“The Modern Religious Superior,” Pedro Arrupe (1972)

On April 10, 1972, Pedro Arrupe delivered the following remarks in Rome to a meeting of the Vatican officials, superiors, priests, and professors (these periodic meetings were organized under the Approdo Romano). To these leading figures in the Catholic Church, Arrupe speaks about the religious superior in the modern context. He cites the reasons why orders are in need of “good leaders” (and why “it is all the more difficult” to find those leaders today) and explains the task facing superiors. Further, Arrupe outlines the eight characteristics of a superior’s service based on instructions from the Second Vatican Council. He closes with thoughts on the proper formation of superiors. “To fine men with talent, especially to find directors and superiors able to come to grips with present conditions,” Arrupe notes, “is one of the most serious problems of the day” for religious orders.

For more sources from Arrupe, please visit The Arrupe Collection.



1. Good Leaders Needed

Not too long ago, the Jesuit Curia invited a management consultant for international business enterprises to give us a conference. He described in detail the organizational patterns of large business firms and drew on the blackboard an “organigram” which seemed to be perfect. As he was about to conclude his brilliant exposition, he turned to the blackboard again and drew a huge question mark. Then he asked us, “Where are the men to put that magnificent plan into operation? The problem that the large commercial enterprises face is not organizational structure, but men. Men with the talent and ability to handle today’s new circumstances are in short supply.”


I think that, in the present historical moment, something along the same line ought to be said by us Religious and, perhaps, by other ecclesiastical organizations. We are forced to admit, in the words of the Gospel, that frequently hominem non habeo. To find men with talent, especially to find directors and superiors able to come to grips with present conditions is one of the most serious problems of the day.


It has always been difficult to find leaders and superiors. It is all the more difficult in our present circumstances. Objectives are changing, new possibilities as well as new problems are emerging, men are different, the concept of authority appears in a new light, community and “superior-subject” relationships are being modified, ideas about participation, co-responsibility, cooperation are undergoing precision. Everything is in process of change. More accurately, change is taking place at a pace that is becoming more accelerated day by day. Who is capable of assimilating such changes? Who knows how to be a real superior in such circumstances?


This much is clear. Changes in situation and circumstance, plus the emphasis placed on new values, ought to result in a new type of superior, a new form of governing. And the result is observable. There is a profound inter-action taking place between the superior and government. The person of the superior is creating a form of government; the concrete expression of that government is forming the person of the superior.


In synthesis, one could say that, up till now, government took place within a static cultural context; today it must take place within a cultural context of rapid change. For that reason we need men “who have the capacity for translating ideas and discoveries into action: who are receptive to change and initiators of change: who have a high tolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty: who have the will to risk … if they and their institutions are to survive.”


We must, therefore, educate and develop superiors capable of directing our institutions and communities, even though “in the end, of course, education is an individual rather than an institution-center process … important as the institutions must be.” In the Constitutions of the Society, St. Ignatius says that “subjects will be, in their turn, what the Superior is.”


Since a name often expresses the essence of a thing, efforts have been made to find a name for this new figure who carries authority. An attempt was made to avoid the use of the word “superior” since, for modern thinking, the term suggests discrimination, paternalism or triumphalism, none of them easily acceptable. One General Chapter tried to change the name to something more modern. However, after analyzing the essentials of the function of a superior, the Chapter could not find any other name that would adequately express all its diverse elements. The words father, brother, leader, coordinator, administrator, spiritual leader, etc. all denote a particular function but do not adequately express all that a superior is. The Chapter concluded it was preferable to keep the name “superior” because it gave a better idea of what the reality of a superior is.


This tendency can be seen in many situations. Even ecclesiastical documents use the words “moderator,” “the one responsible,” “coordinator,” etc. instead of the word “superior.” Likewise, instead of the word “subjects,” they will use the words “associates,” “brothers,” “collaborators” in an attempt to minimize distinctions.


2. The Task of a Superior in the Present Historical Moment

It may be opportune here to trace out a descriptive explanation of what the word “superior” means.


