After more than two decades as Jesuit Superior General, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, will step down in January of 2008.
Society Prepares for New Leadership
BC Jesuits reflect on upcoming election of Superior General
By Sean Smith
Ronald Reagan was president, Kevin White was mayor of Boston, and Doug Flutie was beginning his second year as Boston College's starting quarterback the last time the Society of Jesus met to elect a new leader.
Whoever got the job, observers that September in 1983 widely agreed, had no small task awaiting him.
Relations between the order and the Vatican had become increasingly strained, notably over some Jesuits' embrace of liberation theology and differing interpretations of the Second Vatican Council. The previous superior general, Pedro Arrupe, SJ, had been incapacitated by a stroke in 1981, and in the interim Pope John Paul II had appointed Paolo Dezza, SJ, to lay the groundwork for a General Congregation that would choose the new superior general.
Thus, the delegates' selection of a modest, multi-lingual Holland native - who had headed up a province in one of the world's more volatile regions, the Middle East - would seem almost literally Heaven-sent, according to Boston College Center of Ignatian Spirituality Director Julio Giulietti, SJ.
"Many felt the election was a sign of the Holy Spirit's design, that such a quiet but very talented man like Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, SJ, would materialize before the electors," recalls Fr. Giulietti, who had arrived at BC the year before the 1983 General Congregation. "Fr. Kolvenbach might not have been very well-known at the outset of the congregation, but the more people spoke with him and learned about him, the more he seemed the best-suited as superior general.
"That faith has been justified."
The recent announcement that Fr. Kolvenbach will step down in January 2008, at which time a General Congregation will be held to elect his successor, has ushered in a period of reflection for Fr. Giulietti and fellow BC Jesuit Community members, on the eventful tenure of Fr. Kolvenbach and the outlook for the Society of Jesus.
Center of Ignatian Spirituality Director Julio Giulietti, SJ: The faith Jesuits placed in Fr. Kolvenbach "has been justified."
Credited for his role in repairing ties with the Vatican without causing alienation in the order, Fr. Kolvenbach has guided the Jesuits through a period that saw the end of the Cold War era but also large-scale human tragedies in Yugoslavia, Rwanda and the Sudan, and growing unease over Islam's relations with other world religions.
The approximately 20,000-strong order he leads - the largest in the Roman Catholic Church - has seen a significant drop in its numbers but a growing presence and influence in developing countries throughout Asia, Africa and Latin America. A 1995 General Congregation convened by Fr. Kolvenbach affirmed the Jesuits' commitment to pursuing interreligious dialogue, social justice and a bridge between the Gospel and contemporary culture.
"He'll go down as a great superior general," says New England Provincial Thomas Regan, SJ. "He's drawn some criticism by not centralizing the order more, but he's empowered local provincials - he knows that one size does not fit all."
"Fr. Kolvenbach has managed our relations with Rome with skill while at the same time protecting his men who are doing progressive intellectual work against rather aggressive criticism from various Church agencies," says Prof. James Bernauer, SJ (Philosophy). "He has kept the focus on the needs of the international community, which I think has been a very good corrective of the natural tendency of people - in the society and out - to think within national perspectives."
One of the order's hallmark strengths, education, has been well served during Fr. Kolvenbach's term, say BC Jesuits. Assoc. Prof. Bruce Morrill, SJ (Theology), recalls that when he joined the Jesuits shortly before Fr. Kolvenbach took office, there was "anxiety" over the role of, and priority for, education in the society.
"But Fr. Kolvenbach has shown himself to be committed to the academic mission, and he's supported what we do."
Fr. Regan explains that Fr. Kolvenbach "understands the power of institutions, and that the agenda of faith and justice is best advanced through intellectual discussion. For example, the whole question about migration and refugees: It's a multi-faceted issue that requires marshalling disciplines from economics to sociology to political science. Theology must have those tools."
Given the decrease in its membership, however, Jesuit colleges, universities and schools, like most of its institutions, will see an ever greater lay presence at the administrative levels, say Jesuits - which presents some weighty questions for Fr. Kolvenbach's successor.
"We're not just talking about presidential or vice-presidential positions," says Fr. Morrill, "but also in the trustee and financial boards. As an order, we therefore need to ask, 'What does it mean for our name to be on these higher education institutions? What is a Jesuit school?'
"This question of identity, of governance, extends farther and deeper to the Catholic Church itself. And dealing with the implications of that, and of the Jesuits' relationship with the Church, will be another challenge for the order and the superior general."
But the growth of the Jesuits in non-Western countries, especially in developing countries like Vietnam, offers a potential source of renewal for the order, say BC Jesuits. In fact, the demographics suggest that Fr. Kolvenbach's successor could well be from Asia or Africa.
Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ: "The only way you can pick a new general is to look for a man of prayer who is intelligent and experienced and whom Jesuits will trust."
Still, as Fr. Giulietti notes, the new leader's racial, ethnic and cultural background won't matter much unless he can lead. "The next superior general must display the skill of being a good linguist - not just in terms of knowing what is being said, but knowing what is meant. Even with his command of different languages, Fr. Kolvenbach had to learn to do that."
Adds Vice President for University Mission and Ministry Joseph Appleyard, SJ, "Whatever issues the next general faces will likely be related to those areas addressed at the last General Congregation: interreligious dialogue, the faith-justice connection, and the dialogue between the Gospel and contemporary culture. Any of these can be pretty serious stuff.
"I think the only way you can pick a new general is to look for a man of prayer who is intelligent and experienced and whom Jesuits will trust. These are Fr. Kolvenbach's qualities and they're pretty much what [Jesuit founder St. Ignatius Loyola] spells out in the Constitutions."