Father General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach’s Introductory Discourses for General Congregation 34 (1995)

Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, the superior general of the Society of Jesus, delivered the following remarks, over three days, to open the Jesuits’ 34th General Congregation. Kolvenbach reminds the delegates that their gathering had its “source and origins in the spiritual experience of Ignatius and his first companions,” that, in the words of Ignatius, theirs was “a ‘personal union,’ an encounter of persons.” And despite the fact that nine out of ten Jesuits were not in attendance at the congregation, “it is the entire Society which is here,” Kolvenbach states.

For more from the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, please consult this page.




January 5, 1995

A: On the Call or Vocation of This Congregation

In the Constitutions, which will have an important place in this General Congregation 34, St. Ignatius creatively characterizes how the ordinary government must serve the whole Society. To justify the absence of a regular general congregation or of a general chapter at set periods—“for example, every three or six years, more or less”—Ignatius observes that “it does not seem good in our Lord that such a congregation should be held at definite intervals or very often; for the Superior General through the communication which he has with the whole Society and through the help he gets from those near him, can spare the Society as a whole from that work and distraction as far as possible.”

This introduction fits into the concern to spare the members of GC 34 the effort of meticulously studying Part Eight of the Constitutions and of losing time on an in-depth examination. Its sole purpose is to remind us of what a general congregation meant for Master Ignatius, what he expected from it, and what the Society today, in our concrete situation at the end of the second millennium, can personally and communally expect from it.

At the beginning of the congregation, it is good to recall “in the Lord” that, despite its administrative and juridical appearances, this assembly has its source and origins in the spiritual experience of Ignatius and his first companions. Before it acquired its present structure and became the plan now outlined in the Constitutions, the general congregation was a lived event whose thrust was to prolong the deliberations and the encounter of the first Fathers as friends in the Lord. The general congregation is of course the supreme authority, the highest level of power in the Society; but for Master Ignatius the congregation was above all a “personal union,” an encounter of persons. Here is how he approaches the chapter in question: “Now let us come to the union of persons which takes place in congregations of the Society.” If in the depths of his vocation and mission, the Jesuit is a man who is sent and if, because he is sent, he belongs to an apostolic body scattered more or less all over the world, then for Ignatius there are only two ways that a Jesuit can feel a part of the Society: (1) by the union of hearts and minds, maintained by a wide exchange of information—correspondence—and by reciprocal visits; and (2) by means of the visible and tangible union of the companions in a general congregation. A congregation is always a spiritual union in the Spirit, and sometimes a “corporal union,” as one secretary expressed it. It is no surprise then to see Ignatius slowly abandon the term “chapter” for his preferred term, “congregation,” not only to avoid any monastic tendency in the Society but also to proclaim in the very word itself that the general congregation is the whole Society. One only has to study the text of the Constitutions to see that for the first Jesuits there was no difference or distinction between the Society as an apostolic body and the general congregation. When the congregation meets, then “convenient Societas” and to convoke a general congregation is to “Societatem…congregare.”

Thus, as Ignatius himself conceived it, the general congregation is the Society itself responsible for its whole apostolic body. While it is the supreme authority, it is not so as a body above the Society or even within the Society, but instead because it is the Society itself in the personal encounter of the companions of Jesus. In its beginnings the Society could be identified with the founding Jesuits, or a bit later with the small number of professed who made up the “Societas professa.” But it is striking that Ignatius maintained, at least in principle, his perspective on the general congregation as a gathering of the whole Society which could help “toward uniting the distant members with their head and among themselves.”

As usual, apostolic work prevails in Ignatius’s thought. If for the sake of mission general congregations must not be multiplied without reason, so also for the sake of the same mission those sent to Rome should be only “those who can come conveniently. Thus it is clear that those who are physically ill are not included, nor are those who are in places very distant, for example, in the Indies, nor those who have in their hands some undertakings of grave importance which cannot be omitted without great inconvenience.” In four hundred and fifty years the Society has called only thirty-four general congregations, and only seven of those without an election. Thus the Society has remained faithful to Ignatius’s apostolic concern.

Seeing you here today in this aula and knowing what most of you are involved in, I realize very well that those of you who were easily able to come are few, and those who have come from far away are many, interrupting apostolic work of great importance. This is only one more reason to ensure that, as St. Ignatius insisted, the business at hand be dealt with as soon as possible. The absence of 90 percent of the Society does not matter, for Ignatius’s perspective has remained unchanged: it is the entire Society which is here; and, before being delegates, participants, elected or convoked, all are first and foremost members of one and the same body of the Society. Gathered together in a general congregation, in the spirit of Ignatius we are none other than members of the universal Society, which is not a federation of provinces and regions and not a conglomeration of assistancies, but one single apostolic body. It would go against Ignatius’s idea of a meeting of friends in the Lord for one to see himself as delegated or elected to defend or promote some ideology or a particular opinion of a province or region.

