New in the Decree on Mission
The Social Justice Secretariat has asked
me to comment in the light of my own apostolic experience on the decree of
GC35, “Challenges to our Mission Today: Sent to the Frontiers”, especially as
regards what is new in the decree.
I do so with enthusiasm and fear. There is
enthusiasm because I want to convey my conviction that the last three General
Congregations, one in each decade, have discerned well the signs of the times
and updated the formulation of the mission of the universal Society. There is
also fear because my apostolic experience is very specific and very local, and
I do not know how relevant it will be for contemplating the universal in the
particular and for comparing the mission decree of GC35 with those of the
earlier GCs. This article will attempt to do that nonetheless, and will also
attempt to explain the reasons why I have the conviction I have already mentioned.
I begin by stating that my own apostolic experience has consisted mostly of
work among the indigenous subsistence farmers of Bolivia and has been carried out in
collaboration with fellow Jesuits as well as other religious and lay people.
The decree begins by giving thanks to the
Lord for “the ongoing process of renewal and adaptation of our mission and way
of proceeding”, a process that has taken form in the GCs subsequent to the
Second Vatican Council.
The gratitude expressed here is not a
formality. As we view this process over the last four decades, we cannot doubt
that “the Spirit has led the whole Society”, despite all our faults, helping us
to understand, at each historical moment, the mission that Ignatius expressed
in the Formula of the Institute. The discernment through which the GCs have
renewed and adapted our mission has not begun from zero. Rather, it has brought
together everything that the Holy Spirit has been stimulating in the apostolic
work of the whole Society. This has reached the GC through diverse paths, the
main path being the personal experience and knowledge of all those assembled,
but also important are what was contributed through the postulates and the work
of the preparatory commissions.
Confirmation of the earlier General Congregations
The decree on which we are commenting here
confirms the options made by GC32 and GC34 for our mission.
GC32: Faith and Justice
In the decade of the seventies, GC32
established that “the mission of the Society of Jesus today is the service of
faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement. For
reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another.”1
In Latin America
this option reached us at an opportune moment. On the one hand, it reflected
the intense experience of church that we had starting from the time of the
Second General Conference of Latin American Bishops (CELAM), which took place
in Medellín in 1968. The Conference’s first
commitment was “to inspire, encourage and promote a new order of justice, one
that incorporates all people in the development of their own communities”.2 The papal encyclicals have
also moved in the same direction.3
On the other hand, in the years that
followed, military dictatorships multiplied in Latin
America. Adhering to the doctrine of “national security”, they
imposed repressive anti-democratic regimes that denied people their inalienable
human rights, weighed our countries down with onerous debts and squandered our
natural resources through corruption and incompetence.
In the small ambit of our Jesuit
community, the declarations of GC32 arrived at a moment when two of us, in our
fourth year of priesthood, were working as rural teachers; both of us were in
tiny one-teacher state schools in very isolated Guarani-Chiriguano
communities. We were living in great poverty in the midst of the people, and we
had a lot of work. Most of the men of the zone would leave to work in the sugar
cane harvest for eight months, living in a sort of debt slavery from which they
could never escape. Meanwhile they left their lands to the mercy of greedy
cattle ranchers, who kept fencing in more and more of their fields.
Our Jesuit community slowly became aware that
our “inserted” style of life and work, the fruit of long discernment, was a way
of accompanying the people in their agony, but it was not helping them to get
out of it. Along with the authorities of the Guarani people of that zone (Isoso), we began a process of seeking alternatives.
Communities of other zones asked for our aid in recovering their lands that had
been usurped by neighbouring cattle ranchers. The option for justice of GC32
gave us the impetus to make painful changes in the way we lived and worked. The
result was the creation of a social centre to support the Guarani people, a
centre that would function in collaboration with the pastoral work of the
parish. This option made life much more complicated for us, but viewing that
discernment now, 33 years later, we have no doubt that it was the Spirit who
was leading us, since, despite all our faults, that social centre has played a
significant role in the remarkable recent history of the Guarani people of
We were not alone in our process of
change. All the apostolic sectors of the Society were undergoing a great
evolution in the direction pointed out by GC32, both before and after the
Congregation was held. Not all the works or all the apostolic sectors evolved
at the same rate, or with the same implicit or explicit political options.
Sometimes the differences provoked strong tensions, but what is certain is that
all the sectors were creating new ways of concretizing their mission for the
service of the Church and the Society.
In the decade of the eighties, GC33
confirmed the mission of the Society as expressed in the earlier GCs with these
words: “We confirm the Society’s mission expressed by the 31st and
32nd General Congregations, particularly in the latter’s Decrees 2
and 4, which are the application today of the Formula of the Institute and of
our Ignatian charism. They
express our mission today in profound terms offering insights which serve as
guidelines for our future responses” (GC33, Decree 1, n. 38).
