Everyone knows that, in these days, we find ourselves in a moment of change and decision, the outcome of which will shape the future for years to come.
And, no, I‚Äôm not talking about the presidential primaries in the United States of America ‚Äì interesting though they may be.
This week, here in Rome, the Society of Jesus will begin the process (it starts with four days of prayer, before the actual voting begins) of choosing a successor to Fr. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the first superior general of the Jesuits to retire rather than serve until death.
There are a number of reasons why I think that the election of a superior general for the Jesuits may be as important as a presidential election in the United States.
First of all, there is the extraordinary importance that the Jesuits have had and continue to have in the Church – especially, the importance of their institutions of education: from the Gregorian University here in Rome to the countless schools and universities scattered all over the world. Both in terms of numbers and geographical extension, the Church is a much larger ‚Äúbody politic‚Äù than the United States, and, with the decline of mainstream Protestant denominations, the Church is increasingly perceived as the sole authoritative voice of Christianity. As the historically pre-eminent religious order and the traditional intelligentsia of that ecclesial ‚Äúbody politic,‚Äù the Jesuits have a crucial role in determining the tone with which the Church speaks.
Second, while an American president holds power for at most eight years (unless, of course, his wife becomes president‚Ä¶ he being, lest we forget, our first Jesuit-educated president), the superior general of the Jesuits, in principle, holds office for life. The outcome of this election can be with us for a very long time.
Third, the international reach of the general of the Jesuits is rivaled only by that of the pope himself. The decisions of one Jesuit general can have a direct, ongoing impact on generations of young people in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas. The religious future ‚Äì and with it, often, the political future – of countries can depend on these decisions, especially in the developing world, where the Jesuits‚Äô relative importance is even greater. I referred above to President Clinton‚Äôs Jesuit education partly in jest, but also partly because it shows in that the educational role of the Jesuits is far from being a merely internal ‚ÄúCatholic affair.‚Äù
In other words, even though it’s not making the front pages now with Barak and Huck, a great deal is riding on the decision of the 217 Jesuit electors in Rome, and I hope that we will all keep them in our prayers.
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