September 30, 2016 — This October, 215 Jesuits from around the world will meet in Rome for General Congregation 36 to elect a new superior general and set priorities for the Society of Jesus, the largest order of priests and brothers in the Roman Catholic Church.
The men will meet at the Jesuit Curia in Rome, the worldwide headquarters of the Society just steps from the Vatican. One of the first tasks will be to elect a successor to Superior General Father Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, 80, who plans to resign.
Delegates to General Congregation 35 in 2008, which saw the election of Fr. Nicolás as Superior General. (CNS photo/Don Doll, SJ)
“When you look at the history of this, there have only been 35 congregations throughout the almost 500 years the Society of Jesus has been in existence,” said Father Herbert B. Keller, SJ, rector of the Scranton Jesuit community in Pennsylvania and a GC 36 delegate for the Maryland Province. “So to be part of that, to be part of selecting a new Father General, is pretty humbling.”
Fr. Nicolás’ successor will become only the 31st Superior General in the Society’s history. Fr. Nicolás has served as the order’s leader since 2008, when he was elected at the 35th General Congregation. Born in Spain, Fr. Nicolás joined the Jesuits in 1953. Before his election as Superior General, he served in Japan and the Philippines, including as provincial (superior) of the Jesuits in Japan and as head of the Jesuit Conference of East Asia and Oceania, where he was responsible for the region from China to the South Pacific and Australia.
Jesuits process through the streets of Rome to celebrate Mass at General Congregation 35 in 2008.
Fr. Nicolás said he believes this congregation will be different from the previous one because “times have changed and there is a new awareness in the Society that we need daring, imagination and courage in facing our mission as part of the bigger mission of God vis-à-vis our world.”
Electing a New Superior General
The 215 delegates tasked with electing a new Superior General include six religious brothers, and 33 of the delegates are from Canada and the U.S., said Jesuit Father Patrick Mulemi, director of the Jesuit communications office in Rome. The average age of the Jesuits participating in GC 36 is 56.
GC 36 delegates from Canada and the United States.
The gathering will open with a Mass on Oct. 2 at the Church of Gesù near the tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, followed by an Oct. 3 update on the status of the Society. A committee has been working since January on the comprehensive report, Fr. Mulemi said.
After members of the General Congregation discuss the status report, they will be asked to accept Fr. Nicolás’ resignation, which they are expected to do. Then the delegates will meet with one another and begin what is called the “murmuratio” or murmuring.
A “kind of quiet talking takes place,” with delegates interacting one-on-one to consider their relative strengths and to ask about others who may have the qualities to be superior general, Fr. Keller said. And while delegates can ask questions about others, campaigning is not allowed.
The election of a Jesuit superior general is “unlike any electoral process that we would think of here in our country,” said Fr. Keller. “There are no nominated candidates. There is no campaigning, no lobbying. No one can aspire to the position, nor can one try to convince others to vote for someone else.”
At the end of the four days of information gathering, a secret ballot in writing is taken, collected and counted. Paper ballots are used for as many rounds of voting as necessary until someone receives a majority vote and is elected the new Superior General.
Jesuits at General Congregation 34 in 1995.
As soon as the pope has been informed of the Superior General-elect, his name will be announced. The rules don’t require the pope’s approval, but he always has given his blessing.
Father Tom Greene, SJ, who is a delegate to GC 36 representing the Central and Southern Province Jesuits, said he hopes the next superior general emphasizes the environment and other priorities Pope Francis has focused on. “I think it would be great if we had our own Francis.”
Pope Francis is probably the most well-known member of the Jesuits, and he participated in two previous General Congregations: GC 32 (1974-75) and GC 33 (1983).
While the pope is scheduled to be in Azerbaijan when GC 36 begins, he is expected to address the delegates sometime during their meeting.
Setting Future Priorities
After a new Superior General is elected, delegates will turn their attention to discussing issues of importance in the Society, including mission, structure and Jesuit life and work. For instance, the 32nd General Congregation in 1974-75 established “the service of faith and the promotion of justice” as the overriding characteristic of all Jesuit works.
“This is the first time a congregation has begun with a Jesuit pope, and the Society has a great desire to serve the Church and the vision and witness of Pope Francis,” said Father Timothy Kesicki, SJ, president of the Jesuit Conference of Canada and the U.S and a GC 36 delegate.
Pope Francis greets Fr. Nicolás as he arrives to celebrate Mass at the Church of the Gesù in Rome in 2014. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)
The proceedings will take place in the Jesuit Curia’s Aula, or hall, newly renovated as part of an extensive project that’s included wiring and plumbing upgrades, new LED lighting, and fire-retardant measures throughout the headquarters. Fr. Nicolás blessed the updated space on Sept. 21 with other Jesuits present.
There is no set end date for the congregation, but when the delegates conclude their work, a closing Mass will be celebrated at Sant’Ignazio in Rome.
Fr. Nicolás blesses the renovated Aula at the Jesuit Curia, where GC 36 will be held.
Fr. Keller is looking forward to the congregation. “In talking to Jesuits who have gone before to these congregations, they all refer to it as perhaps the highlight of their Jesuit lives, just being there.”