If the task of a superior is characterized, today in a special way, by aspects that are both traditional and new, its essentials, nevertheless, remain the same. The modern superior, while remaining faithful to what is essential and unchangeable in his office of bearer of the authority of Christ, will know how to accommodate himself to modern circumstances. It is not a question of minimizing authority, nor of creating something entirely new. It is rather a question of keeping the essentials and knowing how to modify tile accidentals. It is, to use a figure of speech, a matter of building a bridge between tradition and the future or, if you prefer, of adding a link to the chain of history. The superior, preserving and exercising the function that is proper to his office, creates a new image of that office, gains a new efficiency for it that puts the figure of the superior in a new light. And this he does not by renouncing any part of his authority, but by exercising that authority in a different manner.


It is not easy to find men who have a clear hold upon basic principles and who know how to make a modern application of those principles with flexibility and adaptability; men not only capable of withstanding “future shock” (Alvin Tofiler) but strong enough to keep the timeless and to discard the obsolete; men with such powers of discernment they can judge the signs of the present times and adjust to them in a well-considered awareness of their true function. A superior, in times such as our own, ought to be both the teacher of a still valid past and an agent of change of a present that looks to the future.


3. The Exercise of Authority as Service

The new figure of a superior emerges from new perceptions and new evaluations of his characteristic functions. Today, the exercise of authority is seen not as a power or privilege but as “a service.” This is a fundamental truth rooted in the “I have not come to be ministered to, but to minister.” But this has to be correctly understood. The service of authority is specific and inalienable. It does riot consist precisely in a superior becoming the “slave of the community,” nor in taking upon himself the most menial duties for the benefit of the others. On occasion, these things can be edifying and can well express the spirit of humility of one who wants to be rid of every trace of “authoritarian posturing.” However, they can also suggest a kind of escapism, creating the illusion that, in this way, one fulfills that other service which is properly and exclusively the superior’s—a service that is much more difficult and, at times, quite agonizing.


The authentic service of a superior is to seek and discern the will of God, interpreting and manifesting it to his subjects, individually and as community, by means of command. Such a command, in many instances, includes not only a manifestation of God’s will but also an “apostolic mission.” The specific and inalienable function of the superior is to interpret the will of God for his subjects, who accept it in obedience.


The service of that authority which comes from Christ and is exercised for and with Christ is far removed from that “autocratic arbitrariness” which is a yielding to personal impulse. (The superior has to be a responsible interpreter; he must be faithful to what God is asking at any given moment in any given circumstance.) The authority which comes from Christ has nothing in common with that timid laissez faire which, with false humility, inhibits the exercise of authority. Failure of a superior, possibly motivated by an apparent good, to exercise that authority which is exclusively his would be to commit a very grave sin against his responsibility precisely as superior.


It is not surprising that the superior finds himself, at times, tormented by an internal dialectic and tension. On the one hand, he has the humbling awareness that many of his subjects surpass him in virtue and human qualities. On the other hand, he knows the power of that authority he has received from God, an authority which guarantees him, insofar as he is a superior, a special help from God. That authority confers on him such security and strength that he feels capable of exercising it even against the stronger and organized opposition of persons and groups of considerable stature.


The world today is particularly sensitive to that aspect of the superior’s service which touches upon his responsibility to the person of his subjects. A superior must care for his subjects as men and as religious. Apart from being very important, this responsibility is, today, a very sensitive issue. Today’s subject, however disrespectfully he may speak about superiors, wants, at the moment of truth, to feel that he is being directed and protected by his superiors. He does not tolerate being overlooked as a person or other interests taking precedence over his person “as such.” There is no tolerance today for the superior-administrator figure who, for the sake of bringing efficiency to the work, bears down hard upon his subjects as persons. Neither is there any tolerance for the superior who, attracted by other interests, neglects his community and its members and abandons them to themselves.


