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Jesuit leaders unready to resolve their order's crisis January 06, 2008

More than 200 delegates representing the world's Jesuits provinces are converging on Rome this week, in preparation for the 35th general congregation of their order and the election of a new superior.

In February 2006, Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who has led the Jesuit since 1983, made the surprise announcement that he would step down from his leadership post at the start of 2008, and called the general congregation to choose his successor. Jesuit officials indicated that Father Kolvenbach made his announcement after consultation with Pope Benedict XVI.

In nearly 5 centuries of Jesuit history, there was no precedent for the resignation of a superior general, except that of Father Pedro Arrupe, Kolvenbach's immediate predecessor, who had been forced to relinquish his duties after a crippling stroke. The voluntary retirement of Father Kolvenbach, then, would ordinarily qualify as a major news story.

But with the general congregation set to begin on January 5, with the celebration of Mass in the Gesu, the historic Jesuit church near the Vatican, there is a curious absence of excitement in Rome, or even among Jesuits elsewhere in the world. Italian journalists are always ready to speculate about the Pope's health or the latest prospects for personnel changes in the Roman Curia, but they have given only cursory attention to the likely candidates for the top Jesuit leadership post.

Why? What can explain the shortage of excitement, the absence of speculation about the next superior general? Is the lackluster preparation for the general congregation an indication that the Society of Jesus has lost its ability to stir excitement and controversy?

For generations, the Jesuits were recognized as the intellectual "shock troops" of the Catholic Church, and the superior general was known informally as the "Black Pope" in recognition of his enormous influence. But today the rising lay movements like Opus Dei supply the "shock troops" for the papacy, and in his 24 years as leader of the Society, Father Kolvenbach has rarely roused any public controversy.

When he announced plans for this year's general convention, the outgoing superior general said that he could foresee "no particular theme for discussion" at the meeting-- as if the future of the order required no special attention. Other Jesuit leaders seem to share placid confidence that the general congregation will bring no major changes. They are evidently convinced that the next superior general will continue the current policies of the Jesuit leadership and the Society will continue along the same path to…

To where? The mission of the Jesuit order, as understood by most of its members, has changed radically in recent decades. As recently as the mid-20th century, the Jesuits were known as stalwart defenders of the Pope, who trained loyal young Catholics to defend Church doctrines. Today they are inveterate critics of the Vatican, who train young Catholics to question their faith. Is there any discussion among Jesuit leaders of a return to the defense of Catholic orthodoxy? Evidently not.

Perhaps not coincidentally, as the Jesuits have maneuvered to establish what amounts to a "loyal opposition" within the Catholic Church, the order has suffered heavily from defections and lost its ability to attract young recruits. In 1965 when Father Arrupe became superior general, there were about 36,000 Jesuits in the world. Today that figure has been cut nearly in half, with about 19,000 Jesuits remaining in a rapidly aging society.

Where are the Jesuits headed? Where do they want to go? What is their plan for long-term survival-- if indeed their leaders still believe that survival is a worthwhile goal? With a historic leadership change in the offing, one might have expected to see those questions discussed in Jesuit publications during the past year. But with only a few days to go before the 35th general congregation, that discussion still has not begun in earnest.

The Society of Jesus is in crisis: a crisis compounded by the failure of Jesuit leaders to acknowledge that something is seriously wrong.

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