VI was disturbed by this trend from the outset and he urged the Society to hold true to the ideals of St Ignatius of Loyola. Paul's successor, Pope John Paul I, died a day before he was to give an address the Jesuits telling them that although they were called to be "defenders of the faith" they were in fact "failing in teaching the sound and solid doctrine" that had won them the confi
dence of the Church in the past. Pope John Paul 11 was similarly unimpressed and in 1981 he suspended the order's normal governance, temporarily appointing two of his own men to run the Society.
Though this era is fizzling out, it remains significant that of the last seven theologians investigated by the Vatican, four — Jon Sobrino, Roger Haight, Jacques Dupuis and Anthony de Mello — were all members of the Society of Jesus.
Indeed, there remain sufficient concerns over the present direction of the Society for Cardinal Franc Rode, prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life, to last week once again call the Jesuits back to their original charism of "thinking with the Church", telling the delegates at an opening Mass for the General Congregation that it was "with sadness and anxiety that I see a growing distancing from the hierarchy". He added that the "Ignatian spirituality of apostolic service under the Roman Pontiff does not allow for this separation". It is very unlikely that the cardinal was speaking without either the knowledge or approval of the Holy Father.
It is perhaps providential that Pope Benedict is doubly blessed in being both a principled theologian and a realist whose efforts to unite the disparate factions of the Church — both traditionalists and liberals — will form much of his legacy.
It is clear that he wants to bring the Jesuits in from the cold, once again place them fully at the service of the Church and bury the controversies of the past for good so that once again they may unleash their missionary potential Ad majorem Del gloriam — to the greater glory of God.