School of Theology and Ministry Dean Thomas Stegman, S.J., served as a delegate to the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (GC36), where Arturo Sosa, S.J., of Venezuela was elected the 31st superior general.
A general congregation is summoned on the death or resignation of the head of the Society of Jesus in order to choose his successor, or to legislate changes in the structure and/or work of the Society. General congregations are rare—in the 476 years since the Jesuits’ founding, there have only been 36.
GC36 was convened to elect a successor to Superior General Adolfo Nicolás, S.J., who had announced in December 2014 his intention to resign after serving as superior general since 2008. Fr. Stegman was elected as a delegate, representing the Wisconsin Province.
Interviewed recently in his office in Simboli Hall, Fr. Stegman looked back on his time in Rome at GC36. “One of the highlights for me was meeting with and being with great Jesuits from all over the world. On the one hand, it was experiencing the commonality of our vocation because it is grounded in the Spiritual Exercises, but on the other hand, it was getting a sense of the breadth and width of the wonderful things that are being done throughout the world.”
The general congregation's first order of business was to accept the resignation of Fr. Nicolás. “That was very solemn," said Fr. Stegman. "His humility reminded me of when Pope Benedict stepped down. People expressed their warmth and gratitude for Father General’s service. After we accepted his resignation, Father Nicolas stepped down and took his seat in alphabetical order with the rest of us in the aula (hall). Soon after, he announced that he would not participate in the congregation any more.
“That was a grace-filled moment. He was acting out of love and humility, having the Society’s well-being and mission in mind. It was a great model for all of us.”
Next, the delegates were presented with the De Statu report (the state of the Society). This was the product of one of the GC36 commissions, which took the pulse of the society and assessed its strengths and weaknesses. The delegates used this document to determine what qualities they would look for in the next superior general.
The next phase was the Murmurationes — a “fascinating process” according to Fr. Stegman. It is a time of prayer and conversation to discern who would be the best choice for superior general. Delegates have one-on-one conversations with each other. There is no campaigning for yourself, or for or against others. Delegates are to answer only what is asked.
“Part of the skill is learning to ask the right questions,” said Fr. Stegman, who estimates he talked directly with about a quarter to a third of the delegates.
Murmurationes is also a time for the delegates to pray on “Who is the Spirit leading us to choose as general?”
“We were looking for a strong leader, someone who could really animate and inspire us, who would call us to the best of our spiritual roots,” said Fr. Stegman.
The election was called for Oct. 14. The day began with a Mass of the Holy Spirit, after which the 212 electors, upon entering the aula, sat for an hour of quiet prayer. Though computer tablets were used throughout the general congregation, the voting for the general was done on paper ballots signed by each elector.
“We were looking for a strong leader, someone who could really animate and inspire us, who would call us to the best of our spiritual roots,” said Fr. Stegman. “I thought it was important for the new general to have international experience and good language skills.”
Fr. Sosa speaks Spanish, Italian and English and understands French. He was provincial superior of the Jesuits in Venezuela, and most recently served in Rome as delegate for the Interprovincial Roman Houses of the Society of Jesus.
For Fr. Stegman, one of the highlights of GC36 was the papal visit that followed the election. On Oct. 24, Pope Francis spent four hours with the delegates in the aula of the Jesuit Curia. He shared morning prayer, gave an allocution, participated in a Q&A session and then greeted each member.
It was the first time Fr. Stegman had met Pope Francis. “I’ll remember that day for the rest of my life," he said.
“[Pope Francis] is setting forth a vision of Church. He is grounded in the Exercises,” continued Fr. Stegman. “I’m proud that Francis is a Jesuit pope, but I also find him to be extremely challenging. In many respects, he’s well ahead of us Jesuits. He ‘walks the walk.’ He challenges us by his very way of being to be more faithful to our sources.
“We wanted a general who’s fully on board with what the pope is doing, especially as articulated in Laudato Si, Evangelii Gaudium, and synod documents. Certainly, Father Sosa fits that bill.”
The next phase of GC36 was devoted to business matters (Ad Negotia). GC36 discussed documents drafted based on postulata or petitions received from province congregations and from individual Jesuits. The delegates agreed on a handful of decrees. One will address governance for mission, and, among other things, call for more effective ways of assessing how the Society is living out its apostolic priorities.
Another document, on Jesuit life and mission, is the “one that will be of most interest to people,” said Fr. Stegman. It will address community life as mission, not just for mission.
“For those of us in the education apostolate, it is about forming young people whose world view is marked by compassion, whose impetus is to serve before taking. It is also about engaging in research and teaching that addresses real needs in the world. How do we [educators] serve as instruments through whom God’s reign takes greater foothold?”
In the end, he said, the general congregation is a means to end. “We left with optimism and energy, grounded in the reality that this is a world in need of salvation more than ever.”
—Kathleen Sullivan | University Communications