Furthermore, this assembly does not operate like a parliamentary system. While respecting the interaction of majority and minority votes, Ignatius introduces a non-parliamentary factor when he invites us to be more charismatic than democratic. He invites us to discover that to some of us God our Lord has given more abundant gifts to feel and express what would be conducive to God’s service. Thus while ensuring each participant’s freedom and rights, Ignatius reminds us that a congregation is an event which goes beyond a well-run and well-managed meeting. It is a privileged moment for us as the Society of Jesus to experience intensely the responsibility of each and all of us for our common work of serving the greater glory of God.

Nevertheless the participants in a general congregation are by no means anonymous Jesuits, standardized gears of a well-oiled machine. Ignatius’s goal for a general congregation is to gain the best-possible information for a discernment solidly based on experience and on reading the signs of the times, thus bringing us to the best decision in order to adjust and strengthen our missionary service. The participants will be all the more valuable for this process of communal discernment the more they reflect some aspect of the mission, life, work, prayer, and cooperation of the Society in their own culture and traditions, according to their formation and experience and their theological perspectives. “For to a great extent the congregation is an aid toward settling something wisely, either through the greater information which it possesses or through some more distinguished persons who express their opinion.”

In this congregation as well, the Society has paid more attention to qualitative than to quantitative representation. This has been precisely to gain as universal a view as possible, without skimming over the real problems of the Society, the Church, and the world at the end of the second millennium, and without confining ourselves to the detailed and the personal, the particular and the ephemeral. Thus in this general congregation, assistancies with many Jesuits are less represented than those with fewer, precisely to permit the greatest presence of all the aspects and dimensions of the Society’s life and work in the world. We must call upon the entire accumulated experience of the members of the general congregation. Chapter 7 of Part VIII of the Constitutions deals with how to decide in matters other than the election of a superior; in many numbers of this chapter, Ignatius describes with his usual meticulousness how all are called to give the best of themselves in their participation and sharing to arrive at the best-possible decision. With no better material means than table and paper, copies and books, Ignatius demonstrates his concern that each participant place all his personal qualities as so many gifts of God at the disposal of all. All their presentations must be submitted in writing—verba volant, scripta manent—and are deposited on a table placed in the midst of the general congregation. Copies are made so that nothing may be lost of someone’s personal contribution made in the service of all. Even once a decision has been taken, Ignatius leaves open the possibility of returning to it, convinced that the Spirit might speak through precisely a late intervention. For Ignatius such respect for everyone’s sharing and participating on the basis of his own experiences and convictions is a condition for deciding “in a manner conducive to the greater glory of God our Lord,” even if in the end “the side to which the majority inclines will prevail and the whole congregation will accept it as from the hand of God our Lord.”

By putting together each one’s qualities and by a genuine exchange of gifts, the general congregation is called to a true communal discernment on questions of importance that involve the future, or even on some very difficult questions which concern the entire Society or its manner of proceeding, for the greater service of God our Lord. Ignatius, who is always very sensitive to the tension between apostolic work and common life, hopes on the one hand that the general congregation will work on these questions expeditiously to avoid long absences from apostolic work. On the other hand, proceeding expeditiously should not prevent seeking unanimity, if possible, precisely because of the need for clear and unified missionary action. Thus discernment in common is undertaken less to gain a majority vote than to work toward the consent of all to a union of action which is for the glory of God and the good of the Society.

Since the days of St. Ignatius and his first companions, one single mission has always united the Society: to serve Christ, our Lord and Savior, by continuing his work throughout the world. But this mission must be realized in very diverse ecclesial conditions, in extremely varied life contexts and work situations, and in response to very different needs. Our personal temperaments and preferences, our talents and tastes, our desires and dreams are so pronounced, especially today, that individualism seems a lesser evil: allowing a semblance of peaceful coexistence which seems, realistically speaking, to be the most one can expect for union among us.

Nevertheless, Ignatius expected that when friends in the Lord deliberate and discern in common, they would all decide along the same lines. These lines would not lead to uniformity; they would extinguish neither the rich diversity of personal and cultural gifts nor the disconcerting variety of conditions in which we must act. Rather, “along the same lines” would lead to a union of minds and hearts which would underlie and sustain any action of the apostolic body of the Society.

For a communal discernment to result in this union, it must be led by the same Spirit, as the first Jesuits often put it. Ignatius expressed it slightly differently:

[S]ince the light to perceive what can best be decided upon must come down from the First and Supreme Wisdom, Masses and prayers will be offered in the place where the congregation is held as well as in the other regions of the Society. This should be done throughout the time the congregation lasts and the matters which should be settled within that time are being discussed, to obtain the grace to conclude them in a manner conducive to greater glory to God our Lord.


In elaborating a whole program of conscientization and discernment in common, GC 32 in Decree 4 describes this way of proceeding as a constant interrelation between “experience, reflection, decision, action” according to the Jesuit ideal, “in actione contemplativus.” According to Decree 4, the result will be a transformation of our habitual ways of thinking, a conversion of spirits as well as of hearts, and this transformation will produce apostolic decisions.