There is yet another aspect of this service of the superior. The superior must become the creator of union and the interpreter of the will of God within the community entrusted to him. The superior must be the symbol and pledge of the unity of the community—of the members among themselves and of the community with the superior. He must inspire and coordinate community life in such a way that the community can achieve its mission, both with respect to its members and its apostolic work. For the superior, the community is not only the object of his responsibility. It is also his partner in dialogue, an element in the process of inspiration. The Spirit communicates himself through the community, too, and reveals himself in the desires and suggestions of its members. A superior cannot ignore his community. The search for God’s designs for the community often leads to their discovery within the community itself. What is community dialogue? Often it is the expression of the movement of the Spirit between the superior and his subjects, between the superior seeking counsel and the community revealing to him the inspirations of the Spirit. Afterwards, it will be the superior’s task, through spiritual discernment in close contact with God, to transform that inspiration into command in order to lead the community along God’s paths.


In the present moment, a very important task of the superior is to unify his community. A superior will have to keep himself above all currents and factions which can arise in a community. He it is who must try to effect mutual understanding, to defend the community against pressures and unacceptable procedures, to protect the minority, to voice the desires and concerns of the “timid who have no voice.” The superior cannot be an acceptor personarum.


Granted these clarifications of a superior’s function, in general, and of a post-conciliar superior, in particular; granted that the principal aspect of this function is to know the will of God and to manifest it to his subjects, it is obvious that a superior will have to be, above all, a man of prayer, a man united with God. This contact with God, if it is real and efficacious, will keep him always in perfect indifference of spirit (understood in the Ignatian sense) and always disposed to follow the divine will. The more important decisions of the superior will always have to be taken in this intimate contact with God. And this will always constitute the basic premise of all his work and activity.


4. Characteristics of the Superior’s Service Today

The directives of Vatican Council II help us to flesh out some characteristics of the service a modern superior ought to offer his subjects.


1) Protects the Charism of the Founder. A superior who is also a religious (a religious superior, therefore) is the one responsible for development of his religious Institute, but a development achieved without the least deviation from the Founder’s inspiration. Such deviations are always suicidal. And suicide can result as easily from a fatal leap into the void as from a slow, drawn-out death in a dungeon. A primary task of today’s religious superior is adaptation and renewal. In this matter, study and profound reflection on the Founder’s charism will help considerably. Study and reflection is needed in order to identify the historically conditioned, which can paralyze maximum adaptation. It is needed, also, to avoid the danger of eliminating elements so essential that their removal results in a substantial change in the founding charism. And it is the original charism that has received the approval of the Hierarchical Church.


2) Promotes Union. The superior is the agent of union in the community over which he presides. This is true whether we are talking about the universal community of an entire Institute (the situation of a superior-general), or whether we are talking about a local community. The local superior will have to be, in addition, the link of union between the local community and the universal community or body of the Institute. This linkage brings about an integration of the members (local communities) with the body (universal community). In this way, each member is vivified by the life blood of the body, and the entire body is vivified by the vitalizing contribution of the members. An extremely delicate and fundamental mission of the superior is this: to preserve union, to maintain unity in plurality. For the forces at work are seemingly in opposition. There is the local adaptation, which connotes a pluralizing and centrifugal tendency; there is, too, the overall unification of the Institute, which presumes an impulse towards centripetal action.


3) Respect for Persons. The superior will have to take into account and show respect for the human person of his subjects. He will have to promote the development of their personalities at the same time as he encourages their voluntary submission. This respect for the person has to be well understood. While it is true that personal rights are sacred, it is equally true that, in accepting religious life, one renounces many of these rights and that the holocaust offered to God, following the example of Christ often brings about a perfection of the human person. Respect for the person consists in the effort to know and take into account the ideas and feelings of the other, to discover and develop the other’s personal qualities.


4) Charity and Trust. To reveal to subjects the charity with which God loves them8 to show interest and, above all, trust in them, are characteristics which ought always to be developed, but more so today than ever before. Trust is the touch-stone for determining whether the spirit of the superior-subject relationship is authentic. If trust is not there, the relationship is based on fear, coldness, tension, or mutual suspicion, which stifle any kind of inter-personal relation and all apostolic dynamism. On the contrary, mutual trust is the source of well-being, of intimacy and of apostolic initiative. A subject who is aware his superior trusts him, a superior who knows his subject has trust in him—this is the premise which guarantees that harmony so necessary for superior-subject relationships.


