Arturo Sosa, SJ on what Pope Francis and St Ignatius have in common

Arturo Sosa, SJ, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, granted an interview to GERARD O’CONNELL of America in the Jesuit Curia in Rome on the eve of the launch of a new book published to coincide with the Ignatian Year.

May 22, 2021

Father Arturo Sosa, superior general of the Jesuits, speaks during the presentation of the book, Walking with Ignatius, in Rome May 11, 2021. The book is based on an interview journalist Dario Menor conducted with Father Sosa. (CNS photo/courtesy General Curia of the Society of Jesus)

By Gerard O’Connell
We spoke on May 10, the eve of the launch of Walking with Ignatius, a work based  on interviews he conducted with Dario Menor, a Spanish journalist and a married  man with children who is not a member of the society. The 270-page book offers  deep insights and stimulating material for reflection and discussion during the  Ignatian Year that commemorates the 500th anniversary of Ignatius’ conversion  after he was badly injured by a cannonball at Pamplona, Spain on May 20, 1521. The  commemoration begins on May 20 and concludes July 31, 2022, the saint’s feastday.

Fr Arturo Sosa SJ spoke about  how Francis, the first Jesuit  pope, is working to reform  the Church, even though some bishops “are not rowing with him,” and  considered whether this opposition  could lead to division in the Church.

I began with a remark from the  book — “I see Ignatius as a great reformer” — and asked if he sees Pope  Francis as a reformer too.

Fr Sosa explained that he had used  the adjective “great” when asked  whether Ignatius could be considered “an apostle of the CounterReformation.” He remarked, “Frequently, Ignatius and his companions  have been presented as ‘counter reformers’ but my point is, he was not  in the counter-reformation. He was a  reformer, and a better reformer than  Luther.” He recalled that Luther advocated a reformation but “ended up  with a schism that he did not initially  desire,” whereas Ignatius, like other  reformers in the Catholic Church,  like Francis of Assisi, “obtained reforms without causing division.”

“In that sense,” he said, “Francis  is one who believes that the Church  needs to be reformed and he knows  that the reform of the Church comes  from the Second Vatican Council.  So he wants to put in place that kind  of reform, the reform that was discerned and decided in the Second  Vatican Council.”

In his book, Fr Sosa highlighted  “synodality” as one of the main elements for that reform of the Church.

He explained, “Synodality is the  word we are using now, but the Second Vatican Council used the expression ‘People of God.’”

He recalled that in Argentina,  Jorge Mario Bergoglio “was one of  the promoters of the ‘Teologia del  pueblo’ [theology of the people].”  He said today “the main reform is  that the Church really becomes ‘the  People of God’ and that means that  its ministers are servants or pastors.  Francis uses the image of pastor often, meaning that everyone is taking  care of the other one. The pastor is  not a chief, the others are not sheep.  That is a very big, deep reform.”

When he spoke in the Church of  Gesú in Rome, on Sept 27, 2014, for  the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus, Francis  called on his fellow Jesuits, saying  “let us all row together!” I asked if  the Jesuits are doing that, Fr Sosa replied, “Yes! Yes! I think so. We are  trying to row together and to row  deeper.”

But, he said, “the danger is that  some can row in one direction, others  in another direction, so the big challenge is to row together in the same  direction. And today, Pope Francis is  giving a direction to the Church to  row together.”

Asked how he interprets the fact  that some bishops are not rowing  with Francis, the Jesuit leader said  this is due to “the diversity in human  nature and in the Church. Bishops  have been appointed in many different moments, with many different  criteria. There are bishops for whom  the Second Vatican Council, which  took place almost 60 years ago, is not  part of their normal way of proceeding.” Many still do not accept it as a  way to reform the Church or the path  the Church should follow, he said.

“The risk is always there,” he said,  of a parallel Church emerging, “but I  don’t see a near risk of a division of  the Church.”

A painful journey
In the book, Walking With Ignatius, when asked if he thinks the  Catholic Church in Europe and the  Americas is heading toward becoming a Church composed of a small,  pure minority,  Fr Sosa warned, “We need to  be careful about purity as it can be  the seed of religious fundamentalism which is the worst of all kinds  of fundamentalism because it kills  in the name of God and sows intolerance in His name.” He added,  “There is no room for intolerance in  the church.”

I asked where he sees such intolerance today. He replied, “I see it in  the absence of mercy.” For example,  “in the many attitudes surrounding  the [phenomenon of abuse.”

He said, “For me, abuse is a very  significant sin of the Church, of the  clergy and other members of the  Church. I am not justifying it and, as  the Pope said, I too think that even  one abuse is already a shame for us.”  He added, “That is the starting point.  I think we have done something  about recognising the errors and the  sins, but the intolerance is about the  other steps.”

Fr Sosa said, “The victims and  those who are abusers need to be  healed. Abuse is a very deep wound,  and we need to heal that. But how do  you heal that? With intolerance? No!  You heal that with mercy. You heal  that by accompanying processes.  You heal that by reconciliation and  forgiveness.”

In the book, he speaks about the  need to find ways to bring healing to  the perpetrators as well.

