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Promotio Iustitiae
At the service of Faith that does Justice   

The apostolic “frontier” of the 21st century and the response of the Society of Jesus

Giuseppe Riggio SJ

In the decrees of the 35th General Congregation (GC35) one central and recurrent theme is highlighted: the Society of Jesus is one apostolic body for the mission. It is a mission which continuously presents the Jesuits, globally and locally, with new demands and needs. It deals with those frontiers, physical and spiritual, referred to by Pope Benedict XVI in his discourse to the members of the GC35 on 21 February 2008 and cited in Decree 3. "The challenge of our mission today: Sent to the Frontiers."

       In accordance with the Holy Father's invitation and the mandate of the GC35, Father General recognised ongoing apostolic discernment as the most appropriate instrument, both to identify the apostolic frontiers to which Jesuits are called to be present and to evaluate the forms and the modalities of this presence.

       The social apostolate, like other apostolic sectors of the Society, is called to give its own contribution to this discernment, beginning with the experience so far accrued. At their annual meeting, 18-22 May 2009, the social apostolate conference coordinators dedicated one full day to this issue.

 The concept of "frontier" in the 35th GC

       Fr. Joseph Daoust SJ, Delegate of Father General to the Roman Houses, opened the coordinators' day of sharing and reflection with a much appreciated intervention. In the course of his reflection, Fr Daoust sought to deepen our understanding of the concept of the "frontier". In fact, this concept cannot be fully understood through poetic clichés alone, but in the light of the journey undertaken by the Society 40 years ago during the 32nd General Congregation, a journey that continues to the present day.

       According to Fr. Daoust, the Society's understanding of its mission has evolved over the years without abrupt changes or radical divisions, as some believe, but as a sign of a gradual and progressively more profound awareness.

       In 1972, GC 32 identified the mission of the Society with the service of faith and the promotion of justice. Subsequently, GC 34 (1995) clarified the interpretation of the concept of faith-justice. In 2008, GC 35 linked this understanding more profoundly to biblical and theological reflection. It was this reference to the biblical message that made it clear to Fr. Daoust that the concept of justice in the documents produced by the General Congregation should not be understood in terms of punitive or equitable justice. Biblical justice has always been linked to a relationship which has broken down and needs to be re-established. Thus, the Society's mission is to contribute to the construction of just relationships in the world, working at their fault lines to re-establish them.

       Fr. Daoust sees these as the frontiers indicated by GC35 (see Decree 3). The decree refers to all the places, and not merely geographical locations, where we see an absence of mutual dialogue and understanding arising from racial, cultural, moral differences. Clearly we are faced by demanding and difficult frontiers which require a significant level of engagement by the Society, the capacity to understand the positions of all concerned so as "to build bridges of dialogue and understanding" (Decree 1.6).

       After having clarified the concept of frontier, Fr. Daoust underlined that the fulfillment of this mission takes places through apostolic discernment of which frontiers we are called to: how to take the mission forward and assess the work undertaken; how to conserve our universal overview and the new challenges arising in the world. In this way discernment becomes a permanent dimension of our mission.

 "Frontiers" and the social apostolate

        After Fr. Daoust's introduction, the coordinators presented their perspective. In agreement with the overall approach, particularly the role of discernment in the realisation of our mission, the coordinators emphasised the contribution the social apostolate sector could make to the whole Society, the potential obstacles en route, and the role of the Curia and the Social Justice Secretariat.

 The contribution of the social apostolate

        The social apostolate's contribution to identifying today's frontiers comes primarily from its proximity to the poorest and most marginalised and its long-standing social science research. Both these help deepen our understanding of the Society's mission, offering a more universal rather than a merely local vision. Moreover, the experience of the social apostolate may facilitate the spiritual renewal of the Society - acknowledged as fundamental by many quarters - and promote enhanced cooperation between apostolates within the Society and among Jesuits and their collaborators.

       Finally, as the social apostolate has been extensively active in situations characterised by sudden change, sharing this precious experience may encourage the Society to review its priorities and how its meets them.

 Some obstacles along the journey

        There will be a number of obstacles throughout our journey, some of them more tangible than others. Above all, they weigh heavily on the Conferences where falling vocations are leading to a declining number of Jesuits. This situation makes it more difficult to undertake a forward-looking plan that responds to emerging needs. The necessity to respond to these needs is frequently in conflict with the demands of traditionally well-known and long-established Jesuit institutions. In both cases, men are needed to take the mission forward, but this resource is lacking.

       Other obstacles are related to attitudes. Our coordinators observed that the prevailing vision within the Society is characterised by the circumstances of individual Jesuits. They are worried about the specific work they carry out and are well aware of their Provinces' needs. They are not however quite so aware of the universal reality of the Society. A strong sense of provincialism may be frequently observed. This ends in compromising the outcomes of the mission at local and universal levels. In addition, there is a widespread resistance to change, to undertake new initiatives, and to abandon sectors in which the Society has traditionally been present (even though its presence is no longer required) for places where there is a greater need.

 The role of the Curia Generalizia and of the Social Justice Secretariat

        The coordinators also debated the most appropriate role that the Curia Generaliza and Social Justice Secretariat can and should play to move forward. It was amply agreed that the Curia should play a fundamental role in supporting, promoting, encouraging and accompanying apostolic discernment with a view to developing long-term apostolic plans.

       The contribution expected of the Secretariat may be summarised in two fundamental directives:

  • Attention to the world situation. The Secretariat must elaborate an integrated vision of the global economic, social and cultural situation and share it with the whole Society. It should also take the responsibility for promoting reflections and initiatives on relevant global issues, such as migration, ecology, advocacy and human rights.
  • Promoters of cooperation. The coordinators invited the Secretariat to continue promoting cooperation and exchange among Jesuits and collaborators working in the Social Apostolate (for example the Ignatian Advocacy Network and the meetings organised to mark the World Social Forum in Nairobi and Belém). They also invited the Secretariat to encourage closer cooperation between social works and parishes, universities and the youth apostolate.


        The fruitful exchange of ideas during the workshops brought to light a range of interesting aspects that can be usefully developed at Conference and Province levels. There is still broad agreement on the need for a thorough process of discernment, as counselled in the Spiritual Exercises, in response to the call of the Lord and be present at the "frontiers" of this century.


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