October 10, 2016 — Today, the 215 Jesuits who are attending General Congregation 36 at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome begin a centuries-old practice called the murmuratio. Four days of one-on-one conversation and information gathering, the murmuratio is designed to prepare the delegation for the election this coming Friday, October 14, of their new superior general, the Jesuit who will lead the largest order of priests and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church. On October 3, the Jesuits’ most recent superior general, Father Adolfo Nicolás, 80, resigned after eight years of service.
The murmuratio practice was established by St. Ignatius of Loyola, who, with his companions, founded the Society of Jesus in 1540. In the Jesuit Constitutions, St. Ignatius, the Jesuits’ first superior general, instructed his men to use the period of four days to “seek enlightenment from those able to give good information” about “who from the whole Society could be most suitable” for the office of superior general.
Importantly, any campaigning or politicking is strictly forbidden, and any congregation member aware of someone seeking the office of superior general, directly or indirectly, is required to report that information.
Father John O’Malley, SJ, a historian and University Professor at Georgetown University, was a delegate to General Congregation 33 in 1983, when Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, was elected superior general. He said he was skeptical of the murmuratio at first, but by the time it was over, he was a believer.
“You have to realize that the field for a possible general is limited pretty fast. Ideally, a general speaks at least three languages, has to be of a certain age, in good health, have some administrative experience in the Society, have been successful at it, and, ideally has some international experience. So, you put all those things together, and the pool gets very small, very fast.
“At GC 33, we were considering four or five names, and during the murmuratio, we were talking with people who knew the people, which was very helpful. I said to myself, ‘It’s going to be Kolvenbach, and it will be on the first ballot.’ And that’s exactly what happened. It was almost unanimous. You get it down pretty fast.”
The 215 Jesuits elected or appointed to attend General Congregation 36 represent 66 countries. While some may know each other previously, the vast majority of the attendees to the congregation are meeting for the very first time. The four days of murmuratio provide time for Jesuits to get to know one another, while sharing and seeking information about possible candidates for the order’s highest office.
Fr. O’Malley said the system works because “you have good people there, they obey the rules, they’re honest, and they’re straightforward and kind at the same time. People don’t believe this, but there really is no politicking, and if you’re suspected of that, that’s the end of you.”
On Friday, after four days of “murmuring,” the electors to General Congregation 36 will head to the Aula (Latin for hall) at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, just blocks from the Vatican, to elect the 31st superior general in the Society’s 476-year history.