Jesuits need a reminder of their identity, Vatican official says

by John L. Allen Jr.

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Since the opening of their 35th General Congregation on January 7, the Jesuits gathered in Rome have been at pains to minimize perceptions of a rift with the Vatican or with Pope Benedict XVI. The new Jesuit General, Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, offered a memorable image, suggesting that the relationship between the Jesuits and the papacy is like a marriage – there may be occasional tensions, but they’re rooted in a deep bond of love.

In a sign, however, that this marriage may still need some counseling, the Vatican’s top official for religious life released an interview today to L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops’ conference, suggesting that the Jesuits could benefit from a reminder of their traditional tie to church authority.

Specifically, the Vatican official said his concerns are based on information from Western Europe, North America and India.

The comments came from Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé, who delivered the homily at the opening Mass of the General Congregation. On that occasion, Rodé, a member of the Vincentian order, spoke of “sadness and anxiety” with regard to some aspects of Jesuit life today.

“I see a growing distancing from the hierarchy,” he told the Jesuits on Jan. 7. “The Ignatian spirituality of apostolic service ‘under the Roman Pontiff’ does not allow for this separation.”

Rodé urged the Jesuits to “think with the church.”

At the time, some wondered to what extent Rodé was speaking for himself or reflecting a broader climate of Vatican opinion. In today’s interview, Rodé asserts that he showed his text in advance to "superior authority," likely a reference to Pope Benedict XVI.

Rodé’s comments in L’Avvenire thus appear to suggest two conclusions:

•tFirst, Rodé has confirmed the substance of his Jan. 7 homily;
•tSecond, his comments today suggest that subsequent developments in the General Congregation, including the election of Nicolás, have not entirely resolved those concerns.

The following are the two questions put to Rodé about the Jesuits and his responses, in an NCR translation from the Italian.

The former superior of the Jesuits, Fr. Kolvenbach, said: “Since the consecrated life is a gift, no religious family may consider itself indispensable or eternal.”

Rode: “Usually when people say ‘no one is indispensable,’ they’re thinking of someone else. With every religious congregation that has vitality, it’s good that it do everything possible to continue its mission and to perpetuate, with the help of grace, the charism that the Lord gave to its founder. The duty of the Jesuits is to hand on the charism entrusted to them by St. Igantius Loyola, just as it’s the duty of the Salesians to continue the charism of St. John Bosco. If the charism of St. Ignatius or of Don Bosco were to be disappear, it would be a grave loss for the church.”

With regard to the Jesuits, the mass media saw your homily during the opening Mass of the General Congregation as fairly severe.

Rode: "As you know, the Jesuits are the lone order that, for the most delicate questions, historically have a direct rapport with the pope which is not mediated by the office I lead. In any event, I was asked to preside at the Eucharistic celebration for the opening of the General Congregation. I based my homily on information I received above all from Western Europe, North America and also from India. I asked advice from eminent representatives of the Society, and I did not fail to submit my text in advance to the superior authority. It was important to underscore the fidelity of the Society of Jesus to the church, and concretely to the pope. St. Ignatius desired that the Jesuits go into combat under the standards of the Cross and the Roman Pontiff: this is their identity. If, in particular situations, it has not received sufficient emphasis, I believe it’s opportune to recall it."

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