I asked if he was shocked or surprised when he saw abuse cases  emerging among the Jesuits. “Yes,”  he said. “It was a very painful situation. Very painful. And there was  not one case, there were many cases,  and in many places including Chile,  the United States, Germany, England, Spain and elsewhere. It was really a shock, a shock in the sense that  I had not imagined the possibility.”

Does he think the Church is overcoming this problem? Fr Sosa said,  “I feel that the Church has started to  do that, but it is not behind us, it is  still in front of us, and we have to  face it. I think the Church has begun  to take steps and the big change I  have seen is to put the victim in the  centre.” He recalled, “The first reaction, 30 or more years ago when the  first cases came, was the defence of  the institution, of the order or of the  diocese — putting the institution before the individual.

“But today, the victim is put in  the first place, to hear the victim, to  believe the victim and the suffering  of the victim, and that has helped  change a lot the behaviour of the  Church and it has helped to put in  place the norms and the procedures  and so on,” he said. “I think that today there is no case that is not denounced and placed under civil law  and canon law.”

But, he said, “that is not enough.  We have also to move as a group in  the sense that, yes, the victim is a  victim, but there is also a perpetrator  who has problems. Moreover, the  victim and the perpetrator are part  of our community, so there is also  an institutional dimension to what is  going to happen, and there is also a  cultural dimension.”

“All this is a big cultural change,”  he said, “and if we take seriously  what we believe, namely, that in the  end redemption is a work of forgiveness and reconciliation, then that is  the big challenge, how to arrive at  this. We have a long way to go.”

There is hope for the futur
Since the numbers of Jesuits have  decreased in recent decades, I  asked how the society relates to those  who left. “Very many former Jesuits  are working in our apostolates and  are working in a good way,” he said, explaining that “normally, most of  the Jesuits who left the society concluded in the process that this was  not their vocation or the Society told  them this is not the place for you. For  the majority, this is a very well-done  process in dialogue and [the decision is made] with agreement. But  there are also cases when it is not like  that and they are told you must go or  when there is a very big problem.”

“It’s normal that some persons  leave during formation,” he said, “the  idea of the formation is to test. But if  they leave after formation, that raises  another question.” He revealed that in  some provinces in recent years, “an  abnormal number of young priests  left the society,” and this raises questions regarding “our formation and  our accompaniment.”

In the book, Fr Sosa said, “Africa  is today the place where the apostolic  body of the society is seeing the most  growth, as much in vocations as in  our activities and partnerships.”

Asked in the interview about this  development, he said, “Africa is  the younger Church. The Church is  growing in Africa, and so too is the  Society of Jesus.” The society also  has many vocations in Vietnam, Fr  Sosa said, “but the circumstances  are different there and could even  be linked to the wish to be free. But  the growth in Africa is bigger and  may be like what happened in Latin  America over a hundred years ago.”

Asked if having a Jesuit pope has  increased the number of vocations to  the society, Fr Sosa said, “It’s impossible to prove that, but I think Pope  Francis is a good point of reference  for many people.”

He revealed in the book that many  of the vocations to the Society today  do not come from Jesuit institutions.  He explained that in “the 1960s or  1970s, the main reference point for  Jesuit vocations was its schools,”  but “this is no longer the case today  as there are many other ways to get  in touch with the society, including  through our work with refugees or in  the parishes and through the spiritual  exercises.”

Indeed, “young people are quite attracted to the exercises, and we have  so many ways of offering the exercises [now], whereas before we had a  more rigid model.” He added, “Many  women give exercises even to Jesuits, and they are very good. So that’s  a whole new development.”

Asked what he envisages the Society of Jesus will be like in 10 to 20  years’ time, Fr Sosa said, “I think we  will be fewer in terms of numbers,  maybe 10,000 to 12,000, but we  will be younger. Now we have a big  group of elders — and I am one of  them — and we will not be here in  20 years.”

“We will be more diverse culturally,” he said. “That’s another amazing phenomenon in the Society, the  variety of cultures and the variety  of social and family backgrounds of  the new men joining the society. And  there will be more inter-cultural communities.”

He envisages “more collaboration  with others, with non-Jesuits, not  only more collaboration in our works  but also in our working together with  others in common projects, with  Catholics and non-Catholics.”

“We have a huge group of Jesuits  in Asia and in Africa, in countries  where Christians are minorities,” he  said. “So, in addition to being intercultural, I think we will also be interreligious in many places. I envisage a  society more in dialogue in all these  processes, and very engaged in social  work ... that is associated with the  climate crisis and with poverty — today a great many Jesuits are working  with the poor.”

In the book, he said “the fact that  the Pope is now a Jesuit places us at  a disadvantage because he has to be  careful not to give the impression that  he has a preferential relationship with  the Society.” I suggested there must  be advantages too, so which ones?

“For me, the advantage is that  you can talk the same language,” he  said. “When we say the word ‘discernment’, we are saying the same  thing. When we say ‘consultation,’  we know what we are talking about,  likewise when we say ‘availability’  (disponabilitá). We are talking the  same language.” He recalled that “it was very difficult to talk to St John Paul II. He  spoke another language. He understood religious life in a very different  way to Francis. And you can ask the  nuns about this too, not just the Jesuits. John Paul II did not understand a  religious man who was not ordained;  he did not understand a brother. For  him religious life was for women,  for the not ordained, but in a second  place.” —  America Magazine

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