Daniel R. J. Joyce
is a priest in the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), executive director of Mission Programs at St. Joseph's University, and coordinator of the school's Ignatian Leadership Program
No part of the Catholic Church is more fraught with the myth or intrigue than the Society of Jesus, known popularly as the Jesuits. Two-hundred-fifteen delegates of the largest Catholic religious order assembled last week in Rome to elect a new superior general - the society's 36th General Congregation in its 476-year history.
After completing four days of murmuratio - careful consultation - the delegates did not take long to select Arturo Sosa, a political scientist who has been an important defender of democracy in his native Venezuela. An ardent critic of the authoritarian moves of the Chavez government and its impact on the most vulnerable, Father Sosa is well versed in exercising leadership in challenging times.
But the Jesuit election of a new superior general may also signal a new leadership moment for Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to be elected pope.
The delegates have completed the first of two tasks at hand:
They have selected a leader who is entrusted with nearly absolute authority over the order's more than 16,000 members.
The second task is to set an organizational agenda that will be carried out over the next decade.
Pope Francis will have an opportunity this week to address the assembled Jesuits and their new leader as they plan for the future. This is a rare moment for an organization that sees so little change in leadership and, yet, is known for its ability to quickly adapt to new challenges in both religious and social realities.
Previous popes have had their influence on the General Congregations of the Jesuits. Pope Paul VI addressed this same electoral assembly some 42 years ago, describing the Jesuits as serving throughout the world in "the most difficult and extreme fields, at the crossroads of ideologies, in the social trenches." He understood that Jesuits play a pivotal role for the Church in nonreligious endeavors such as science, business, and social policy.
Pope Benedict XVI affirmed this perspective when he quoted the words of Paul VI at the 2008 election of the now departing Superior General Adolfo Nicolás, stating that in the midst of a "confrontation between the burning exigencies of man and the perennial message of the Gospel," there have been Jesuits and there are Jesuits. His words implied that there must always be Jesuits in the future manifestations of this confrontation where ideologies battle it out in the "social trenches."
It is precisely the Jesuit reputation for creatively adapting the Church's message to be more deeply received in the current culture that allows Pope Francis, Father Sosa, and their brother Jesuits to seize a new leadership moment.
When the pope made his impromptu stop at St. Joseph's University in Philadelphia last year, it was to make a point about the need for the world religions to cooperate with each other in a respectful and productive relationship. His blessing of the sculpture Synagoga and Ecclesia in Our Time offered an example of how Catholics and Jews have collaborated with mutual understanding over the last 50 years on important issues of peace, justice, and economic equity.
New relationships that have overcome old prejudicial barriers to solve the world's most pressing issues may be the most needed expression of leadership in our chronically fragmented society, as we await the next and final presidential debate of this most singular election cycle.
Like Father Sosa, Pope Francis has his own experience in Argentina of exercising leadership under the threat of authoritarian regimes and in the midst of hard economic times when the Church needs to be the most creative in responding to rapid change.
There is no shortage in our world today of authoritarianism, economic hardship, and the need for a new voice defending democracy and an open civil society. The real intrigue now may be how both the Jesuits and the pope are willing to be a voice for social justice at the "crossroads of ideologies" and "in the social trenches."
There is an old saying among Catholics: "So go the Jesuits, goes the Church." It will be intriguing to see how this aphorism plays out.