Jesuits to elect new global superior


Jesuits process through the streets of Rome to celebrate Mass together at General Congregation 35 in 2008, when the Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., was elected superior general. The Jesuits will convene General Congregation 36 on Oct. 2 to elect Nicolas’ successor. (Image credit: General Congregation 35)

Colleen Dulle

On Oct. 2, the world’s Jesuits will meet in Rome to elect a new superior general when the Rev. Adolfo Nicolas, S.J., steps down.

The meeting, called General Congregation 36, includes an almost 500-year-old election system that allows for no campaigning. Nicolas convened the meeting so that he could resign–making him the second superior, the top leader of the Jesuits, to step down rather than keeping the position for life.

The Rev. Fred Kammer, S.J., director of the Jesuit Social Research Institute on Loyola’s campus, attended the last General Congregation as a delegate ten years ago.

He said that in the first days of the meeting, following a Mass and a speech on the state of the Jesuits, the delegates disperse around the different Jesuit houses in Rome to meet each other and begin what they call the “murmuratio” or “murmuring.”

During the murmuratio, the delegates can only ask questions about others; for example, they’ll ask about a Jesuit’s leadership skills or his health. They can also look at the book they’ve been given with each delegate’s name, photo, experience and language skills.

Campaigning is not allowed, because Jesuits promise that they will not seek office in the Society of Jesus or the church, and that they will report anyone who does.

“I’ve never seen anyone who’s said, ‘I want to be the provincial’ or ‘I want to be the superior’ or ‘I want to be a bishop,'” Kammer said. “Ignatius was death on ambition. He thought it was very corrupting.”

After three days of murmuratio, the delegates celebrate another Mass together, hear a speech and are handed a ballot written in Latin with an oath on one side promising that the delegate is voting of his own free will, and a blank space on the other side for the delegate’s vote, Kammer said.

“The cardinals are supposed to use something similar for electing pope,” Kammer said, “I don’t know, but I don’t think it’s as strict as this is.”

Kammer said the Jesuits fill out their ballots and drop them in one of two large wood ballot boxes in the middle of the circular meeting hall, then several delegates bring the boxes to any delegates in the infirmary to collect their votes. Then, the votes are read.

First, an elected delegate counts the ballots out loud and passes each to two people who confirm that the counting is correct. If they don’t count the right number of ballots–usually a little over 200–they have to count again.

Next, the same delegate reads the name aloud off every ballot and the two others ensure that the right name is being read. If no one has a majority, they repeat the voting process.

Kammer said he can’t disclose how many times the process was repeated at the last congregation, but, he said, they were finished before lunch on the first day.

Once someone is elected, the pope is notified and gives the new leader his blessing.

John Sebastian, vice president of Mission and Ministry at Loyola, said that superior generals are responsible for setting priorities for the Jesuits. He said the last few superiors had global experience and were good at motivating people, which are characteristics the electors might seek this year.

Kammer said that the delegates from the U.S. for this year have already met to discuss possible candidates for superior general, which include the leaders of each conference and assistancy.

The assistant for the United States is the Rev. Douglas Marcouiller, S.J., and the president of the U.S. and Canadian conference is the Rev. Timothy Kesicki, S.J.

Both are delegates for this general congregation, unofficially making them eligible for election as superior. Though there is no rule saying the superior must be a delegate, the Jesuits have never elected a superior who wasn’t already at the congregation.

The Rev. Tom Greene, S.J., who was elected to represent the Jesuits’ Central and Southern Province, which includes Louisiana, at this year’s congregation, said he hadn’t heard any names repeated as good candidates across the different circles of Jesuits he speaks with.

“They’re so diverse, and I might hear a name in one group that I didn’t in another, so I really think we don’t have any front runners,” Greene said.

He said he hopes the next superior emphasizes the environment and other priorities Pope Francis has stressed.

“I think it would be great if we had our own Francis,” Greene said.

Greene and Sebastian are on the committee that will implement the congregation’s decisions locally. Though they can’t be certain, both anticipate documents or discussions on the environment and mass migration.

For Loyola, implementing the congregation’s decisions might mean looking into teaching more courses on the environment or offering online courses for displaced people, Greene and Sebastian said. Ultimately, the decision will be up to the university.

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