During this decade the world saw the
collapse of communism in the Soviet Union and
in Europe. In Latin
America there were major political advances with the
re-establishment of democracy in most of the countries, but a very high cost
was paid in terms of the victims of armed conflicts and institutionalized
violence. The Society of Jesus also paid a high price for the promotion of
justice: twelve Jesuits were killed in Latin America
between 1976 and 1989. As regards the economy, this was called the “lost
decade” because of the general stagnation and the “structural adjustments”
imposed by the International Monetary Fund. The social consequences of all this
But change was evident also in the small
world of our apostolic team. Our social centre, now constituted as the regional
office of a major social institution of the province, accompanied the birth of
the dynamic Assembly of the Guarani People (APG, for its initials in Spanish),
which for the first time in history succeeded in integrating and organizing the
different groups of the Guarani-Chiriguano. Along
with the APG, the Apostolic Vicariate and other private and public institutions
participated actively in an ambitious social development programme for the
Guarani communities. Our centre published studies on the language,
anthropology, sociology and history of the Guarani-Chiriguano.
The words of GC33, which reaffirmed the service of faith and promotion of
justice as a clear, profound expression of our mission, captured effectively
our apostolic experience and stimulated us to continue along the same path.
GC34: Dialogue and Culture
GC34, in the decade of the nineties,
stressed two vital dimensions in our service of faith and promotion of justice:
“dialogue with members of other religious traditions and the engagement with
culture, which is essential for an effective presentation of the Gospel.”
(GC34, Decree 2, n. 15)
There is no need to insist on how
judicious and farsighted GC34 was in highlighting for us these two dimensions
of our mission, so evident in much of what we see in today’s world: the clash
of civilizations, globalization, de-Christianization of the West, and the
wholesale loss of identity among cultural minorities.
In Latin America
neoliberalism reigned, and people were beginning to
feel disillusioned about the representative democracy for which so many had
struggled. It was unable to resolve the situation of dire poverty, and stood
discredited by scandalous corruption, leaving the politicians without any
credibility. Thus the breeding ground was prepared for the more or less
populist alternatives which would emerge in the following decade.
But let us return to
our local experience. On the one hand, during this decade we developed an
intense dialogue concerning indigenous religious traditions. Our team organized
seven seminars on Guarani theology, which brought the ipayes
(shamans) together. We discovered such a wealth of theology that we cried out
in amazement: “In the Guarani religious tradition we cannot speak only of
‘seeds of the Word’, because these seeds have germinated, and they form plants,
trees, forests...” In the Andean part of Bolivia a rich dialogue had been
developing for some time between Christian theology and the Aymara
religious tradition. On the other hand, working side by side with persons and
institutions authentically living a humanism of solidarity, however agnostic or
atheistic their convictions, challenged us to think about how best to present
our faith in this cultural context. At another level, we incorporated political
pressure or advocacy into our institutional programmes, presenting ever-broader
proposals about the changes necessary if the indigenous majorities of Bolivia (62 per
cent of the population) were to be actively integrated into the life of the
Once again we felt a great spiritual and
apostolic alignment or affinity with these two dimensions which GC34 had
presented to us while formulating our mission.
What is New in GC35
Given that GC35 reaffirms the formulation
of the Society’s mission as enunciated in GC32 and GC34, we may ask ourselves
what this GC offers by way of new elements for the first decade of the
millennium. I will express my own viewpoint with regard to four specific
aspects: a new focus on reconciliation, a new concept of frontier, a new way of
relating with nature, and apostolic planning at all levels of governance.
A New Focus: Reconciliation
First of all, GC35 brings a new focus that
does much to give a sense of unity to our mission. The service of faith,
promotion of justice and dialogue with culture and other religious traditions
should all be done from the perspective of reconciliation. Men and women’s
relationship with God, among themselves and with creation should be oriented
toward reconciliation; we Jesuits are called to be “instruments of God, who in
Christ reconciled the world to Himself”.4 The union of faith, justice and reconciliation has
been present since the first formulation of these components of our mission. As
indicated earlier, some 33 years ago, GC32 formulated our mission as “the
service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement,
for reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one
another.”5 In our
collective consciousness, however, the theme of reconciliation was at that time
obscured by the vigorous affirmation of the struggle for justice.
A New Concept of Frontier
Secondly, the decree on which we are now
commenting has produced a new concept: the frontier. Ever since I have been a
Jesuit I have heard that we Jesuits are called to go out to the frontiers and
to pursue frontier issues, but this decree offers a new vision of what our frontiers
are. The term “frontier” is a geographic term often used metaphorically to
speak of intellectual and scientific advances, ideological visions, and so on.
Now, however, in our global village, frontier as a geographic term of reference
has undergone a change. In a globalized world, ideas, information, merchandise,
technology and capital circulate freely; persons also circulate, though with
many more restrictions. Frontiers have become porous, and in many cases they
have disappeared. The world has become multi-religious and multi-cultural.
There is no longer a notion of Christendom with delimited frontiers beyond
which lies mission territory.
The new frontiers exist everywhere, and we
are sent to the frontiers with the very concrete mission of opening up passes
and of “building bridges” between those who live on one side of the frontier
and those who live on the other. What is more, we are asked to be ourselves
“bridges in a fragmented world”.6
This image for me is quite suggestive: in a world that is broken, cracked, full
of gaps, our mission is to be bridges so that these cracks no longer continue
to isolate social groups and persons, so that everybody can enter into
communion with God, with others and with creation.
