A Universal Body for a Universal Mission

Wake up the world!” said Pope Francis to religious women and men.

And to us Jesuits Pope Benedict XVI said, “… the Church needs you, counts on you, and continues to turn to you with confidence, particularly to reach the geographical and spiritual places where others do not reach or find it difficult to reach.” (address to GC-35 on 21 February 2008)

Both Popes situate this clarion call in the context of the urgent global challenges that humanity and the Church face today.  We need to wake ourselves up, before we can wake up the world.

Need more effective structures!

There is a growing realization that our present governance structures, evolved to meet the challenges of an earlier age, do not adequately respond to the exigencies of today’s increasingly globalized world.  Hence GC-35 called for a serious process of Ignatian discernment in all the Provinces and Regions of the Society, in view of recovering the essential Ignatian-Jesuit spirit of “UNIVERSALITY”.  A spirit that is closely linked to our other characteristics: availability to be sent anywhere on mission, pioneering spirit that beckons us to the frontiers, excellence and creativity.  The theme will once again figure prominently in GC-36 later this year.

So, under the guidance of the Spirit, we have started on a journey together, to recover this essential Ignatian-Jesuit characteristic.  The journey began with thePhesama Statement the Jesuit Conference of South Asia (JCSA) adopted in October 2014.  “We are impelled to let go of even successful models, structures and attachments (personal and institutional) which block us from searching for … more universal availability. As we strive for renewal of our structures at the service of our mission, we remind ourselves that we are invited to creative fidelity, leaving aside all traces of mediocrity.  We call upon every member of the South Asian Assistancy to enter upon a process of Ignatian discernment to take up frontier missions with ‘commitment, competency and collaboration’.  We want to launch structural planning, at the province and the conference levels, keeping in mind the need to optimize our human and material resources.”

JCSA launches a Project

The JCSA then set up three Commissions to work in tandem on this project.  A team to guide a Spiritual Animation Process (SAP).  A Commission to study and propose possible models of governance suited to our specific situation.  A Commission to work on restructuring Jesuit formation.  Prof. Bernard D’Samy of Loyola College, Chennai, was requested to conduct a survey by which we would ascertain the mind of Jesuits in the field, on Universality and Restructuring.  The scope of this four-pronged approach to ensure that the project leads to concrete decisions to be implemented in practice.

In the preparatory phase of the entire process, in view of preparing a “core team” of animators of the proposed Spiritual Animation Process, twelve Jesuits, some of them experts in Ignatian spirituality, met in Delhi in September 2015.  These had a two-day intense experience of the process of prayer and sharing, following the dynamics of the Deliberation of the First Fathers (1539).  The purpose was to experience themselves the model of the process to be followed in animating all Jesuits of South Asia, in inter-province groups.

In all the meetings of this preparatory phase, there emerged a clear consensus among the participants as well as in the JCSA that the Spiritual Animation Process (SAP) is the principle and foundation of any restructuring at the practical level: to recover in practice the Ignatian/Jesuit characteristic of universality for greater apostolic effectiveness; the availability on the part of every Jesuit to be sent on mission to any place and any work, even to something for which one has not been trained, a characteristic intrinsic to our vocation, inseparably linked to the Fourth Vow, the Ignatian magis and excellence, pioneering spirit and creativity, characteristics that are deeply embedded in our history and tradition.  It was decided to start this process immediately, zone-wise in the whole assistancy, so that the proposals coming in due course from the other commissions would find a climate conducive to implementation.

Things begin to happen!

In the first major step in the SAP was the three-day colloquium in Kolkata, 3-6 December 2015.  43 Jesuits from all provinces of the Assistancy (except Kerala whose representatives could not reach Kolkata due to floods), experienced the bond of “Friends in the Lord” that the First Companions, coming from diverse national, cultural and personal backgrounds, had experienced in 1539.  It was not a seminar or discussion, but an Ignatian “spiritual conversation”, praying and sharing in small groups one’s interior movement of spirits.   Listening to the Spirit whispering in our hearts, listening to our companions, we re-discovered our shared heritage, our common identity. 

