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Electing the Jesuit superior general

Word has been officially circulated that the current superior general of the Jesuits is set to resign in 2016. What is so special about that?

The Jesuit superior general is sometimes referred to as the Black Pope because he is seen as a powerful religious leader who, unlike the pope who is usually seen in white, is more often dressed in a black soutane—that is, when he is not running around in mufti.


But like the pope, the Jesuit superior general is elected to serve office for life. This is a feature in the Jesuit Order introduced by Ignatius himself purportedly for the purpose, among others, of preventing Jesuits from ambitioning for the position. I have never been subjected to that temptation myself. But if ever the general wants to quit, it is not a simple nor an inexpensive matter.

The general is elected by a General Congregation, that is, an assembly of elected Jesuit delegates summoned from around the world who travel to Rome for the purpose. (Although the next one might be somewhere outside Rome.)  The first step in the process is a consultation of provincial superiors around the world, asking them if in their judgment it is time to consider looking for a new general. If their judgment is positive, then the general summons a General Congregation and the general submits his resignation to the assembled General Congregation.  Once the resignation is accepted, the General Congregation proceeds to the election of a new general.


How is the election done? I was one of the Philippine delegates to the General Congregation that elected Fr. Hans von Kolvenbach as general to succeed Fr. Pedro Arrupe who, for reasons of health, submitted his resignation. First, we had to vote to accept the resignation of Fr. Pedro Arrupe. After Father Arrupe’s resignation was accepted, we proceeded to the election of a new general. How is it done?

It is nothing like the election processes we are familiar with. There are no nominated candidates. There is no campaigning. The most we have is what is called “murmuratio” when a delegate is allowed to talk to others who might know something about one who is a possible general. After the days of “murmuratio,” the delegates—and the delegates alone—are locked up in the session hall where they go through the process of voting.

There are no nominees. The delegates could vote for any qualified Jesuit in the entire world.

Each is given a slip of paper on which to write his vote. The votes are collected, counted to ensure that there is no duplication, read and tallied. If no one gets the majority of the votes, then another round of voting is done until someone finally comes out as the choice of the majority. Next,  palakpakan.

This is also how it will be when we finally go through the process of electing who will succeed Fr. Adolfo Nicolas.

Father Nicolas is well known to many of us in the Philippines where he spent several years of his Jesuit life. Many times we had dinner together in the Jesuit Residence where I live. He was then director of the East Asian Pastoral Institute in the Ateneo de Manila campus when he was pulled out to become general. But why is he now resigning?

In his letter to the whole Jesuit society, he said: “Several years have passed since my election as Superior General of the Society and I have recently reached the age of 78. Reflecting on the coming years, I have reached the personal conviction that I should take the needed steps towards submitting my resignation to a General Congregation. After obtaining the initial approval of the Assistants ad providentiam and having informed his Holiness Pope Francis, I formally consulted the Assistants ad providentiam and the Provincials, as our law requires (NC 362). The result of the consultation is favorable towards the convening of a General Congregation.”


What follows now? Before the next General Congregation to elect a general, there will be Provincial Congregations whose task it will be, among others, to elect delegates to the General Congregation. As I a recall, from the Philippines those going there are the current provincial superior and whoever are the two delegates elected by our Provincial Congregation.

Who will be the next general? If I am not mistaken, past generals, like all past popes before the current one, have all been European. We now have a Latin American pope. Will the next general be again European? Or will the General Congregation decide that it is now time for a Latin American or an Asian or an American general? The only thing I am sure of is that it will not be this Asian.

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