We can still tum to the first companions to learn what is a true deliberation, reflection, and discussion that leaves room for the Spirit to intervene. Thus we will be able to speak of contemplative prayer during an authentic interplay between these elements—not only before and after—an interplay in which the Spirit can break through; and we will let ourselves be seized by that same Spirit. The Spirit’s intervention keeps us from hardening our opinions, from stiffening our expressions and even from absolutizing our most intimate convictions and our most valuable experiences. Would we not deprive the Spirit of all freedom to intervene if we desired to reach a decision at all costs and in feverish haste, setting by ourselves the conditions of God’s response? On the contrary, does not the interrelation of “contemplation and action” in discernment mean that we do not want to enclose the Society within the false certitude of a watertight project that covers everything? Does it not mean rather that we want to leave some uncertainty that would allow the Spirit, through events and inspirations, to overturn our projects and call our plans into question?

This margin of uncertainty will not paralyze the Society’s work: rather it will affirm that even a general congregation of the Society of Jesus exercises no lordship over the Lord’s vine. It will free us from the paralyzing obsession of wanting to be masters of a field which we of course have to plant and water, but to which only God gives life. Moreover, if some who did not know Ignatius’s life in the Spirit were to read the chapter on a general congregation called to deal with business, they would find a sober and meticulous exposition to assure good order and an effective and efficient dispatching of business, in an atmosphere which respects each one’s freedom of expression, and which is clearly oriented toward taking decisions. For Ignatius, a general congregation is first of all a meeting with a particular organization and administration, with procedures and votes, which means a labor based on serious evaluation and laborious discussion, and hours of demanding work, not to mention the moments when we despair of ever reaching any decisions at all. The general congregation will never be the expression of a disincarnate spirituality.

And yet, Ignatius does not hesitate to attribute to this highly complex mechanism the most specific and the best of what the Spirit taught him so that “all may turn out as is expedient for his greater service, praise, and glory.” Above all, the general congregation fits into the dynamism which pushes the Society toward its end—Glory—that is inscribed as much in the Spirit’s call as in the human response to that call. While service, praise, and glory are proposed to us as the purpose of the general congregation, we are nevertheless referred back to our historical condition, to our experience and our know-how, to our enthusiasm and our patience in the concrete work which is a general congregation.

Ignatius likes to link “spirit” and “way of doing things,” the famous “way of proceeding” which we will have to update in this very general congregation. Thus we are totally removed from a spirituality which is restricted to the religious domain, but also from a socioeconomic seminar to analyze the problems of our day. To be fully a general congregation in the spirit of Ignatius, the Spirit must be able to work in a certain kind of practice which we call discernment in common. It is well known that what makes the difference, what transforms this meeting into a congregation of the Society of Jesus, is finally our intention. But our intention must not remain on the abstract level of desire: to be authentic, it must be translated into our attitude here; it must be incarnated in our involvement in this meeting of the whole Society. Concretely this means taking the congregation to heart, even if none of you has sent himself to Rome: if you are here, it is because of someone else’s will expressed in a nomination, a vote, or a call.

Even so, discernment in common is much more than friendly and congenial participation: it calls on our entire person to bring our contribution with all that we are as bearers of the Spirit, and it also calls on us to renounce ourselves by recognizing the Spirit speaking to us through the other. As early as their first deliberations in Rome, our companions already knew that a discernment in common could not succeed without the freedom gained by going beyond self-love, by letting go of one’s particular views. Accepting this renunciation made in the Spirit in no way means bowing resignedly before the predominant majority opinion; rather, it calls one’s personal certitudes into question in the conviction that by so doing the Spirit can lead us to a more intensely clear convergence and, concretely, to a more valuable service.

During this general congregation there will also be moments when we will simply have to question the Spirit together and, in the light of the Spirit, put our points of view together in order to sense bit by bit the common inclination by which the same Spirit is leading our discernment. According to the words of Decree 4 of GC 32, such an attitude will require a transformation of our entire person, of our customary schemes of thought, and a conversion of spirits as well as of hearts, from which our apostolic decisions will result. In their reactions to the tabloids, some Jesuits commented that the gaze on the surface of the earth, covered with people, as suggested by St. Ignatius in the contemplation on the Incarnation, can only be a valid starting point for a vision of current reality if this gaze allows itself to be illuminated by a vision of faith and an act of hope rooted in the same love of Christ. This condition makes the difference in personal attitude between a panoramic consideration of our world in order to develop a sociopolitical, cultural, or economic policy, and a contemplation of this same reality for the purposes of a discernment which would lead to apostolic choices and decisions. Along the same lines, these reactions to the tabloids also insisted on the need to personalize this kind of analysis. Ignatius in the First Week of the Exercises tries to make us become aware of our connivance with a death-dealing history and our solidarity with perverted human society. In the same way, we must not list the miseries and pains of our age without bravely discerning our personal and communal complicity, so that the discernment might consequently lead us in the same Spirit to apostolic decisions and choices which will engage us personally and communally to proclaim the Gospel of the Lord in the years to come. Without this total availability to service, proof of the praise and glory of God, a communal discernment would not deserve the name, and neither would a general congregation of the Society of Jesus.

Master Ignatius knew that this was a question of life and death for the Society. Consequently, he did not hesitate to list all the obstacles to the gift of self in a discernment. Among them he draws attention to a “lack of judgment or a notable obstinacy in one’s personal opinions.” Those who have set themselves up as all-knowing can also sometimes be problematic, or Jesuits of high prestige who are used to the favor of the great of this world. But according to Ignatius the most significant obstacle to the union so necessary in Christ our Lord for the proper functioning of the Society is too great a number of insufficiently mortified Jesuits.

