//The Dilemmas of Jesuit Governance

The Dilemmas of Jesuit Governance

These reflections are personal so any implied criticism applies to my own unsuccessful efforts as one involved in Jesuit governance for over 30 years.

Our Superior General insists that Jesuit life and mission must hold certain polarities in a healthy tension. Some such are: contemplation and action, the universal and the local, being in the world but not of the world, intellectual depth and grass-root involvement. For those in governance there is further polarity of care of persons and care of the apostolate.

Jesuit governance demands that superiors engage in discernment with utmost earnestness. Does this happen? Can this happen?

A dilemma superiors constantly face is the tension between institution and charismatic, in the sense of prophetic witness. Jesuits engaged in social action identify with those whose human rights are violated and seek to accompany these disadvantaged and exploited groups. These Jesuits expect, and rightly, that their superiors will endorse their efforts and support them. However, such social involvement may put us in conflict with benefactors of our institutions or authorities whose goodwill is essential for our institutions to serve mission in accordance to their objectives. Can the superior make himself ‘indifferent’, in the Ignatian sense, to properly discern how mission is best served?

Within Jesuit ministries, superiors encounter another dilemma, which may also be described as tension between institution and charism, in the sense of special skill or gift. There are Jesuits who excel in many things but have an aptitude for research and publications, which is less evident among us than we would wish. The intellectual apostolate and the contribution of serious scholarship to country and Church has long been emphasized at our General Congregations. However, how many superiors make a discernment that results in “protecting our scholars”, to use an expression of Fr. Adolfo Nicolas? More often than not, the needs of an institution, usually leadership positions in an institution prevail and such gifted men are then asked to do the one but also the other: a demand to multi-task that is affecting the creativity, productivity and, I dare say, the quality of spiritual and community life of many of our most talented Jesuits. I believe there are underlying issues here about the esteem we in South Asia have for scholarship and its impact on mission, as against the contribution that our educational institutions make, which need honest exploration. In like vein, one could mention the choice between assigning young and competent men to institutions whose apostolic value seems evident, and setting them aside for specialised ministry such as experts in other religions, Ignatian spirituality, men capable of innovative work in the pastoral field, youth ministry, counselling at a professional level.

Yet another dilemma emerges when a community includes a Jesuit whose presence is generally held to be detrimental to its life and ministries. An analogy often given is that such persons, who by character or due to mental ill health are discordant elements, are like members in the family who, by reason of age or mental ill health, are impossible to deal with. A family cannot disown its members and so it must find a way to cope as best it can, it is said. To my mind, this is a false analogy because the Society is not a family. It is above all an apostolic body bound together by a commitment to Jesus Christ and to the mission He has entrusted to us. However, this also means that the compassionate love of Jesus needs to find its reflection in the community so that its “healthy” members do not too easily plead apostolic needs as reason to have the “difficult” member transferred. Here is an acute case where the dilemma of care for the person and care for the apostolate manifests itself.

General Congregation 36 has emphasized the importance of networks as powerful apostolic instruments. However, governing networks (for the moment, we speak only of Jesuit networks) as they move from local to national and global levels is a challenge we have yet to face but which will soon be upon us in South Asia. On the one hand, superiors must ensure that the policies and public positions of a network are in line with Jesuit values and yet such oversight must not impede the dynamism and creativity of networks where horizontal interaction among its players, not vertical control, makes a network most effective.

I do not pretend to have an answer to these dilemmas, else what is discernment for? I do wish, however, to plead for the proper preparation of our superiors for the immense responsibility the Society places on their frail shoulders. In many Provinces in Europe and the Americas, the appointment of a Provincial is announced a year or so before he assumes office. This is precious time for his personal and professional preparation. He needs to grow in competences he may lack: financial, planning skills, or language abilities.  Most of all, he needs to take time to enter into himself in depth to discover the fears, the prejudices, the self-interest that may lie within and which will always impair the quality of discernment he will have to make.