Nigerian Jesuit calls new superior general 'someone you can relate with'

by Joshua J. McElwee

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A collaborator of the new global leader of the Jesuit order describes him as a creative thinker who is affectionate and expects colleagues to call him by his first name.

"There's a quality to him that is very warm, very affectionate and instantly, instantly you can feel this is someone you can relate with," Nigerian Jesuit Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator said of Venezuelan Jesuit Fr. Arturo Sosa, whom 215 delegates of the worldwide order elected as their new superior general Friday.

"When we talk about father general, he underlines the word father," the Nigerian said in an interview with NCR at the Jesuit curia in Rome following the election.

Orobator, who is a theologian and the principal of Jesuit-run Hekima University College in Nairobi, Kenya, said he served with Sosa on a commission charged with preparing a report on the global status of the Society of Jesus before the election process.

"It was fun working with him," said the theologian. "He's the kind of Jesuit you would have no reservations or hesitations calling by his first name. I called him Arturo and everybody else calls him Arturo. He's happy with that and I don't expect that's going to change tomorrow."

Orobator participated in the election as a delegate from the Jesuits' east Africa province. It is his first time taking part in the process, known as a general congregation of the order.

Related: "Jesuits will elect order's new superior general at global meeting" (Sept. 27, 2016)

The theologian said he found the meetings "very striking."

"You just have an instant connection with people you've never met," he said, mentioning how those in the order share a similar sense of charism and mission. "It's like you belong to the same family."

Before electing their new superior general, the Jesuit delegates underwent a four-day process called a murmuratio, where they were expected to speak quietly in one-on-one settings to each other about the different challenges facing the order and who among them might be best to lead at this time.

Orobator said that while he had some initial doubts about that process he found it very effective.

"I wondered about it myself," the Nigerian admitted. "I thought ... this is a worldwide organization with 16,000-plus members, couldn't there be a more effective way of vetting who is going to be, shall we say, the CEO of this organization than putting 215 people together and saying we'll talk about this and see what happens?"

"But it turns out for me personally one of the most enriching moments of this for several reasons," he continued, saying the small meetings helped created a "very deep level of trust" and allowed the delegates see the election as a shared responsibility.

"I don't think I would have been able to come to know more about the other electors as I did in this process," said Orobator. "From morning until evening, every half-hour I was meeting with someone different.

"The issues that came out, for me, focused not just on who should be the next [general], but what are the challenges we're facing," he continued. "And therefore in light of this who I am thinking of ... as a possible candidate who has the qualities and the talents and the skills to assume this responsibility globally?"

"It's worked, I would say, surprisingly well," he said. "I would have been the first to say let's do something else, but having experienced it, it's intense, it's engaging, it's highly, highly effective."

"You're either confirming or informing yourself more about more or less the same small group of people," Orobator explained.

"Then you feel the group as a body is gravitating and converging around particular individuals. And you feel, 'Yeah, this feels right,'" he said. "We can resonate with each other about things that we see about individuals or things that concern us about individuals."

"There's that certitude that you gain at the end that it's not just based on what you know objectively, but what you really feel within you, that feels right and sits well deep within you," said Orobator.

The meetings of the general congregation, the 36th the Jesuits have had since their founding in the 16th century, will continue on this week with delegates discussing more in depth the challenges they see facing their order.

Orobator said one issue that has been discussed is the governance structure of the global society, with delegates asking: "How do we reorganize the governance structure of the Society so that in the 21st century it is more responsive to the needs that we see?"

[Joshua J. McElwee is NCR Vatican correspondent. His email address is Follow him on Twitter: @joshjmac.]

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