By Becky Sindelar
December 8, 2014 — A General Congregation of the Society of Jesus is an event steeped in history and significance — but one that most people know nothing about. In the 474-year history of the Society, it’s happened only 35 times; that changed today when Father General Adolfo Nicolás, SJ, Superior General of the Jesuits, convoked the 36th General Congregation.
Fr. Nicolás, who has served as Superior General since 2008, has announced his intention to resign, making a General Congregation, or “GC” for short, necessary. The congregations are held for only two reasons: to elect a new Superior General and to discuss major issues of importance to the Society — “matters of greater moment” according to the Jesuit Constitutions.
Jesuit Father John Padberg, a historian and the former longtime director of the Institute of Jesuit Sources, describes the congregations as dealing “with those matters that would preserve, protect and advance the life of the Society, the individual and common religious life of its members and its external apostolates.”
Delegates from over 90 provinces from around the world attended General Congregation 35 in Rome. Photo by Fr. Don Doll, SJ.
Convoking General Congregation 36, which will be held in October 2016 in Rome, puts in motion a series of preparatory steps. Why two years of planning? As Jesuit Father James Grummer, General Counselor for the Society and Assistant ad providentiam, explains, “In the U.S. we don’t have a formal convocation before an election because everyone knows it’s the first Tuesday of November. Because the Society of Jesus doesn’t have a regularly scheduled time for General Congregations, we have to have a formal convocation.”
Fr. Grummer adds, “Once the process gets started, there’s a whole lot of things that have to happen,” from Province Congregations held throughout the world to finding rooms for more than 200 Jesuits who will attend GC 36.
Throughout the spring and summer of 2015, Jesuit provinces will hold Province Congregations, or meetings, where the Jesuits of the province elect representatives, called electors, to attend the General Congregation. The provincial usually attends by virtue of his office, but typically one or two other electors are chosen, depending on the size of the province.
The Province Congregation’s other important role is to review postulates, which are suggestions any Jesuit can submit about topics for discussion at GC 36.
Fr. James Grummer, SJ (front row, third from right), was one of a group of American Jesuits to participate in GC 35.
In the fall of 2015, the U.S. provincials and electors will meet to prepare for the congregation. Among other matters, they will elect one of their number to serve on the De Statu committee, which examines the current state of the Society of Jesus. “If you’re going to elect a new general, you need to know the current situation,” Fr. Grummer says of the committee, which is comprised of individuals from around the world.
With preparations complete, more than 200 Jesuits will converge in Rome in October 2016. The group will include Jesuit provincials, electors, and particular Jesuits officials. While the electors will know for certain what day to arrive in Rome, they won’t know when to book their return ticket home. The shortest General Congregations are about a month long, and the longest have lasted nearly five months.
When the day arrives to elect the 31st Superior General of the Society of Jesus, those with the right to vote will gather for an hour-long period of reflection and prayer.
“It was totally, totally awesome,” Fr. Grummer recalls of GC 35. “One of the most senior Jesuits gave a brief exhortation, reminding us of what we were supposed to do, and then we spent the rest of the hour in prayer. It was very moving. No one said a word, people just sat there and prayed in profound silence.”
Each Jesuit must vote and after counting the ballots, the names are read aloud. When Fr. Nicolás was elected at GC 35, Fr. Grummer says that everyone applauded. “Then he came down to the front, put his hand on a Bible, and read the Creed. Then everyone came up to shake his hand, and we let the Holy Father know who was elected.”
While all eyes will be on the election of a Superior General, the decrees that come out of General Congregations are very significant. Recent General Congregation documents have informed the current mission of the Society, such as Decree 4 of GC 32, which articulated Jesuits’ mission and identity as the “service of faith and the promotion of justice.”
"A General Congregation is an incredible experience," says Fr. Grummer. “You’re there with Jesuits from all over the world, and they’re really wonderful people. It’s fascinating to talk to them and find out what interests them and to know what the issues are. You get to know new people from all over and connect with people you’ve known for a long time.”
In the rooms where St. Ignatius wrote the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, Fr. Nicolás (center) listens to a reading. Photo by Fr. Don Doll, SJ.
Click here to learn some of the more interesting facts about General Congregations, which began over 450 years ago.
Do you want to learn more about vocations to the Society of Jesus? Visit www.jesuitvocations.org for more information.