Sunday, February 25, 2007

Red Carpet, Black Pope

It may be Oscar Night here in the States, but speaking of ballots and A-listers, by this time next year the Jesuits will have accorded one of their own the highest honor the church's largest order can bestow: the post of Superior-General of the Society of Jesus, the 29th successor to Ignatius of Loyola.

Plans continue apace for the Company's 35th General Congregation, which begins in the Urb in the first week of 2008. Given the stated wish of incumbent Father-General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach to retire from the worldwide community's top office after 25 years, GC35 will witness the peaceful transition of leadership from a living General to his successor for the first time in the Jesuits' five centuries of existence.

In recent days, more info on the gathering was communicated to the Society's provincials and the Congregation's already chosen electors. Included among the news was the membership of the gathering's top preparatory council, and a response from Pope Benedict XVI to Kolvenbach's query on the long-term effect of his retirement.

On 24 January, the Father-General disclosed that he asked the pontiff "about whether or not to maintain the ad vitam [lifetime] mandate of the Superior-General of the Society." Five days later -- a rapid turnaround, by Vatican standards -- Benedict indicated that future Generals should continue being elected for life. However, according to Kolvenbach, the Pope added the Superior is still free to offer his resignation "after first having informed the Holy Father of his intention." (A longtime Ratzinger familiar, Kolvenbach consulted in this manner with Benedict, obtaining the papal greenlight to stand down in late 2005.)

"Furthermore," Kolvenbach told his confreres, Benedict "expressed the desire" that the GC focus on the Jesuits' "spiritual and ecclesial formation of young Jesuits," and on "the value and observance of the 4th vow for the whole Society." In addition to the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Company's senior professed pledge a unique and complete obedience to the person of the Roman Pontiff in the service of the missions. The Father-General cited that the Pope had already mentioned this "concern" in his address to the Jesuits last April.

Next month, the work of the Coetus Praevius -- the Congregation's chief preparatory body -- begins. Numbering 15 top Jesuits and headed by Kolvenbach, it includes two previously-named frontrunners for the General's post: the Society's second-in-command, Indian Fr Lisbert D'Souza, and Belgian Fr Mark Rotsaert, the head of the European Jesuit Conference. Others include the Company's top men in Africa, Central Latin America, East Asia, the Philippines and the US. Of the 15, three are from South Asia, now home to the order's largest regional grouping.

In token of the level of interest in the GC -- and the ramped-up amount of documents that'll be flowing out to the membership -- a thorough reworking of the Jesuits' main international website has been rolled out.