Even as the Pope keeps plugging away at various initiatives, above all else, the core of this Fall's news-cycle is rooted in three elections – none of which Francis has a vote in, yet all set to offer a snapshot of Jorge Bergoglio's impact on the wider church as his pontificate wends toward its fifth year.
Of course, the buildup continues toward the most omnipresent of the coming choices – with 26 days remaining until the US' presidential election, after a campaign cycle unparalleled in its strangeness and rancor, only now is much of the leadership class of the nation's largest religious body deciding what to do. In other words, that dynamic amid a tight race makes this October an even more critical time than usual in terms of the all-important Catholic vote.
A week later, meanwhile, another key decision awaits: in a confluence that only occurs once every dozen years, the US bishops will follow up the White House vote with the election of their own president and vice-president during their plenary in Baltimore. As the bench's (almost) sacrosanct tradition elevates the incumbent #2 to the top slot, the pick of Cardinal Daniel DiNardo's deputy will essentially lock in the conference's direction for the next six years: a timeframe likely to extend beyond Francis' reign, and likewise one which – given turbulence between the hierarchy and Federal government on several fronts – portends an intense new phase of church-state disputes regardless of who ends up in the Oval Office.
Given Sunday's announcement of cardinals-designate
and a Consistory next month, we can add the thread of another, albeit not imminent, vote to this election-centric cycle – the eventual next Conclave.... For now, though, even the fresh scarlet crop takes a back seat to the first major ballot of these weeks: among the looming trio, the most consequential one for the church, the one most important to the Man in White, both personally and in the programmatic... and, indeed, the one over which Francis looms largest.
* * *
After two years of preparation, the "Black Conclave" is upon us – sometime tomorrow morning (Friday, 14 October) in Rome, the 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus will culminate in the election of the 30th successor of Ignatius of Loyola as head of global Catholicism's largest and most influential religious community of men.
It's no accident that the post has long held the moniker "Black Pope" – in terms of the raw authority he can exercise across the Catholic world and the massive collection of works he oversees, the Jesuit Father-General is the second most powerful cleric in the universal church, behind only his white-clad neighbor up the Borgo Santo Spirito.
The reasons are twofold: first, unlike the fixed term of office held by practically every other global superior, Ignatius gave his successors a lifetime mandate (even as, for the third time in a row, this GC has seen a General resign due to age or infirmity). And most of all, with the Company crafted to resemble an army, once elected, the General's prerogatives are sweeping and practically unchecked – an exercise most vividly seen in his unilateral appointment of the provincials who manage the order's worldwide branches, and the heads of the ten continental assistancies into which they're grouped.
Already, the immediate prelude to the election is underway, in the form of one of Catholicism's most mysterious and fascinating procedures. Since Monday, the 215 delegates have been immersed in the traditional 96 hours of murmuratio
("murmuring") – an exercise of intense prayer and discernment, in which the electors may speak to each other, but only one-on-one, to pursue information about candidate(s) with the qualities to be elected General, and the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Aside from prayer and meals in common, activity among any more than two delegates is forbidden, as is "lobbying" or vote-counts of any sort. Notably, after spending the GC's first week in small group discussions of the De statu Societatis
– the massive report on the "State of the Society," identifying the global order's strengths and needs (and thus framing the identikit of the new General) – the Fathers moved to slow up their timeframe before proceeding to the election, a signal that the initial sizing up of their options and direction needed a bit more depth.
Once the four days of mumuratio
are completed early tomorrow, after a 7.30am Mass of the Holy Spirit, the voting begins. All told, it tends to be much quicker than the "other" Conclave: in the two most recent electoral GCs (1983 and 2008), the General respectively emerged on the first and second ballots.
While the Society used the two-year prep period to gut and rebuild the Aula where the Congregation meets – and, to help "live in reconciliation with the earth," made the proceedings as digitally-friendly as possible
to cut down on paper – the vote for the General will still be done in pen and ink. Yet only its conclusion brings the fun part: once a simple majority has chosen the new successor of Ignatius, before the doors are opened and the wider world is informed, by ancient custom, the name of the designee must be sent to the Pope for his assent.
Over the last few GCs, with the pontiff already put on standby, the message was delivered by phone call.... But this time, for obvious reasons, what's to say the Man in White won't be waiting outside the room?
More on that in a sec.
* * *
As for the state of the Company, just shy of nine years since Adolfo Nicolás was elected the 29th heir of Ignatius, the mood as the Spanish-born missionary in Asia departed the Generalate last week at 80 is markedly different from what greeted the Fathers of GC35, who stoked a fair amount of shock in early 2008
by making the figure known as "Nico" (above) the oldest man ever tapped to lead the 17,000-member order.
Hailed as a second coming of Pedro Arrupe,
Nicolás was a provocative choice to succeed Peter-Hans Kolvenbach – the austere Dutchman whose diplomatic 25-year tenure placed the high tensions of the early 1980s in the rear-view mirror. Even so, however, the Society the more recent Spaniard inherited is a drastically different animal from the Europe-and-America-centric era of the 1960s and 70s given a staggering geographic shift of its membership.