The fragility of our person comes on top of the difficulty, with which Ignatius was very familiar, of assuring union of hearts among so many Jesuits scattered among the faithful and among unbelievers in various parts of the world. Here once again we feel the Spirit breaking through. In admitting that humanly speaking it is an impossible mission to get so many and such different companions to come to a decision along the same lines, Ignatius recognizes that discernment in common is less a task to be accomplished than a gift of God to be received. It is precisely because it is a gift to be received that Ignatius counts on the prayerful accompaniment of the whole Society. This is the same link which joins us in the general congregation to Jesuits spread out all over the world, whom we are called to represent as a whole. In this way, gathered together in a general congregation which is the Society of Jesus, we engage in a discernment in common which is a constant interrelation of apostolic contemplation and action under the influence of the Spirit; according to the great resources which the Lord has entrusted to us, we take on those problems of our day which the Lord wants to entrust to us here on the threshold of the third millennium:

—by taking on the joys and pains of the men and women who the Lord places on our path for us to help,

—in solidarity with all those who suffer from destitution and sickness, from injustice and violence, to whom the Lord wants to send,

—us in communion with the Lord’s Church which must be able to count on us as men of the Church in its universal solicitudes and its pastoral concerns,

—and by speaking and acting in the name of our brother Jesuits scattered throughout the earth but united with our gathering from which they hope for both old and new in order to move forward in their mission with greater clarity and stronger courage.


May this mission, our mission, be constantly before us in this congregation as we contemplate the mysteries of the One who is sent, the Lord. In this way may our choices and decisions to renew our apostolic action be stamped by what the Spirit will teach us to lead us to his Truth.



January 6, 1995

B: On the Mission and Body of the Society

Our confrère Pierre Teilhard de Chardin on several occasions expressed the desire to change the name of today’s solemnity, or at least to change the prefix. To emphasize that we are celebrating the day on which our Lord revealed himself with full clarity as the foundation of all and of everything, beginning and end, alpha and omega, we should speak of a “dia-hany” and not of an “epi-phany.” For it is less a question of a sudden bursting into history of him who is its creator and savior than of a mysterious and silent “dia-phany” by which Christ sheds light on the true foundation of all beings, by acting in them and by them to lead all towards their fulfillment, God becoming all in all. Teilhard, in his own words, did not read the story of the Magi as if it were photographic truth but a truth that provides enlightenment about him who fills the universe with his dynamic presence, about him who alone gives meaning to our history, about him who, in all and for all, is forever the all-high God.

It is this “dia-phany,” this revelation of God in “all created things,” which dazzled and deeply moved Ignatius. In today’s mystery, the search for God takes place by means of the book and the star; likewise, when he states a “principle and foundation” for the adventure of the Spirit to which he invites us, Ignatius proclaims that for a man or woman there is no authentic search for God without insertion into the created world, and that, on the other hand, no solidarity with men and women and no engagement with the created world can ever be authentic without a discovery of God. In keeping with this vision, his Constitutions are based on this mystique of God’s presence to his work, on this “dia-phanous” or quite simply “theo-phanous” design of a creation which again has to be made just and beautiful, true and peaceful, united and reconciled with God, as on the first day.

Out of this perspective the Society of Jesus was born, in the conviction that to serve God who reveals himself as God-with-us is ayudar a las almas (to help souls), is to help men and women disengage themselves from the tarnished and confused image that they have of themselves, in order to discover themselves, in God’s light, as in complete likeness with him. It is with a similar viewpoint that Ignatius in the Constitutions [814] recalls that the best way to glorify God our Lord, who wishes to be glorified with what he gives as Creator (that is, nature) and with what he gives as author of grace (namely, the supernatural), is to cultivate carefully the natural means—with, however, one condition: that we are not to put our confidence in them, but that we make use of them to cooperate with divine grace.

That is “the path of divine service on which we have entered.” But Ignatius would not be Ignatius if he did not consider “this road towards God” as a path which God himself in Christ, who is the “way” had revealed to him by giving the grace to “start.”

But let us return to the Gospel to contemplate the Magi on their journey. Magi from the Orient! This is something quite shattering—at least unexpected. Did Matthew forget Leviticus’s advice: “Do not tum to mediums, or wizards; do not seek them out, to be defiled by them: I am the Lord your God?” Or did Matthew have the modem mentality which believes that there is nothing new to discover in the West, while a bewitching and exotic light comes from the Orient? At all events, these quite unusual Magi, great searchers of the heavens, lived with the same question which will cause the first apostles to ask, “Rabbi, where are you staying?”

What leads them to ask this question is a star which acts not only as a means, but as an item of sharing, in Teilhard’s expression, or an instrument of union, in the spirit of Ignatius. In today’s Gospel we discover that the word of God is not only entrusted to Scripture and its exegetes, but it manifests itself also in the open book of the night, which sings the glory of God while it responds to the watchman’s expectation through the light of a dawn which announces the new day.

