The ‘Third Society of Jesus’: Jesuits from Vatican II to the present

Looking at the more than four centuries of the history of the Society of Jesus, we are all used to talking about the “first” or “ancient” Society of Jesus (from the time of its foundation in the 16th century to its suppression in 1773) and the “second” or “new” Society (from its restoration in 1814 to the present day).

Aug 22, 2020

By Fr Federico Lombardi, SJ,
Looking at the more than four centuries of the history of the Society of Jesus, we are all used to talking about the “first” or “ancient” Society of Jesus (from the time of its foundation in the 16th century to its suppression in 1773) and the “second” or “new” Society (from its restoration in 1814 to the present day). But, in more recent years, we have also begun to speak of a “third” Society, generally active during the period from the Second Vatican Council until today. There have been many  substantial changes in the life of the world and the Church that have been profoundly reflected in the Society of Jesus over the last six decades, leading us to consider them as a new historical period in the history of the Jesuits.

The Second Vatican Council (1962-65) undoubtedly constitutes a watershed in the history of the Church and, consequently, in that of religious institutes, called to renew themselves in depth. During the Council, on October 5, 1964, the superior general of the Jesuits, the Belgian Jean-Baptiste Janssens,  who had been ill for some time, died and the 31st General Congregation was convened for the election of his successor.

On May 22, 1965, Fr Pedro Ar rupe was elected general. He was able to participate in the last session of the Council and – after a period of interruption in the sessions of the Congregation – actively  presided over the resumption and conclusion of the work of the Congregation itself. In the last months of 1966, this Congregation carried out a great work of revision of the  government and of the life and activities of the Society of Jesus in the light of the indications of the Council.

It is therefore reasonable to consider the Second Vatican Council, the 31st General Congregation and the beginning of Fr Arrupe’s generalate, as the beginning of a new period in the history of the Society of Jesus. A period that, extending until today, has seen the succession of four generals: Pedro Arrupe (196583, including the period of government of the pontifical delegate, Fr Paolo Dezza, between 1981 and 1983); Peter-Hans Kolvenbach (1983-2008); Adolfo Nicolás (2008-2016); and Arturo Sosa (2016-now). These relate to the four pontificates (not reckoning, for its extreme brevity, that of John Paul I), with which they overlap to a certain extent: Paul VI (1963-78), for 13 years the “Pope of Arrupe”; John Paul II (1978-2005), for 22 years the “Pope of Kolvenbach”; Benedict XVI (2005-13), for three years with Kolvenbach and five with Nicolás; Francis (2013-…), “Pope of Nicolás and Sosa.”

Arrupe: eyes on the world and the prophecy of Council renewal
Fr Pedro Arrupe led the Society of Jesus in the years after the Council. He was from Spain (Basque), but he spent his life as a missionary in Japan, and in Hiroshima he “lived the atomic bomb,” as the very expressive title of his best-known autobiographical testimony expresses it. The bomb in fact exploded when he was master of novices in that city. With him, the Society broke the long sequence of  European generals who lived in Europe and chose a “non-European European,” who came from the periphery and had his eyes open on today’s world and the breadth and drama of its expectations. All his successors to date in the Third Society have also been non-European Europeans, or finally, simply non-European. This is a very significant fact.

Arrupe’s spirituality was solidly grounded in his profound and passionate reading of Ignatian texts, which he spontaneously and continuously transfused into his letters, speeches and documents addressed to his confreres. Arrupe was the fitting guide for that return to the sources of the “specific charism” of the Jesuit Order, so recommended by the Council to all religious institutes.

In his style of governance Arrupe was innovative. The new general, with his open, affable and charming personality, was a great animator, making himself present to Jesuits on every continent. He knew how to make decisions when it was necessary, and lived deeply the value of religious obedience and availability, but his way of  governing was characterised more by inspiring and attracting than by commanding and imposing.

Arrupe relied heavily on some of his advisors and collaborators and sometimes he was reproached for allowing them too much of a role. However, there can be no doubt about his religious leadership in bringing the Gospel, with courage and momentum, to a new cultural and world context.

In fact, the Union of Superiors General elected him president as early as 1967, reconfirming him four times until 1982, that is, until the time of his illness. The constant esteem that surrounded him, in particular for his virtue, led the Jesuits – a unique case for a general after St Ignatius and St Francis Borgia – to promote his cause for beatification.

The renewal of the Society of Jesus had to be carried out in many directions and take into account many different situations.

For example, in Asia and Africa, in the context of the waning of the European colonial era, the Society had to reorganise itself, moving from the tradition centred on the “missions” dependent on European provinces to the new vision and reality of religious provinces rooted and governed locally.

In Latin America, development and the growing awareness of situations of inequality and injustice drove the Jesuits to become more and more involved in the field of social commitment in favour of the poor rather than in education which, until then, had been predominant and directed mainly at the offspring of the upper classes.

But the time after the Council  was a time of considerable tension in the Church. In the space of a few years, conciliar enthusiasm was overlaid and mixed with the unrest of 1968 and the complex cultural climate that accompanied it,  protests against institutions and traditional morals, and discussions in the Church — it is enough to recall the storm that followed the publication of the encyclical Humanae Vitae. Naturally the Jesuits were also involved, as they were part of their time.