Already a key thread at its predecessor, the current Congregation even more powerfully reflects an altered reality – the dominance of Jesuits from the global south, above all in Asia, whose delegation this time is more than double that of the historically formidable Latin American branch; and, in a major first, larger than this GC's European contingent. (What's more, of the 5,600 Asian Jesuits, no less than 4,000 are from India.)
Accordingly, while the last General represented an acceptable "fusion" of the Company's heritage and future at an earlier stage of the demographic handoff, the reality remained that every Jesuit chief has been European-born. With the Eastward trajectory only increased over the last near-decade, the scene is effectively set for its potential watershed moment in tomorrow's vote – a realization of the mission begun almost five centuries earlier, when Francis Xavier sailed for India and Japan.
On another critical front, meanwhile, there's the matter of the Jesuit up the street from the General Curia – as never before, a professed member whose fourth vow (of obedience to the Pope for the missions) now applies to himself.
Here, it bears recalling that the election of Jorge Bergoglio SJ as Bishop of Rome stoked no small amount of in-house anxiety among his confreres in light of his reputation as an authoritarian provincial of Argentina in the 1970s, and the resulting split it caused within the community there. As Francis has since openly admitted to regret over his youthful management style – he was named provincial at 36 – and invested a significant amount of time and energy reaching out to "us Jesuits"
both in Rome and on the road, the concerns have effectively been assuaged.
At the same time, however, the reality of a Jesuit Pope – and one who had once been "exiled"
by his superiors – has created a dynamic as tricky as it's proven a boon to the order's profile: within the Society itself, the eclipse of its own leadership by the figure of the Roman pontiff. In more ways than one, that's turned the fraught scenario of the early 1980s – when John Paul II temporarily imposed his own delegate, Fr (later Cardinal) Paolo Dezza, at the Jesuits' helm – on its head. Still, it's a historically unique challenge which looms large over tomorrow's vote.
Later this month, Francis will address the GC, his remarks likely to carry as much weight as the decrees which will shape the next steps of the Company's mission, which the delegates will craft following the election of the new General. In the meantime, though, it is nothing short of extraordinary that, despite his status as the de facto
superior – and his history as an attendee of the Arrupe-era Congregations that canonized "the service of faith and promotion of justice"
as the core of the modern Jesuit charism – the Pope has studiously avoided a manifestation of his mind to his confreres as they approach the choice of their next head.
As context goes, Francis' silence is quite the reversal from the run-up to Nicolás' election, when the Vatican's then-Religious chief – the outspoken Slovenian Cardinal Franc Rodé – presided and preached at the opening Mass,
and the days just before the balloting saw Benedict XVI issue a letter
to the GC urging the gathering to, among other things, reaffirm the Jesuits' "total adhesion to Catholic doctrine, in particular on those neuralgic points which today are strongly attacked by secular culture, as for example the relationship between Christ and religions; some aspects of the theology of liberation; and various points of sexual morality, especially as regards the indissolubility of marriage and the pastoral care of homosexual persons."
Given the history, then, the aftermath of the election is almost certain to bring an epic moment: a Jesuit Pope rushing over to his community's headquarters to pay his respects to the new successor of Ignatius.
That is, if he's not already outside the Aula, looking to be the first one to head in.
* * *
Following his election – most likely on Sunday – the new Father-General will celebrate a Mass of Thanksgiving with the GC delegates in the Gesu Church. The liturgy begins, however, in the adjacent camarete:
the small room where Ignatius wrote the Society's Constitutions.
There, the 31st Superior will be charged with the following mandate, drawn from the founding text....
Your Fatherhood, the Lord has chosen you as successor of St Ignatius in the leadership of his Company.-30-
Remember the qualities that the Constitutions recommend that the Superior General must expect of himself: be always united intimately with the Lord, for familiarity with God in prayer and in all things is the fountain of grace for the entire apostolic work of the Society.
Be for us an example of virtue, let charity for all be resplendent in you, and true humility: this will make you lovable before our Lord God and before men.
Be free from passions, live with mortification and rectitude, that you may always be pure in your justice and each one inspired by your integrity.
Know to moderate kindness with firmness, just indulgence with severity, that you might match the love of Christ the Lord.
With strength of spirit, support the weakness of the many and persevere constantly in the face of adversity, trusting not in your own strengths, but in the love and grace of God. Be firm in doctrine, wise in your judgments, prudent in your decisions, illumined in discerning the spirits, vigilant in leading to fulfillment that which is entrusted to you.
Seek not the esteem or the honors of men, but seek rather to please only the Lord, to receive from him your just reward.
Love the Company, not as your possession, but as that which has been entrusted to you, that it might bring forth countless fruits of charity and service; and when the owner of the house returns, know that from this you will make account before his just mercy.
Remember, then, that you are given to us as a guide, so that in watching and following you in the acceptance of our own vocation, all of us might persevere and grow in that way which leads to the Lord, with the end of reaching that for which we have been created and called.
May the good Father bring to completion that which he has begun in you, for the good of the church, of the Company and of men.
In all things love and serve.