No new leaf to turn over with the pope, Jesuit says

by John L. Allen Jr.

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This morning the Jesuits offered a press briefing in Rome on the ongoing work of their 35th General Congregation. The session was conducted by Fr. David Smolira, former Provincial of the British Province and currently director of the Jesuit Institute in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Smolira began with an overview of the congregation and then responded to questions on a range of topics, which I summarize below.

Smolira noted that the General Congregation accepted the resignation of Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach as General of the order on January 14, and then entered into four days of what is called murmuratio, meaning one-on-one conversations about the election of a new superior. In the end, of course, they selected Fr. Adolfo Nicolás, a Spaniard who has spent most of his career in Asia.

The process itself, Smolira said, was “awe-inspiring,” describing it as “one of the most inspiring experiences of my Jesuit life.” The Jesuits who voted, Smolira said, “did not know one another well” at the beginning, but “came together in a spirit of trust and openness.”

Smolira described the new Jesuit General as “a warm and personable man, humble, wise, very experienced in the ways of the Society, and clearly someone with a great love for the Society of Jesus.” He said that Nicolás has “a great willingness to serve the Jesuits and the church,” predicting that “he will do well as general.”

After the election, Smolira said, the General Congregation began studying which topics will be the objects of “decrees,” meaning substantive documents. At this stage, four seem likely:

•tJesuit identity and mission
•tGovernance structures
•tCollaboration with others

Smolira emphasized, however, that no firm decisions have yet been made, and that the number and topics of decrees could still evolve. At this point, he said, most of the work is being done in small groups organized by language, with reports presented to the full body of 225 Jesuits taking part in the General Congregation.

Other subjects being pondered by working groups, he said, include:

•tCommunity life
•tMigrants/People on the Move
•tReligious Fundamentalism

Smolira said the Jesuits are also paying special attention to two parts of the world described by Kolvenbach as “apostolic preferences” for the order: Africa and China.

Relations with the Vatican

Smolira was asked what response the General Congregation intends to give to the letter of Pope Benedict XVI addressed to the Jesuits prior to the election of Nicolás. That letter, dated January 10, was full of praise for Kolvenbach and the order, but also called the Jesuits to obedience on several contentious points: “the relationship between Christ and religions; some aspects of the theology of liberation; and various points of sexual morality, especially as regards the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care of homosexual persons.”

“It has very much been taken into consideration,” Smolira said, adding that much discussion has surrounded “how best to respond.”

“It was a very warm letter, very positive,” he said. “There is a strong bond between the Society and the pope. He’s asking for even more help and more collaboration in the future. It’s a real expression of confidence and trust in the Society from the Holy Father, and it requires a responsible and enthusiastic response from the Society.”

Smolira recalled that in a session with the press one week ago, Nicolás compared the relationship between the Jesuits and the pope to a marriage, saying that’s a “good and accurate analogy.”

“Sometimes there are differences and struggles,” Smolira said. “But the commitment is to work together to make that relationship go deeper and deeper.”

“There is real energy in the Society to look at how we can best make our response, in order to fulfill our mission,” he said.

Asked to specify whether the General Congregation would produce a written response specifically to the pope’s letter, or rather express its response indirectly through its decrees, Smolira said “we don’t know yet.”

“Certainly there will be a response in one form or another,” he said.

Pressed as to whether the Jesuits see accepting official church teaching on the specific points mentioned in the pope’s letter as a matter of obedience, Smolira said, “I’m not sure it’s a matter of obedience, and I’m not sure that’s the best way of couching the issue.”

“No doubt these issues are there in the culture, in the church, and in the Society of Jesus,” he said, referring to the specific points mentioned by the pope. “The Society of Jesus reflects the church in the range of opinions that are present.”

“The question is how we develop our understanding of theology, how we can discover more and more of the truth, in a way that is faithful to church teaching,” he said. “There’s always a tension there, and we have to reflect on how we can make sure that it’s a healthy one.”