The participants, several of whom were confused and sceptical at first, were so deeply moved by the experience, that they themselves have become animators of a similar process in their respective provinces and zones.  In the last session devoted to planning for the future, each zone chose two zonal coordinators to organize several two-day cross-province SAP sessions and SAP retreats.

As intended by the JCSA, the SAP has indeed become a movement in the Assistancy, and not merely a set of isolated sessions here and there.  With gratitude we recognize the presence and action of the Holy Spirit as we look back and see that indeed much has happened since we started out nearly two years ago on this journey.  Until July, about 1200 Jesuits of South Asia have gone through this experience in 25 SAP sessions and 11 retreats, on the theme of universality and renewal of governance structures.  For the rest of this year, 21 SAPs and 10 retreats have been announced. The movement is indeed visible, a talking point among Jesuits. 

The other Commissions, too, have been working quietly yet systematically.  The Fernando Franco Commission (Models of Governance) and the Raj Irudaya Commission (Restructuring Formation), too, have prepared their draft reports to the JCSA.  Bernard D’Samy is collating and analysing the results of the survey.  On 25-29 August all the Commissions working on the different aspects of this project will meet to prayerfully review the progress made up to now, and to plan the next phase.

The grace we seek

The grace we seek through this Assistancy-wide search is personal and corporate conversion, a change of attitude from any narrow “provincial” vision that may block the needed change, to a vision of universality – always in view of greater apostolic effectiveness

Such a change of heart on the part of all Jesuits in the Assistancy is a necessary first step leading to a change in our governance structures that can effectively respond to the challenges to our mission today.  While a broad outline of possible models may gradually be emerging in our reflection, the final restructuring must take shape from this open-ended process, letting the Spirit guide us.

There can be no growth without the pain of letting go of what holds us frozen in past success-models that might have been necessary and useful once, but are no more relevant today.  Else we stagnate, refusing to move on, because we refuse the pain of giving up, of letting go, of changing and growing.

Every Jesuit has a stake in what will eventually be discerned as new models of governance in the Assistancy, including apostolic planning and allocation of resources on a more universal basis, even possible re-drawing of province boundaries.  The collective mind of the Jesuits at the grass-roots, emerging from this process of consultation and discernment, will guide the JCSA’s eventual decision on where the Spirit is leading us, – an important aspect of Ignatian decision-making in such important matters.  Ignatius believed that superiors do not have the monopoly of the Spirit, and that the promptings of the Spirit expressed through the voice of the companions is part of the process of discernment and decision-making.

Our rich legacy

On-going renewal of our structures of governance and formation for greater apostolic effectiveness is not something new in the Society of Jesus.  It is intrinsic to our very identity and our way of proceeding.  In the present context of the challenges to our mission that an increasingly globalised world throws up – aKairos moment in the Church and in the Society of Jesus – this exercise assumes added significance and urgency.  Our governance and formation are at the service of mission; and mission is not something frozen and locked in the past.  In creative fidelity every General Congregation makes an Ignatian contemplation of the world and re-defines “Our Mission Today”.  Accordingly, the structures of our governance and formation, too, must be flexible, must change, lest they block rather than serve effective apostolic response.  New wine, new wineskins!

From its origin and through all its history, the Society is a universal apostolic body available for universal mission.  A Jesuit joins not a province, but the universal body of the Society. With this essential characteristic, the Society of Jesus has the built-in potential to dialogue with the globalised world of the 21st century.  Recalling our heritage and history in his address to the 32nd General Congregation on 3rd December 1974, Pope Paul VI challenged us with a definition of who we are: “Wherever in the Church, in the most difficult and extreme fields, in the cross-roads of ideologies, in the frontlines of social conflict, where there is a confrontation between the deepest aspirations of the human person and the perennial message of the Gospel, there have been and are Jesuits.” 

We keep our hearts and minds open to the Spirit, and not to allow ourselves to be “distracted” or influenced by any other consideration than to seek what the Spirit is asking of us.

 - Fr Julian Fernandes, SJ