“We have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship the Lord.” These are the Magi, prototypes of a Church which is the offspring of paganism; they force the chosen people to open their books, to discover in them that fundamentally they reveal the Christ as clearly as did the heavens, which guided those travelers by means of the star. The opening of the sacred books “that I too may come and worship him” makes clear even to the heart of the usurper the hidden desire of a kingdom of justice and truth. The Magi were able to help Herod encounter the king awaited by his people, even though the recognition implied the renunciation of his own royalty. As did the Magi, he should have taken a different route. This refusal of a different route is also the fate of the scribes who, in their pitiful blindness, did not see in the Scriptures him who came not to destroy them but rather to give them the fullness of their divine meaning.

And there is the infant with his mother. It is not the Virgin with the Infant; it is the Infant with the Virgin, acknowledging that his only glory on earth is to be fully human, by means of his mother. When Ignatius proposes this mystery of Christ’s life for our contemplation, he repeats four times “to adore:” to come to adore before returning by a different route. This adoration is concretely expressed by the gifts: gold for the king, incense for God, myrrh for the mortal in expectation of immortality. But if the Magi gave only gifts, they would have given nothing. In adoration they gave themselves and thus made “offerings of greater value and of more importance.” These Magi whose profession it was to search, to discern, to see, saw only a small infant, but they recognized what went infinitely beyond their perceptions: there appeared—diaphanously—in the weakness of this infant the glory “of the eternal King and Lord of all.”

A star, a book, a newborn infant … a king, tempted by riches, as very often happens under the standard of Lucifer, the mortal enemy of our human nature; some scribes who in their obsession to save their acquired truth do not decide to deny themselves in order to go to God, and thus remain in the second “class” of Ignatius; and the Magi who, by turning, chose this other road which Ignatius calls in the Constitutions “the path of Christ our Lord” on which the traveling companion “accepts and desires with all possible energy whatever Christ our Lord has loved and embraced.”

It is the alternative road, the one among all the others that leads to God, which should guide this general congregation if it wishes to be a congregation of the Society of Jesus. Are we on this road in so obvious a way that it is clear to all? Are we dragging our feet along this road, or are we seen “to go forward in the path of the divine service” and even “to run in the path of Christ our Lord?” Or have we, rather, lost our way and no longer know where we are going? As in the case of the scribes of Jerusalem, the intellectual capacity and the verbal ability of the Society are such that in the general congregation words will not be lacking to express “the path of Ignatius, the pilgrim” in decrees and words, in laws and messages; but following the Magi is a question of setting out to make choices and refusing to go astray; it is a question of getting personally involved in concrete deeds.

The Magi were aware that the path leading to where the infant remained went against the current. For the infant was scarcely born and already a hostile world was weaving around him, silently but effectively, a full network of alliances and plots, of accusations and enmities. The overall picture, reported by the press, sufficiently shows that our path towards God, as that of Christ, while it will certainly not be determined, will still be strongly affected by the machinations of the prince of this world and his Herods. If the path under Christ’s standard, emblazoned with poverty, humiliation, and injustice, collides with the triad of “riches, honor, pride,” it is not because there is no other solution, but because the companions of Jesus, his servants and his friends, are setting out to “help all,” not in a dream world or an unreal world, but in our world as it is and as it will, if left to itself go to destruction. As a result Ignatius wished that “in the vineyard of Christ our Lord which is so extensive,” the Society would be able to choose the part “which has the greater need; because of the lack of other workers or because of the misery and weakness of one’s fellow men and women in it and the danger of their eternal condemnation.” “Similarly, the Society ought to labor more intensely in those places where the enemy of Christ our Lord has sown cockle, and especially where he has spread bad opinion about the Society or stirred up ill will against it so as to impede the fruit which the Society could produce.”

Therefore, in a world where production and consumption, market and profit are more and more evident as an unavoidable aspect of ownership, should not our path towards God be that of the poor, as we commit ourselves with them and for them to recall to all that the human person does not live by bread alone but by this word of Christ, who demands for each one without exception the integrity of humanity and the destruction of every dehumanizing structure? In a world where religious and cultural differences so often lead to violence and war to maintain and strengthen themselves, should not our path towards God witness to a union of hearts and of spirits in which diversity is understood as mutual enrichment? In a world which is desperately seeking happiness and pleasure derived from the desire for possessions, seduction, and power while scorning the rights of others, cannot our path towards God open up others to the meaning of the beatitudes? There is no doubt that words which speak of the good have filled venerable books for centuries, but the announcement of the good news takes place not by the repetition of words, but rather by the testimony of life, by witnesses of flesh and blood who, by prophetically living Christ’s Gospel, make the path towards God incarnate. If we look into ourselves and our communities, can we say, in keeping with the directives given by GC 32, that we are companions of Jesus, that we are committed under the standard of the cross, that we are taking part in the decisive struggle of our age, namely, the struggle for the faith and the struggle for the justice which that faith implies? Let us go further: are we where we are expected to be in order to be living witnesses of the good news?

It will be a great grace if we leave this general congregation with a clear personal and communal answer to these questions which are fundamental to the fecundity of the tremendous work which the Society produces.