5) Interprets the Signs of the Times. Signs of the times are manifestations of the action of the Spirit in the world. When they do not proceed from the good spirit, they can become real “counter-signs.” For this reason, the discernment of spirits is, today, of special value. The phrase “the reading of the signs of the times” can be translated, at least in great part, by the phrase “the discernment of spirits.” What is important is not so much the external manifestation of signs, but rather the spirit which is the source of their origin. It is of capital importance to know how to discover and discern, in a way that leads to wise direction, the new situations and currents that prevail: secularization, change, development, liberation, criticism, “contestation,” de-institutionalization, de-mythicization, etc. And there are as many other phenomena offering an ambiguous sign. They all have to be examined and, in a manner of speaking, looked at with the eyes of Christ. This is one of the great tasks of the modern superior.


6) Assimilates Positive Elements. Once true discernment has been achieved, the superior has to be able to assimilate the new and positive elements. There is no doubt that the signs of the times always have some positive aspects. These can be incorporated into our daily life and into the life of our institutions. Dialogue, co-responsibility, subsidiarity, shared responsibility, inter-personal communication, self-study, etc. such things offer our communities and their members new forms and new sources of vitality. The modern superior ought to try to use them and integrate them into this government.


There is a need to know how to take advantage of elements of the modern world: universalism, communication, mobility, techniques of communication media, transport, etc. These offer new possibilities for planning and the use of human resources. They open up opportunities for collaboration and exchange to a degree unthinkable only a few years ago.


Another chapter could be devoted to the adaptation of the administrative methods of great industrial institutions, to the extent they can be used for the good government of religious institutions. Obviously, the management practices of business enterprises have many elements that are in conflict with those proper to a religious order. However, it is also true there are other elements which are quite recommendable. A calm and objective study of business organization and administration can suggest ideas and practices that would give greater efficiency to the dynamics of our institutions and apostolic works. It would be a matter of applying in a modern way, let us say a business way, the supernatural principles familiar to us. It was in this line of thought that the well-known English promoter of “Management by Objectives,” Mr. John W. Humble, said to us, “Reading the Constitutions of the Society, I was astonished to find that St. Ignatius, back in 16th century, set out the basic principles of our modern business management methods. We can all learn from one another.”


7) Inspires. The inspiration a superior should provide is very important in times like the present, so much given to frustration, discouragement, pessimism and destructive criticism. But the ability to inspire presupposes that a superior has great confidence in God and in his community, to whose members he always attributes good will. Ability to inspire requires considerable objective realism in making value judgments; it requires great supernatural strength and large-heartedness founded exclusively in God and Divine Providence. A superior knows that, having done everything possible to interpret and follow God’s will, he has divine omnipotence on his side. He knows that, keeping faith with this conviction, even his own errors will be providential means for achieving God’s purposes. It is confidence in God which enables the superior to inspire and confers on him the gift of magnanimity, ready to accept his subjects with all their involuntary limitations: It is confidence in God which permits him, despite the problems of day-to-day government, to plan for the apostolate, even to plan so largely as to make one think, at times, it is beyond human possibilities of realization.


One’s intuition of the future differs radically according to the degree one possesses this openness of spirit. Utopianism, audacity, wide vision, realism, prudence, fear, indecision, shortsightedness, immobilism—these and many other attitudes describe the possible stance of a superior. They range from the quixotism of the pathologically imagined “Island of Barataria” to the irremediable and incorrigible “killer” with his automatic “no” in the face of every initiative. The superior who inspires knows how to be realistic even as his vision deepens and widens; he knows how to keep openness to, and confidence in God and in his subjects; he knows, finally, how to communicate these qualities to his subjects that they may become his better collaborators.


This is the basis of all those qualities which books specializing in this matter require today in an authentic “leader.”