“As an academic himself, I think Benedict XVI is very much aware of that,” Smolira said. “He’s asked the Society to continue its intellectual apostolate, and he’s inviting that continuing development.”

“It’s important that the Society of Jesus does all it can to contribute to the teaching of the church,” Smolira said, “but I don’t think there’s a dichotomy between doing that and also addressing issues that are of concern not just to the church but to the broader society.”

Finally, Smolira was asked if the Jesuits are “turning over a new leaf” in their relations with the pope and the Vatican.

“I’m not sure that there’s a new leaf to turn over,” he said. “The relationship between the Society and the church has always been good. We have always been faithful.”


A journalist asked Smolira to comment on the problem afflicting the Jesuits, along with other religious orders and dioceses, with regard to attracting new vocations.

“It’s certainly true that the numbers are down in some parts of the world,” he said. “But in other parts of the world they’re significantly up, especially southeast Asia and Africa.”

Smolira said it’s important not merely to ponder recruitment, but also formation and training of new Jesuits. It’s also essential, he said, to ponder the cultural context of religious life – especially in the contemporary West, where the idea of a lifetime commitment to anything is often anathema.

“I don’t think we have any magical answers,” Smolira said, “but we’re looking very seriously at the questions.”

The Fourth Vow

In response to another question, Smolira said that the General Congregation is reflecting upon the storied Jesuit fourth vow of special obedience to the pope as regards mission, as part of its more general consideration of obedience.

“We are the only religious congregation that takes this vow,” Smolira said. The vow is specifically concerned with mission, he said, which could refer to a geographic region (such as missionary work in Asia or Africa) or a sphere of cultural life, such as communications or the academy. Moreover, he said, the fourth vow has both an individual and corporate dimension. It implies that individual Jesuits should be available to respond to the pope’s desires with regard to mission, but also that the Society in general should establish apostolic priorities taking into consideration the pope’s requests.

“It means that we are to be available to the Holy Father to be sent wherever the need is greatest,” he said.

New Directions

In simple terms, one journalist said to Smolira, a General Congregation is usually memorable for its “what” or its “who.” The 33rd General Congregation, in 1983, was a “who” event, electing Kolvenbach as Father General. The 32nd, in 1974-75, was a “what” moment, memorably committing the Society to “faith that does justice.” Similarly, the 34th, in 1995, emphasized dialogue among cultures and religions.

Will there be a new “what” from the 35th General Congregation, Smolira was asked, to stand alongside the “who” of Nicolás?

“When a General Congregation gathers to elect a new general, most of its energy goes into that supremely important task,” he said. “I think that’s been true this time as well.” For that reason, Smolira said, “the number of decrees this time will be quite small.”

“Many of the decrees from the last General Congregation still need to be fully implemented,” he said. “We don’t just want to put a lot of new things out there when there’s still much to be done.”

For that reason, Smolira said, he does not expect a “radical statement about something.”

Specifically, Smolira was asked what to expect from the General Congregation on the subject of ecology – a topic which attracted the second highest number of “postulates,” or proposals for action, from Jesuits around the world before the meeting began.

“Certainly there’s a lot of concern about ecology and globalization,” he said, “but at this stage I think they are more likely to be incorporated into a more general decree on mission.”

In part, Smolira said, this is because “we are not experts on those things here. We’re not equipped in the General Congregation to do that.”

Jesuit Tradition and the ‘Signs of the Times’

With regard to Jesuit identity, one journalist asked Smolira if there isn’t a sense in which what it means to be a Jesuit is the same today as it was in the 16th century, when the Society was founded by St. Ignatius Loyola. More generally, the question was what account will be made of the centuries-old traditions of the Society of Jesus.

“One characteristic of the Society throughout the centuries is to understand the signs of the times,” Smolira said. “That’s an important part of our charism. What does the world need from the Society of Jesus now?”

“We need to re-understand who we are in every age, and thus in the world of today,” he said.

“Monastic traditions have a different way of doing that,” Smolira said. "They have an established rule, which we don’t have, and they live that in community. We don’t have monastery walls – our arena is the world, which is rapidly changing.”

