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What’s New in the Decree on Mission

What’s New in the Decree on Mission

Marcos Recolons SJ

 

Introduction

 

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 Bolivia.

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.

 

GC33: Confirmation

 

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 were tragic.

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 nation.

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

 

Provincial 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, China, 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 Perspective

 

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.

 

Conclusion

 

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

Curia Generalizia

C.P. 6139

00195 Roma-Prati – ITALY

 

Original Spanish

Translation by 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.

7.  Ibid., n. 20.

8.  Ibid., n. 25.

9.  Ibid., n. 37.

10. Ibid., n. 40.

11. 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>.