The traditional forms of personal and community religious life entered into crisis: departures from the Order multiplied to a very significant extent; debates on social, political and theological issues became heated and manifested themselves publicly. This was the case for many Church leaders, including several Jesuits.

The tension within the Order and the criticism of Fr Arrupe’s government reached its highest and most emblematic point in Spain, where a group of Jesuits – who defined themselves as interpreters of the “true Society” – came to formulate the project of the constitution of a separate religious province.

The crisis was overcome,  thanks to the support given by Paul VI to Arrupe, but it remained a symptom of a profound problem – internal and external – which continued to fuel criticism and distrust by the government of the Order. Despite the criticism, Fr Arrupe did not feel discouraged. He felt understood, esteemed and supported in his difficult commitment by the vast majority of his confreres.

Profound changes spring from the 32nd General Congregation
Fr Arrupe, within a few years,  realised that the work done by the 31st General Congregation was already insufficient to guide the Society of Jesus in a world so rapidly and profoundly changed.

That is why he made the decision – which he considered the most important of his generalate – to convoke a new Congregation, the 32nd (GC32), which would reflect more deeply on the mission of the Jesuits in the face of the new challenges and the need to implement the Second Vatican Council.

After long preparation, GC32 took place between 1974 and 1975, in a very troubled context, both because of internal tensions, and above all because of serious misunderstandings between Arrupe and Paul VI.

It has been described as one of the most difficult Congregations in the  history of the Order, but from an historical perspective, it cannot be denied that it succeeded in formulating two crucial points of reference for the development of the contemporary life of the Jesuits.

These are the famous 4th De cree, Our Mission Today: Diakonia of Faith and Promotion of Justice, and the lesser-known, but also important, 11th Decree, The Union of Souls. Guidelines for Spiritual and Community Life, a document of great richness and balance for Jesuit  religious life, which has not lost its validity over the years.

In the key statement of the 4th Decree, that “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement,” echoes the passionate desire of Jesuits to participate fully in the affairs of humanity, especially where it suffers poverty and injustice. And this must have concrete consequences in the choice of ministries, in the forms and places of life and apostolate.

It is therefore not difficult to understand why discussions on the correct interpretation of the relationship between the terms “faith” and “justice” have multiplied.

I would offer two observations. The first is that, speaking of faith and justice, the Jesuits did nothing distinctively original, but lived what the Church lived, aware of what was happening in the world. By 1967,  Paul VI had already published the historic encyclical Populorum Progressio, in 1971, he had selected justice in the world as the theme of a Synod of Bishops. Moreover, liberation theology with its different forms and currents had developed in Latin America and also involved regions of other continents.

The second observation is that the 4th Decree, although it required continuous fine-tuning, integration and reformulation by the superior generals and Congregations in the following years, remained both the starting and reference point of a difficult but fruitful journey. In a certain sense, the story of how the “Third Society” understood and lived its mission can be read along the thread of the developments that followed. Each general and each Congregation has taken care to be positioned explicitly in continuity and not in conflict with the 4th Decree.

Towards Jesuit Refugee Service
In the last period of his government, Fr Arrupe gave valuable guidance for the subsequent development of the Order’s commitment. It is worth remembering the extensive reflection on the theme of “inculturation” of the proclamation of the Gospel, which found its synthesis in a Letter of 1978. In 1979, faced with the emergency of the boat people fleeing Vietnam, Arrupe launched an appeal for service to refugees and an invitation to engage in it with generosity.

The Jesuit Refugee Service, born then, continues to be active to this day, involving a large number of other religious and lay people. It is one of the most eloquent signs of the active service of the Society for suffering humanity, not alone, but in collaboration with many other ecclesial and non-ecclesial forces. Finally,  in 1980, after extensive consultation and in-depth reflection, Fr Arrupe published a Letter on the theme of Marxist analysis and dialogue with Marxists, a theme which was then at the centre of heated debates and strong tensions, particularly in Latin America. Its echo reached far afield, and there was widespread appreciation of the depth and balance of the document.

However, because of the criticisms of the Jesuits coming to Rome from various quarters, the confidence of the new pope, John Paul II, in the government of Fr Arrupe was irreparably damaged.

In 1980, the pope did not authorise him to call the General Congregation at which he wanted to present his resignation. Arrupe’s serious illness occurred in 1981, and the pope  intervened by appointing his own delegate for the government of the Order: Fr Paolo Dezza, assisted by Fr Giuseppe Pittau.

Despite the unprecedented seriousness of the papal decision, the Jesuits generally accepted it with sorrow but with dignified availability, and so Fr Dezza – with great wisdom and skill – managed to re-establish, in an unexpectedly short time, that situation of trust on the part of the pope – and also of the Society – which was necessary to convene the 33rd General Congregation.

In this way, by 1983 the Order had returned to a normal situation, under the guidance of a new general elected by the Jesuits in the usual manner, Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. Today, thinking back to that crucial passage in the history of the Third Society,  we can say that it was a difficult test well overcome, and not a wound left unattended. On the contrary, with a certain humility, many of the Jesuits were able to integrate that experience as an important positive lesson  of the need to devote more attention to the relationship with the papacy. ––La Civilta Cattolica

Continued next week

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