The resignation of a General.
Today, the 35th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus formally accepted Father Peter-Hans Kolvenbach's request to resign as Superior General of the Society. Having served the Society very well for almost a quarter of a century, at the age of seventy-nine Father Kolvenbach is stepping aside so that a younger man may take up the challenge of leading the Jesuits in a new millennium. The General's request to resign reflects a prudential judgment that an orderly change in leadership of the Society would be preferable to the possibility of rule by an infirm superior general - a very real possibility, as Father Kolvenbach's two immediate predecessors (Pedro Arrupe and John Baptist Janssens) were both incapacitated by declining health while in office. Over the coming days, the members of the General Congregation will engage in a process of prayerful discernment (similar in some respects to the mechanism that governs the election of a pope) that will result in the election of a new superior general.
Hoping to ensure stable governance and to prevent frequent and potentially disruptive changes in leadership, St. Ignatius very wisely decreed in the Jesuit Constitutions that the General should be elected for life. Notwithstanding this rule, the General Norms that govern the Society's application of the Constitutions provide that the leader of the order "may nonetheless in good conscience and by law resign from his office for a grave reason that would render him permanently unequal to the labors of his post." In accordance with this provision and with the assent of Pope Benedict XVI, Father Kolvenbach is stepping aside so that the Society can elect a new leader who does not yet face the diminishment of old age.
Though some see Father Kolvenbach's resignation as a significant precedent, his decision does not alter the Society's venerable tradition of life tenure in the office of the superior general. In a real sense, the process now unfolding at the 35th General Congregation proves again the wisdom of St. Ignatius' plan for the governance of the Society of Jesus. In the text of the Constitutions, Ignatius balances a prudent concern for order and stability with a prescient recognition of the need for accommodation and flexibility. A shrewd administrator as well as a visionary leader, Ignatius believed that the order he founded could adapt to changing circumstances and needs without losing its charism or compromising its identity. In mandating the election of the superior general for a life term, our founder sought to help the Society of Jesus function more efficiently and hoped to avoid the factionalism that too-frequent elections could cause.
The provision of the General Norms that has made Father Kolvenbach's resignation possible reminds us why St. Ignatius wanted the superior general to be elected for life. Like all of the Society's structures, the institution of life tenure for the General is meant to help the Society carry out its mission of evangelization. When a General is elected, his mandate is to serve as long as he can effectively carry out the task of leadership entrusted to him. This may mean, as it has for most of the Society's history, that each man elected as General of the Society serves faithfully until the day of his death. At a more basic level, election for life really means election for as long as one's service furthers the magis. When the greater good of the Society and its mission would be better served by the election of a new General, the incumbent may feel that the time has come for him to request a replacement. Realizing when a General needs to step aside may always be easy; the line between 'excellent' and 'better' is often hard to locate. In bidding farewell to a man who has provided great leadership to the Society of Jesus, we must trust that his successor will be just as well-suited to present and future needs.
I hope that will you will join me in continuing to pray for the 35th General Congregation this week as the assembled delegates move toward the election of a new general. To learn more about this process, click here. For a précis of the qualities that St. Ignatius expected of the superior general of the Society, consider these remarks by Jesuit historian Father John Padberg. I'm sure I'll post further reflections on the election when I have more news. In the meantime, I'll be praying for the work of the Congregation and in gratitude for Father Kolvenbach's twenty-four years of faithful service as General of the Society. AMDG.