On returning to their homeland, did the Magi announce the good news? The gospel account says nothing about this. Ignatius observed: “Though this is not mentioned in the Scripture it must be considered as stated…. For Scripture supposes that we have understanding.” As a matter of fact, he knew from experience that when we meet God and have a passion for him, we can only desire this grace for others. Once we are enriched with this intimacy with the Lord, we ask only to become impoverished in order to enrich others with this abundance. This is something that the Christian Orient has grasped; and in the well-known “Akathistos Hymn,” it sings of the Magi that, “having become bearers of God, they return, fulfilling your prophecy; while proclaiming you before all as the Christ, they leave Herod like a fool incapable of singing Alleluia.” The meeting with the Lord changed them. God truly reveals himself only by turning our hearts inside out. In the Epiphany it is not a message that is communicated or information that is exchanged. There is a meeting of the newborn with the Magi, and this reciprocal recognition makes the Magi living witnesses of the good news. By their transformed being they become the good news and thus proclaim in this dialogue of life the Light of the nations. If it should happen that when examining our identity as Jesuits, we sense that we are no longer these living witnesses to the Gospel, the primary cause is a lack of the personal experience of God, whatever form it may take.

Four years ago Pope John Paul II, while speaking to the religious of Latin America, remarked that “it can sometimes happen that the People of God do not always encounter the hoped-for support among consecrated souls because perhaps they do not reflect in their way of living a sufficiently strong sense of the God that they should communicate.” It is true that everything connected with evangelization—to continue the epiphany which has been entrusted to us as our responsibility— is in transition or crisis. The demand for evangelization now extends to every part of the globe; but its urgency is no longer felt as it was at the time of the first Jesuits. Today’s Gospel proves that no one can be forced to embrace the faith against his will: and in the encounter with the Magi from a religion outside the covenant, Matthew proclaims the Epiphany to all of humanity and to each individual—without denying that this recognition should come first of all from the chosen people.

Faced with this reality, which is both old and new, our terminology has lost its certitude; and a theology which takes into account God’s will to manifest himself as Savior of all, transcending the unique vocation of the irreplaceable Church and Gospel, stammers as it searches for an identity. This hesitation, or even confusion, concerning evangelization has not only left a feeling of insecurity in this whole area of the Lord’s manifestation to the world; it has weakened and even stifled the missionary spirit which has always characterized the Society. Because the apostolic body of the Society has no other purpose than to be involved “especially in the concerns of the missions” (found here and there in the Constitutions), to permit this spirit to be extinguished would at the same time mean to deprive each of us of his vocation and of his mission. While making available the greatest possible diversity in way and means, the Constitutions, however, remain very clear about what concerns the end of the missions: “to help people meet Christ, God’s epiphany.” Even today we have to assure ourselves, concerning a candidate for the Society, that he is desirous and “zealous for the salvation of souls. For that reason he should also have an affection toward our Institute, which is directly ordered to help and dispose souls to gain their ultimate end from the hand of God our Creator and Lord.” Our mission, which is our consecration to Christ, is that of aiding “our neighbors to attain the ultimate end for which they were created” or, more clearly yet, “to attain to beatitude.”

Have not these words, which at first seem antiquated, found a new urgency? Through the postulates the Society has given new scope to the mission of coming to the aid of others and to this rejection of conquest. There is a rejection of stridency and publicity, of proselytism and of counting numbers of converts, and a thrust towards encounter and interreligious dialogue, towards broad collaboration with all men and women of goodwill, towards the promotion of justice and the defense of peace, of human rights and of the environment, by means of the dialogue of life and by common seeking for the truth, by insertion in difficult surroundings, and by the submerging that makes of our life a simple question, by the testimony also of him who inspires all these aspects of his mission among humanity and the celebration of Christian vitality. We are given a whole new range for the full living of this ideal which Father Arrupe summed up in these few words: “men and women for others,” thus translating the Constitutions’ “ayudar a las almas.” Pope John Paul, as he calls us to a new evangelization, asks us to make serious efforts to discover and put into practice a new language, a new approach, a new way to respond to the new challenges and to the new stakes for humanity, which needs to be helped to become in the reality of our time in the image and likeness of God, as he manifested himself on the day of the Epiphany.

Father Arrupe dared to express this in a mystical manner when he stated: “[M]an, the first word of the Spiritual Exercises, is the point of departure of the spiritual experience which Ignatius lived and taught, and is also—when taken to its completion by way of excellence and development—the be-all and end-all of life when conceived as contemplation.” This view only echoes the conviction of John Paul II, which has been frequently repeated: “The human person is the way of the Church, the necessary way for the Church … and this is … because the human person—every man or woman without exception—has been redeemed by Christ, because Christ has in some way united himself to humanity.”

