Discernment is for every Christian — not just Jesuits

On May 20, 2021, the Society of Jesus kicks off the Ignatian Year, a celebration of the 500th anniversary of the conversion of St Ignatius Loyola, following his “cannonball moment” on the battle-field of Pamplona. To kick off this year of prayer and deepening conversion in our own lives, America spoke with Arturo Sosa, SJ, the superior general of the Jesuits. Ashley McKinless, the host of the “Jesuitical” podcast, and Colleen Dulle of “Inside the Vatican” ask Fr Sosa what Christians today can learn from Ignatius’ journey towards Christ, about his relationship with Pope Francis and more.

May 22, 2021

Pope Francis greets Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, superior general of the Society of Jesus, before a meeting with editors and staff of the Jesuit-run magazine, La Civilta Cattolica, at the Vatican Feb. 9, 2017. (CNS photo/L'Osservatore Romano, handout)

Ashley McKinless:
Since you  are the superior general of the  Jesuits, and Pope Francis is  our first Jesuit pope, who’s in  charge? Do you report to him  or does he report to you?

Arturo Sosa, SJ: He is the Pope, so  it’s very clear. Every Jesuit reports to  the Pope. When a Jesuit becomes a  bishop, his obedience [is no longer]  to the superiors of the Society. No,  the bishop depends on the Pope, and  the Pope depends on himself, on the  Spirit. Ignatius Loyola used to call  the Pope the vicar of Christ on Earth.  [Francis] is the Pope. So, I am accountable to him.

Colleen Dulle: What is it like to  meet with the Pope? What’s  your relationship like?
It is a very fraternal and respectful relationship. Pope Francis knows very  well the Society of Jesus. And he  knows just how we can help him, and  he knows what to ask the Society and  which persons can be missioned for  his projects. And in a very fraternal  way, we know each other from many,  many years ago. So, it is a relationship that has been growing differently  in different moments of my life.

AM: You’ve said the Pope is  the pope. Who is the superior  general? How would you describe your job?
I would describe it as the neck of a  body. You know that Ignatius and St  Paul love to use the image of the body  for the Church and for the Society of  Jesus. And I feel I am the neck of a  body, and the head is Jesus Christ.  The superior general is the one who  tries to assure the connection between  the body and its head. And that’s my  task, to be the neck, to be the communication between the Society of Jesus  and the head, Jesus Christ.

CD: We are entering the Ignatian Year, which is a celebration of the 500th anniversary  of the cannonball injury that  St Ignatius experienced while  he was defending Pamplona.  It was a pivotal moment in his  life. He was confined to bed.  He began his conversion process then. Why is it important  for the Jesuits to return to that  moment of conversion in Ignatius’ life? What does it teach us  today?

We do not “return to”; we are not  going back. We make memory of a  special moment that actually opens a  new path for the life of a man, Ignatius Loyola — a moment that led him  to found the Society of Jesus. We are  remembering that because we can  still learn a lot from Ignatius’ process.

A very important teaching is that  by finding Jesus in our life, we can  experience styles of living we cannot even imagine by ourselves. And  that’s what happened to Ignatius.  Ignatius never imagined what his  life would become after the personal  encounter with Christ. If we open  ourselves to deepen our relationship  with Jesus, things will become new  to our eyes, and new dimensions of  our life’s mission will be renewed in  a way we cannot plan or even imagine.

That’s why, in this year, we do not  talk about Ignatius. We talk about  how we can see all things new —  from the point of view of Christ.  That’s what Ignatius learned in his  own process.

CD: I want to ask you a little bit  more about Pope Francis and  how being a Jesuit has shaped  him as Pope. He’s somebody  who talks a lot about discernment, which is a really important part of Jesuit spirituality. What can we all learn from  Pope Francis about discernment?

Pope Francis is not only a Jesuit; he  is a Christian. And discernment is  part of Christianity. Discernment is  an essential dimension of Christian  life in all times. It is not something  recent. Jesus was a man of discernment. If you read the Gospels attentively, you will see a man who is, all  the time, trying to understand what is  God’s will, to follow God’s will, and  all Christians should do that. That’s  why Jesus stayed with us after the  resurrection, through the Spirit. He  gave us the most precious gift: his  Spirit, the way of discerning.

We are about to celebrate Pentecost in a few days. So, we can renew our idea of being guided by the  Spirit. Discernment is the skill every  Christian needs to be guided by the  Holy Spirit. And that’s why Ignatian  spirituality is pointed to that.

Ignatian Spiritual Exercises are a  kind of discernment school. Following the Spiritual Exercises, every person can be helped to hear the voice of  God calling him to a fully human life  and to decide to follow that voice —  to make an election.

AM: So, all Jesuits do the Spiritual Exercises, but one thing  that’s always struck me about  the Society is the diverse directions that Jesuits go in  from there. You have Jesuits  who are teachers, doctors, actors, podcasters, everything  you can think of. That’s clearly  part of the Jesuit charism and  the strength of the order. But  as the person who’s on top of  that, at the neck, how do you  manage such a diverse workforce?

Every day I discover something new  that Jesuits are doing! Because each  Jesuit is a font of creativity. And it is  very important to understand that the  Society of Jesus is not an organization for “doing something.” It’s not a  job. No, the Society of Jesus is made  of people who want to respond to  the call of the Spirit. And as we also  learned from the Bible, the Spirit —  we don’t know where he’s going to  guide us.

So, what we need is to be very in  touch with the Spirit. We do not invent a mission for ourselves or try to  do new things because of the novelty  they can have. We respond to God’s  will, whatever it might be. And my  big responsibility is to follow that, to  be sure that the Society is really following God’s will. Thus, it’s done  through a flexible structure that trusts  in every person who shares the mission and its roots in Christ. And we  try, together, to find the way that God  is showing us.

That’s why, in the last years, we  are deepening discernment in common, not only discernment as a personal process but discernment of the  body. We need to hear as a body, the  Spirit.

CD: You have this amazing, diverse group of people who are  doing so many cool and different things. But at the same  time, at least in the US and Europe, vocations have been going down. I’m wondering what  your vision of the Society is in  the next 10 to 20 years.

I think the Society of Jesus in 10 or  20 years will be smaller than now in  numbers of Jesuits but larger in collaboration with others. We are learning a lot in collaboration with others.  And this is our way of being integrated, in a bigger way, of carrying the  mission of Jesus Christ.

The Society of Jesus will be integrated by a greater variety of cultures,  living in and witnessing interculturality. This is an amazing characteristic  of the Society of Jesus: We are so diverse, and this diversity is growing.  We have people from I don’t know  how many cultures, living the same  vocation, in the same Spirit. And our  big challenge is to enrich ourselves  from that variety or diversity.

We will be a Society of Jesus,  adapting to the lifestyles, to the  works, to the demands of a better  balance with the environment. That,  I think, is a big challenge for our  life: how we embody as a big group  of persons — in many places of the  world, coming from different cultures — how we can be witness of  a new way of relationship with the  environment. America Magazine

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