“The world shapes you, in addition to you shaping the world,” Smolira said. “Taking account of that is, I think, authentically following the Jesuit tradition.”


Asked about what will probably be a decree on collaboration, Smolira stressed that it will not refer exclusively to laity.

“It’s quite intentional that we are talking about collaboration with ‘others,’” he said, “and not just ‘laity.' We collaborate with other religious orders, diocesan clergy, bishops, laity, other Christians, people of other faiths and those of no faith. All are potential collaborators in various ways. A focus on the laity narrows the horizons.”
tThe scope of the decree, therefore, is really on collaboration “with all people of good will,” Smolira said.

Smolira noted, for example, that in southeast Asia, most of the collaborators of Jesuit apostolic works are non-Christians, and said “we have to be sensitive to that.”


Given that Smolira is now based in South Africa, he was asked to comment on what the Jesuit “apostolic preference” for Africa means in concrete terms.

“The African continent faces many challenges, and both the church and the Society of Jesus have key roles to play,” he said. Kolvenbach’s decision to identify Africa, along with a China, as an area of special focus means that the Jesuits “should use our international resources in service to the people of Africa, under the leadership of the African provinces,” Smolira said.

Smolira mentioned several specific areas in which Jesuits could make a contribution in Africa:

•tEducation, both at the K-12 and university levels
•tPeace-making and reconciliation
•tSocial Justice
•tDirect service of the faith, including work in parishes and dioceses

* * *
tFinally, a brief note on something the Italians would call una curiosità, meaning something interesting, even though it’s not really all that significant. It’s a question Smolira did not address, though one I’ve been carrying around for several days.

As is well known, the Jesuit constitutions specify that the order is free to choose its own leader – the Jesuits do not need the approval of the pope for the man they select. Nonetheless, the Jesuit practice is to inform the pope immediately after the election, so that he is the first person to hear the result. In fact, the delegates remain in the grand aula of the Jesuit Curia until the pope has been informed.

I’ve been wondering, however, what exactly it means to say that the pope has been “informed.” Does that mean, for example, that a fax was sent over to the papal apartment with the name of the new Father General? Did someone actually scuttle across St. Peter’s Square to bring the news? How, exactly, did this work, and are we really sure that the pope himself knew the name before the news made its way around the world?

Having put that question to several people over the course of this week, I’m finally in a position to reconstruct the event.

Once the date of the vote had been set for January 19, the Jesuit leadership asked Jesuit Fr. Federico Lombardi, the Vatican spokesperson and a member himself of the General Congregation, to look into the best way to get the news to the pope. Lombardi in turn contacted Monsignor Georg Gänswein, the private secretary of the pope, to ask how best to reach Benedict on Saturday morning. Gänswein explained that the pope would be in his apartment until mid-morning, and then would be in the Apostolic Palace holding audiences for the rest of the morning. In any event, Gänswein said, Lombardi should call Gänswein on his cell phone, so he could relay the news to the pope.

(As a footnote, anyone who has ever been in the Apostolic Palace knows that its thick stone walls mean that cell phone reception can sometimes be spotty. Apparently, Gänswein advised Lombardi that if he was unable to get through, he should call the main Vatican switchboard and ask to be transferred to Gänswein’s desk.)

Shortly after the election of Nicolás, Lombardi reached Gänswein's cell phone with the news that a new Father General of the Society of Jesus had been elected. Benedict XVI was at that moment in the middle of an audience, but Gänswein asked Lombardi to wait, and then passed his cell phone to the pope. Lombardi was thus able to inform Benedict directly of the name of the new “black pope.”

In summary, thanks in part to the miracle of cellular communications, the process worked exactly the way it’s supposed to: Benedict personally learned the name of the new Jesuit general before the rest of the world.

(One final footnote: Ever the gracious figure, Benedict XVI apparently apologized to Lombardi that he wasn’t able to speak at length, but stayed on the phone long enough to learn not just Nicolás’ name but also a brief summary of his background.)

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