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Posted: January 17

Respecting a grand tradition

Once the dust settled and two-hundred plus visiting Jesuits settled into the communities in Rome which would be their homes for the next two months, they turned quickly into first major task of the general congregation—selecting which Jesuit would best succeed Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. Several of us regular community members sat around the dinner table last night reflecting on what we are seeing close-up and yet at a respectful distance. The house over all is much quieter. Someone said he feels like we have a retreat going on. That is probably the clue to the idiosyncratic, very unique Jesuit method of picking a new leader.

All of us have made two 30-day-long retreats of total silence and annual 8-day retreats and most of us have led other people in making retreats. So we have lots of experience in slipping from the normal mode of business and mild chaos that is typical of modern life into a slow, reflective rhythm of prayer. And that is what we are seeing in the electors. They spend the whole day around the Curia, and just have a simple sack lunch rather than spending the half-hour or so that they would normally take to return to their place of residence for the main mid-day meal. Of course, the day starts with Mass and the main chapel has Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament all day. The liturgical music is good, surprisingly so for Jesuits.

Jesuits also know how to be spiritual directors and listen to people, trying to sift out the movements of the Spirit. I think the electors bring this trait to the four days of “murmuratio” as this period is traditionally known. What that means is simply that the electors get together two by two for intensive conversation about one man or another, seeking to understand his strengths and weaknesses and whether he could give the Society the leadership it needs. By the end of the day you can see the tiredness in the men as they walk down the corridors. I never expected that this conversation would be so tiring; but it clearly demands discipline. The electors are up to the task however and take their responsibility very seriously. I don’t know the content of any single conversation and don’t know any names that are being mentioned. I respect the men who are engaged in this service for all of us. One of my friends who is usually aware of our human frailties admitted that he was very impressed and that taking part in the murmuratio makes him proud to be a Jesuit. I feel the same way, and I am still running around attending to last minute details.

The contrast between this Jesuit election and the national elections that have just happened or are going on in countries around the world, including my own nation of the United States, could not be stronger. Nobody here is campaigning for a position of honor, and they are all aware of the generosity they are demanding of the man they eventually choose come Saturday. Honesty and insight are the watchwords. It’s no surprise that the process was created by St. Ignatius himself. Although people often say he was a soldier, he actually wasn’t and would never have been wounded had he been more professional in the arts of war. The real soldiers in Pamplona realized the hopelessness of standing up to the French artillery; they withdrew from the city until the French finally got tired and headed back north. Ignatius’ professional training was in administration, and the rules for running a general congregation give ample evidence of his thorough training. But mainly he was a great spiritual director, and the election process for a Jesuit superior general owes more to what he learned from helping others to discover God’s action in their lives than to the administrative training of the Spanish court.

So now we come to the fourth and last day of the murmuratio. When the new superior general is elected, we will be busy with the web site and photographs and all that. But mostly we will be the beneficiaries of the wisdom and prayer of several hundred Jesuits who represent the rest of us. I feel privileged to witness this tradition.

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