In the Footsteps of Saint Ignatius


No Jesuit may dream or ambition to become Superior General of the Society of Jesus. Saint Ignatius was strict and very consistent on this point: even desiring the office rules a Jesuit out of consideration.


In 1983 my name was on no one’s list; in January of this year, Father Adolfo Nicolás’ name did not appear among the favourites. So the Jesuit who is elected is a surprise to many, and especially to himself.


On the day set for the election, the 225 electors celebrate the Eucharist together and then enter the meeting room to pray for one hour in silence, but only after listening as an elector reminds them of the profile and the job-description of the General Superior Saint Ignatius inscribed in the Constitutions. It is such an ideal picture that even Ignatius recognized that finding all these qualities in any one person would be highly unlikely. He had to add this consoling note: “If any of these qualities should be wanting, the new superior general should at least not lack “great probity and love for the Society”. This love for the Society is not just a question of feeling; it needs to be incarnated. If a Jesuit is a servant of Christ’s mission, it is highly probable that the General Congregation will prefer to elect a Jesuit “on mission” to announce the Good News of the Lord wherever Christ is unknown or poorly known. It is quite significant that the last three elected superior generals were all “missionaries”: Europeans who had been sent to Japan or the Near East.


The age of the elected superior general obviously plays a role. A long generalate of more than twenty years has the advantage of assuring continuity; a shorter generalate allows a fresh start, a new departure in the life of the Society. In any case the superior general is elected for life – something Father Pedro Arrupe interpreted as “a lively generalate”: as long as he is able to give new life to the Society. It is quite unlikely that a Jesuit who never left his home country, who speaks only his native tongue, who never had the experience of being a superior, who struggles with serious health problems and has no communication skills, will ever become the superior general even if he is a holy man and an outstanding Jesuit. Even without such handicaps, a Jesuit will feel unprepared for the job: there is no path of training or preparation to learn it. In my case, because Father Arrupe was difficult to understand after the stroke that paralysed him, our conversations were fairly limited.


I was just speaking the truth when, in a short message to the Society after my election, I had to confess that I did not know the worldwide Society. I had always considered the decision of my superiors to send me to the Near East as a great grace of God: the spirituality of the churches of the East and the wisdom of the people in Lebanon, Syria and Egypt were tremendously enriching for my Jesuit life, despite the everlasting conditions of war and turmoil in this explosive area. But the struggle for human survival and Christian faith in the Near East had as one consequence that world-wide issues could be obscured. Things like the implementation of Vatican II, increasing secularisation, the theology of liberation, the renewal of consecrated life and tensions in Jesuit relations with the Holy See remained far from our apostolic concerns in the Near East. Once elected superior general I had to discover the Society world-wide. I am still most grateful for all the advice and help given by the staff of the Jesuit Curia that made an apparently impossible mission possible.


In the 24 years after my election I visited practically all the countries where Jesuits work: I met them in highly sophisticated institutions and in slums, in parishes and in refugee camps, in novitiates and in third age communities, in spiritual centers and in radio or television stations. I had the privilege of meeting at close range a large group of Jesuits dedicated, despite human limitations and inevitable weaknesses, to continuing Christ’s mission. Often they did this in extremely demanding situations, not only in terms of material poverty but also spiritually, when their mission was not welcomed by “modern life” or religious fundamentalism, or when it was simply greeted with cool indifference.


And then there was the enormous privilege of knowing some Jesuits called to follow “ad pedem litterae” the words of the Lord: there is no greater love than to give one’s life for one's friend.


I knew Jesuits in El Salvador, in Africa, in India, and here in Lebanon, who gave their lives in testimony of love and fidelity to the Lord.


All these encounters taught me to love the Society – all these “friends in the Lord” as Saint Ignatius called them. We have to thank the Lord that in spite of a sometimes disconcerting diversity of personalities, characters, languages and cultures, the universal body of the Society has remained, not “uniform,” but “united in hearts and minds.” It’s a union founded on the unique experience of the Spiritual Exercises that has put us all together on a pathway to God, inspired to continue by Christ’s mission.


Because the Lord desires with a great desire to save and to heal our world, building bridges across frontiers becomes crucial for Jesuits. As the recent General Congregation sees it, there are three Ignatian principles that enable us to engage in Christ’s mission to unite a fragmented world: the love of God our Lord, our union of minds and hearts, and the obedience that sends each one of us in mission to any part of this world.


Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J.