Have not the words of the Constitutions, when thus viewed, found a new vitality that calls out to us? It is fortunate that we are looking for a new terminology for our mission and for new theological motivation, but this depends on a revival of our missionary thrust; for from a weakening of this spirit, we can expect only the death of the Society. In the Society from its beginnings, this spirit was expressed on the practical order in a universal availability. We willingly identify ourselves as messengers, but the account of the Epiphany, as well as the stories of the other biblical figures, teaches us that a messenger should set out for the place that the mission calls him. He should, therefore, be able to leave what is familiar to him in every sense of the word and give up his certitudes and habits to become truly immersed in situations which are painful for human living, especially the situation of the poor to whom the Gospel was announced before all others.

This universal availability doubtless takes for granted an involvement and gift of self but today even more—and this is an aspect of the new evangelization—requires the courage to be accepting, to let oneself be transformed with complete freedom, so that the good news may and can become clear. Without this universal availability, which is concretely lived out in mobility and the choice of priorities, the Society is no longer capable of helping others go forward on the road which is theirs to the Lord. “The Society of Jesus in its history has always been distinguished, through the many and different forms of its apostolic ministry, by mobility and the dynamism with which its founder infused it and which has made it capable of grasping the signs of the times and, as a result, of being in the vanguard of the renewal which the Church wishes.” It is understandable that this task will thrust us into painful situations, into the temptation of being content to provide others only with mortal bread and of abandoning the need to give them the bread of life as well, in efforts to open new fields of apostolic activity and to close what no longer corresponds to our present-day mission, in places where the decrease in the number and quality of our capabilities in manpower and resources runs the risk of exhausting energies which are already indispensable for mere survival. We can pretend to be giving up a position of strength and security, and there is hardly any doubt that the Society has today reasons to be proud of its surprising activity in almost all the world. It is an undeniable fact, but it only makes sense if all this activity is an expression of the purpose for which it was founded.

The general congregation will have to measure the Society’s spiritual vitality, its life in the spirit; for, as Ignatius reminds us in the Constitutions,

[f]or the preservation and development not only of the body or exterior of the Society but also of the spirit, and for the attainment of the objective it seeks, which is to aid souls to reach their ultimate and supernatural end, the means which unite the human instrument with God … are more effective than those which equip it in relation to men and women. Such means are, for example, goodness and virtue, and especially charity, and a pure intention of the divine service, and familiarity with God our Lord in spiritual exercises of devotion, and sincere zeal for souls for the sake of glory to him who created and redeemed them and not for any other benefit.


In the Spiritual Exercises Ignatius rightly focuses the entire mystery of the Epiphany on the adoration of the Magi: they see just a poor infant and fall on their knees or, rather, before an Oriental they fall prostrate. The poor infant has remained the poor of God while being the resurrected Lord. And then the question is put to all of us: “But who do you say that I am?” This general congregation has the responsibility not to give a ready-made response, presented in one of its decrees, but it should put itself in the presence of this infant and make a colloquy with Ignatius: How is it that, though he is the Creator, he has stooped to become human, being able again to say who he is, that is to say, what we are inasmuch as we are companions of Jesus for the life of the world? As a participant in this general congregation, on the brink of the third millennium, I ask myself Who am I? and “[a]ccording to the light that I have received, I will beg for grace to follow and imitate more closely our Lord, who has just become man for me.”



January 7, 1995

C: On Our Law and Our Life

We want for a few moments to recall how Ignatius and his first companions entrusted the Constitutions to us. It is well known that we are dealing with an original work, of such originality that a specialist from the Gregorian was led to assert, “This law is not a law, this code is not a code.” While remaining true to himself as a pilgrim on the road to the absolute of God, Ignatius outlines the reality of the road to travel even in the legislation of the Society of Jesus. There is no need to repeat here the original development of the different parts of the Constitutions, which were proposed as stages of a long journey to be made, from admission to the apostolic body of the Society up to the definitive incorporation, by which a personal commitment was bit by bit transformed into a union of hearts and spirits with those who wished to be made into one body, “nos reducere ad unum corpus.” As Ignatius marked out the way to God for us, he took the seeming risk of ceaselessly repeating himself and in this way, according to the opinion of Nicholas Bobadilla, of creating “a labyrinth of great confusion.”

Ignatius, however, does not repeat himself for the joy of repetition; he was very aware of the distinctiveness of each stage on this long Journey. The obedience of a novice cannot be that of a formed Jesuit. The sense of belonging to an apostolic body cannot be the same for one who is sent alone on a mission and for one who fulfills this mission in the framework of a community. We can expect maturation, growth from life in the Spirit. In the Constitutions Ignatius wishes each to be able to advance towards God according to the particular demands of each stage, of each mission entrusted to him. In our sometimes exaggerated concern for equality for all, have we not neglected or ignored differences in experiences and individuals instead of appreciating their importance and letting this mature? Ignatius was not familiar with our temptation immediately and almost automatically to see all differences in terms of master and slave, or of striker and stricken. As a result, he was not afraid to have confidence in those “who will be men who are spiritual and sufficiently advanced to run in the path of Christ our Lord to the extent that their bodily strength and exterior occupations allow in everything that concerns the life in the Spirit,” with the assurance that those who are not yet sufficiently advanced will be able to discover in the Constitutions advice and instruction for making progress on the way.