What are these gaps? The decree points to
some that separate us from God, such as the gaps between faith and reason,
between culture and religion, between culture and morality, between faith and
society. Explicit mention is made of subjectivism, moral relativism, hedonism,
practical materialism, as well as religious fundamentalism which manipulates
faith in God in order to divide peoples and communities. Mindful of the Pope’s
allocution, we are called to build a bridge between “a mistaken or superficial
vision of God and of man” and knowledge of the “true face of the Lord”, which
for so many people “remains even today hidden or unrecognizable.”7
The decree also points out the gaps that
have opened up among human groups, emphasizing the growing chasm between rich
and poor, both within countries and on the international plane.8 We are invited to view the
world from the perspective of the poor and the marginalized and to reaffirm,
with the Pope, the preferential option for the poor. Other gaps that hinder
just relations among human beings derive from violence, war, arms trafficking,
the pillaging of natural resources, and loss of sovereignty for many
nation-states, resulting in a form of global marginalization.
A New Way of Relating to Creation
Congregations from all the continents submitted some 41 postulates regarding
ecology, the theme that provoked the greatest number of postulates, an
indication that the Society should quite rightly be concerned about it. As one
member of the GC said, unless we are concerned about preserving the
environment, we may be arranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic while the
ship itself is sinking. This decree in a very natural and harmonious way
succeeds in integrating concern for the environment into the formulation of our
mission. It does so by rooting it deeply in our spirituality and insisting on
the perspective of the poor, who frequently are the most immediately affected
by the degradation of the environment and by climatic change.
Apostolic Planning at All Levels of Governance
Although this is not a formulation of the
Society’s mission but rather a means for realizing it, it seems to me important
that the Congregation has “emphasized the importance of structures of apostolic
planning, implementation and accountability at all levels of government that
are appropriate to carry out our mission today.”9 Furthermore, the five global preferences defined by
Fr. Kolvenbach are maintained: Africa,
the intellectual apostolate, the interprovincial institutions in Rome, and migrants and
refugees. Father General is encouraged to “continue to discern the preferences
for the Society, to review the above preferences, to update their specific
content, and develop plans and programmes that can be monitored and evaluated.”10
The New Formulation Viewed from the Local
Within our Latin American apostolic horizon
new forms of political action have arisen; in challenging the older forms they
have created a situation of stress, tension and polarization. Furthermore, the
continued degradation of the environment and the contamination of water, land,
and air are now having verifiably serious effects on the health of the
population, especially the poorest sectors.11 Deforestation of extensive wooded areas of Latin America, especially in the Amazon basin, has
already become a problem with planetary impact.
In Bolivia the indigenous peoples have
been gaining increasing electoral power, and they are desirous of establishing
new rules of coexistence, which are strongly opposed by other groups seeking to
establish their own rules. Our apostolic team sees clearly that we can no
longer work only for the indigenous population, on the weaker bank of the
bridge. We must also reach out to the other bank, the stronghold of those who
have held power until now, so as to call both sides to reconciliation. We must
build bridges of dialogue that allow for the creation of a new form of
respectful, just, harmonious and constructive coexistence. Furthermore, we have
for some time now been working on creating models of sustainable rural development
that preserve the environment and offer the indigenous population the
opportunity to lead a dignified life without having to leave the countryside.
Once again, the GC interprets our
apostolic concerns and guides us with lucidity along the paths that the Spirit
indicates for our mission.
My conclusion is that GC35 has reflected
on our mission with humility, sincerity and farsightedness. It has accepted in
a spirit of renewal the Pope’s orientations and has let itself be guided by the
Spirit. As a result it has given us a way of understanding at this historical
moment the mission that was framed in the 16th century in the
Formula of the Institute.
Marcos Recolons SJ
00195 Roma-Prati – ITALY
Joseph Owens SJ
1. GC32, Decree 4, n. 2.
2. Second General Conference of the Latin
American Bishops, Message to the Peoples
of Latin America.
3. See Evangelii Nuntiandi (December 1975), n. 31. “Between
evangelization and human advancement – development and liberation – there are
in fact profound links. These include links of an anthropological order,
because the man who is to be evangelized is not an abstract being but is
subject to social and economic questions. They also include links in the
theological order, since one cannot dissociate the plan of creation from the
plan of Redemption. The latter plan touches the very concrete situations of
injustice to be combated and of justice to be restored.”
4. GC35, Challenges
to our Mission
today: Sent to the Frontiers, n. 16.
5. GC32, Decree 4, n. 2.
6. GC35, Challenges
to our Mission
today: Sent to the Frontiers, n. 17.
Ibid., n. 20.
Ibid., n. 25.
Ibid., n. 37.
See the study undertaken by the Saint Louis University School of Public Health,
Environmental Contamination in the Homes
of La Oroya and Concepcion and its Effects in the
Health of Community Residents, at <http://tinyurl.com/6hc8gd>.