8) A Man of Self-Renewal. The figure of the post-conciliar superior is that of a man aware of the constant change in his milieu, and who accepts this reality. Today’s superior must be alert and open to continual renovation. Obviously, this supposes he is man who tries to renew himself continually. A man, therefore, desirous of self-renewal:

a) overcomes routine. He does not feel he is a prisoner of routine habits, but rather nurtures a desire to offer greater service and understands the desire for renewal he observes in others. This disposition increases his capacity to accept changes that are necessary and opinions which differ from his own.

b) accepts the risk of making a mistake. Learning requires risk taking. The man in search of progress wants to experiment and to take some prudent risks. He is not afraid of the judgments made of his actions nor of the criticisms they might incur. He has enough humility to recognize his mistakes, as well as the strength to resist discouragement and to begin all over again. One reason adults learn less than the young is because, usually, they take fewer risks and with greater difficulty admit their mistakes. If we want to learn, we have to take risks and make mistakes. The day we start looking for security in everything we shall have shut the door on our capacity for adaptation and development. A superior who thinks, or seems to think, he has all the right answers for the problems of our very complicated world today is not going to be able to inspire much confidence.

c) makes a continuing study of apostolic objectives. Renewal that is based on solid foundations has another element: continuing analysis of our apostolic objectives. “What should our priorities be, today? Do we have to modify them?” Creativity is much needed in our day. Not only activities, but life and our manner of witnessing to it, the scale of values, etc. have to be modified in the course of time. It is continuing reflection that renews the superior, teaches him that, in these days of such rapid change, the most stable reality is the reality of movement.

d) adapts the structures of government. The observations made about renovation and change apply with equal insistence to the structures of government. It is not only that objectives change, but there is a difference today in the very manner of governing. There is a difference, too, in the elements that are integrated into government: communication, participation, subsidiarity, etc. These are things which have a decisive influence on the manner of structuring government. It is for this reason that so much importance is attached to the renovation of structures in such way that they become more efficient, more quickly responsive, more flexible. The spirit creates structures and structures, in their turn, sustain the spirit and make it operative.

e) feels the need for “recyclage.” Today, it is possible to prolong physical life and youth. But, ideologically and culturally, we grow old at a much faster rate than in the past. That is why we need to engage in continuing “recyclage,” to look for new complementary sources of energy—new ideas, new methods, new forms of collaboration. We need to be ever open to good counsel and new initiatives. Clearly, the superior must be aware of this restlessness for progress, must keep himself up-to-date, if he really believes in his own function and has personal enthusiasm for the project he is directing.

f) favors a healthy pluralism. In order to avoid a too personalized centralism, centrality has to be harmonized with a de-personalizing and proper subsidiarity. In a process of renovation, in the sense we have been speaking of it, one notes clear differences between the characteristics of a monolithic organization (in which centrality prevails) and a pluralistic one (in which subsidiarity is at work). In a monolithic organization, every situation has an official point of view, initiatives must always come from the center, the central power controls everything and, in consequence, decisions themselves become centralized. In a pluralistic organization, various points of view are tolerated, power is distributed, initiatives come from various sources and levels and decisions, likewise, are assigned to various levels.

The superior who appreciates living reality knows well that pluralism is not disintegration, nor dismemberment, nor chaos, despite its dangers. He also knows that, even though centrality has its advantages (unity, rapidity, etc.), yet, if all innovations are supposed to emanate from a single decision-center, there will soon be stalemate. For the end result of gathering all questions together in the center is the stifling of the unique and principal source of dynamism. Indeed, this potential source of dynamism may have already been burned out because every initiative arising from the periphery had previously met with frustration and antagonism. The so- called “healthy pluralism” is a prudent combination of centralization and the freedom which is necessary on the periphery.

g) allows criticism. The modern superior, the one given to self-renewal, knows he will be criticized. This he accepts, not taking it as personal offence, but rather as advice and matter for reflection. He knows that, in society divided as it is at present, it is impossible to please everyone. He can only try to be objective and just in his decisions, without undue concern for what others will say. He will make every effort to prescind from popularity ratings, certain that, in the long run, truth, justice and sincerity will prevail. He is not a political man in the sense of being always anxious to take those decisions calculated to be the most popular.

h) promotes communication. A superior who favors self-renewal knows the value of communication: “Communication is more than the expression of ideas and the indication of emotion. At its most profound level, it is the giving of self in love. Christ’s communication was, in fact, spirit and life.”