The companion as Ignatius would like him to be and become is not an outlaw, but one who wishes to find in the Constitutions a help for progress and for thus giving greater service. Precisely because it is a matter of someone wishing to be helped in his desire, Ignatius refuses to give any orders and remains satisfied with making challenges along with their motivation: what it is good to do, what it is essential to do, what could be helpful. Nothing is imposed from without, and even less under pain of sin; everything is founded on the desire, or at least the desire for the desire, of going forward freely and generously on the way which Ignatius proposes. Should anyone wish not to go forward on this way, he is completely free to go away. For life in the Society is just one way among many others. It is this liberty that transforms itself into a gift of life for service to the missions that are entrusted; it draws from this interior law of charity and love what the Holy Spirit writes and imprints on hearts. For it is this law which should help and inspire more that any external constitution.

Always a realist, St. Ignatius acknowledges in the Constitutions that there will always be in the Society members who cannot fully live according to these views of liberty and responsibility; he limits himself to remarking that there should not be too many who are Jesuits in name only and remain such because of the advantages of belonging]. For too large a number would paralyze the proper functioning of the Society.

For those who are able to carry the burden of this vocation, the Constitutions should open the way, thanks to the experience which is accumulated in them and which they hand on, while avoiding at the same time an extreme rigor and an excessive laxity, a demagogic permissiveness and a militaristic discipline. They in no way negate the fact that every companion will live in a permanent election, in a constant discernment which will lead him to be placed with Christ, in order to be made by the Spirit capable of making in everyday life the decisions which Christ made, of making them here and now, today in our mission.

The Constitutions and the interpretations subsequently given them in general congregations should facilitate this discernment by pointing out the obstacles after many unfortunate experiences; by indicating, when necessary, the paths which experience shows lead nowhere; by establishing, for the extreme but always possible cases, limits by which one can be assured of taking the good way; but also by shedding light on the way by discernment of the signs of the times and by formulating responses to new challenges and involvements; and by preparing by precise and concrete decisions the apostolic body of the Society, and especially those involved in initial and permanent formation, for the new tasks to be accomplished on our way towards God. Without this book of challenges and reminders, our desire to go forward remains without perspectives and without energy. The legislative work which particularly awaits this general congregation will help the Society go forward with more clarity and greater unity.

It is important to learn from Ignatius’s experience how to confront the eternal problem which brings the letter into conflict with the Spirit, the institution into conflict with the charism. St. Paul sums up the difficulty in a few words: “Without the Spirit, the letter kills … but without the letter that Spirit has no voice.” All one has to do is to open up the book of the Spiritual Exercises and to leaf through the book of the Constitutions to come face to face with Ignatius and his great inspirations, his wide horizons, his worldwide measures; and also with an Ignatius who goes into the least detail and particulars of conduct and process. We do not have a double personality here, or two parallel records of activity. Ignatius allows himself to be taken over by the logic of the Incarnate Word in whom true infinity and actual finiteness are joined together. Ignatius makes no choice between right and love, between vision and management, between letter and Spirit. As he contemplates the mysteries of the life of the Incarnate One, Ignatius sinks his gaze into all the density of the world and neither scorns nor neglects anything that lives or dies, but discovers and proclaims it in Christ, the beginning and end, dead and risen.

Should we be surprised, then, that the Constitutions were composed precisely after many Eucharists, in which the Infinite freely enclosed himself in the finiteness of this bread that is broken and this wine that is poured out for the life of the world? It is in this faith that Ignatius searched for confirmation of his discernment, the presence of the Spirit in this text of the Constitutions. For him, it is a question of life and death. For if the Society was not established by human means, it could consequently be neither maintained nor developed by them, but only by the all-powerful hand of Christ, our God and Lord [812]. Because the Society should be a body which serves God and which God can use for his work for the world: “God works and labors”), Ignatius desires the text of the Constitutions to be at the service of what the Spirit says to the Church, and that the Spirit may be able to use this text of the Constitutions to lead the people of God to all Truth.

Ignatius never wished to consider this work definitively ended. He did not wish to leave us a cut-and-dried system, a spirituality that was closed in on itself. Father Diego Laínez stated that Ignatius never published the Constitutions and that they were never brought to completion by him as if there were nothing more to be added to them. In every sense, since he conceived the Constitutions as a way toward God, Ignatius was unable to consider them as forever set and determined. On the other hand, since he wished to have the Constitutions share in the magis, in the greater service, Ignatius did not wish to limit their thrust, which was inspired by a loving wholeheartedness for the following of Christ. Father Laínez saw in this unfinished work of Ignatius a summons to a creative fidelity, to the Society’s responsibility, when gathered in general congregation, to renew, enrich, and clarify, with new apostolic experiences, demands, and urgencies, the way pointed out to us by the pilgrim Ignatius.

May the Spirit guide us in our work on legislation, so that by the intercession of our Lady of the Way and of Ignatius the pilgrim, the interpretation that we are going to give the Constitutions may be in all and for all our Ignatian way towards God.



Original Source (English translation):

Jesuit Life & Mission Today: The Decrees & Accompanying Documents of the 31st–35th General Congregations of the Society of Jesus, ed. John W. Padberg. St. Louis, Mo.: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2009, “Introductory Discourses of Father General,” pg. 673690.

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