In every large organization, the problem of communication is not merely a problem of information—to hear something new or to satisfy curiosity. Basic to the problem is another element: over and above the “message” or the “news” there is the encounter with the person communicating, with his intimate intellectual and emotional life, with his attitudes, his cultural differences, etc.

The task of the superior will be to open up these channels among his subjects in order to facilitate an exchange of communication; to remove or eliminate the psychological and spiritual blocks; to bring it about that, among the members of his community and between himself and the community, the same wave length for transmission and reception is being used.

Good person-to-person communication and communication among members of a community produces mutual understanding, recognition and respect leading to the discovery of unsuspected action of the Spirit in the hearts of our brothers. The superior’s communication with his subjects is of great importance. However, it is not enough that the message of the superior be transmitted. It is equally important that it be received and understood. The challenge today is to make sure the receiver (community, subjects) responds and provides “feedback.” To be avoided at all costs is a transmission sent out on a wave length unable to be picked up by the intended receiver.

With mutual, personal and intimate communication, which can lead to the very intimate contact of conscience (manifestation of conscience), there comes into being that spiritual intimacy so essential for good governing.

An aspect of special note is the communication, in good time, of decisions and the reason for the decisions. Subjects, today, want to know the how and why of decisions which intimately affect their lives. They are able to recognize and accept the many instances in which the superior is bound to professional secrecy or to secrecy of conscience. But it must also be observed that the norm of secrecy and reserve in good government can be quite different today from what it was some years ago. It is not always easy to find a just and proper balance in this matter. A subject’s loss of confidence can arise as easily from an excessive reserve as from an imprudent revelation of conscience material.

i) looks for suitable successors. The superior, interested in renewal and devoted to his Institute, tries to form subjects who can succeed him: spiritual men who are alert, creative, prudently daring, men who have “learned how to learn.” Such men will be the best guarantee of a vitality that is perpetually self-renewing.

Convinced of the importance of forming superiors, the Society of Jesus, for example, organized what were called Colloquia Superiorum—meetings of several weeks duration directed to the formation and up-dating of its own superiors. Our conviction was that this task calls for experimentation, for diversity, indeed for dynamic pluralism.


5. Practical Steps in Forming Superiors

The Colloquium Superiorum is one of the several serious attempts of the Society of Jesus to meet, while retaining its fundamental charism, the challenge of the post-Vatican II world.


The proposed general aim of the Colloquium is the development of administration in the Society.


The modern superior of a religious province or house has much to learn, as experience proves, not only from an intense reflection within a group of peers on the role of spirituality in a secularistic world, but also from the “behavioral sciences” which this secularistic world has to offer, namely the new sciences of organizational behavior and social and managerial psychology. Often enough these sciences put at the disposal of superiors results of scientific research which can contribute to the more efficient practice of charity, prudence, and patience; can suggest ways to motivate cooperation and achievement in the apostolate, the working out and resolution of conflicts, etc.


Having seen the results of the method of the Colloquium, a further development of the method was designed which has appropriately been called Colloquium Two. The goal of the project is to develop and strengthen the potential of men who are already playing or will soon be playing creative and influential roles in the maintenance and adaptation of the Society. They will be selected from different countries and cultures.


The opportunity to experience unity amid diversity, to come to understanding of other mentalities, to recognize the limitations of one’s own culture and the advantages of others—such opportunities will undoubtedly bring about an interior liberation from previously acquired mental sets. Equally important is the opportunity to develop a community spirit through individual and collective reflection, to achieve interpersonal communication with individuals of differing background, to experiment creatively with the new media of communication. These experiences will, hopefully, foster that sympathetic understanding and flexibility so much required by and essential to the apostolic needs of our times.




Original Source:

Challenge to Religious Life Today: Selected Letters and Addresses—I, ed. Jerome Aixala. St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1979, “The Modern Religious Superior,” pg. 79–94.