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“We need a respectful, mutual listening, free of ideology and predetermined agendas.” Pope Francis, Let us Dream, December 2020

Jesuits explain their process for electing new superior general

The Jesuits have a unique process for electing a superior general for their order, a process that “if you have not seen it, you would think it is impossible,” said Spanish Jesuit Fr Orlando Torres, rector of an international Jesuit house of studies in Rome.

“I’ve never seen an election like this anywhere in the world,” Fr Torres told reporters in Rome on 27th September as 215 Jesuits from around the world were preparing to begin a general congregation and elect a successor to 80-year-old Spanish Fr Adolfo Nicolas.

Going into the meeting, which begins on 2nd October, there are no candidates, Fr Torres said. After discussing the state of the Society of Jesus – where it is growing and shrinking, its strengths and weaknesses – the delegates begin four days of ‘murmuratio’, a series of one-on-one conversations designed to elicit information about Jesuits who may have the qualities needed to lead the world’s largest religious order of men.

If, for example, a delegate believes the situation of the Society of Jesus in Europe should be a priority for the next superior, he said, a delegate would ask another, “Do you know someone who could do this work and respond to the needs of the society today?” If the person says he knows someone, the delegate would ask, “What are his qualities? Tell me, what are his limitations?”

However, Fr Torres said, a delegate cannot suggest another vote for a specific candidate or ask who another delegate plans to vote for. Also, the conversations may not take place in groups “to avoid anything that can appear to be a campaign for a candidate or a pressure group,” he said.

And, “obviously, it is prohibited to promote yourself,” Fr Torres said. In fact, in preparing for the election, the congregation delegates elect members of an ‘anti-ambition’ commission to deal with any allegations that someone is campaigning for the office of superior general.

The rules of the Jesuits call for an atmosphere of prayer and penance during the four days of conversations. Little by little, Fr Torres said, “already by the third day you are thinking of two or three” candidates who would make a good superior general.

After the fourth day of ‘murmuratio’, the delegates celebrate Mass together, invoke the guidance of the Holy Spirit, listen to an admonition by a fellow Jesuit, spend 45 minutes in silence and then begin voting.

To be elected, a candidate must receive at least half plus one of the votes, Fr Torres said.

The process works, he said, pointing to the past two elections: Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach was elected on the first ballot in 1983 and Father Nicolas was elected on the second ballot in 2008.

Although the general congregation sets its own calendar, the actual election is expected sometime after 7th October, said Jesuit Fr Federico Lombardi, the former Vatican spokesman and a delegate to the general congregation.

“Once elected, we call the pope to inform him,” Fr Torres said. Years ago a delegate would walk down the street to the Vatican to inform the pope, but “now we use a mobile phone.”

Theoretically, any Jesuit priest who has made final vows may be elected, Fr Torres said. He does not have to be among the general congregation delegates.

But Fr Lombardi told reporters, “If during the ‘murmuratio,’ I am starting to think that I would like to vote for this person, I would go to him and speak with him to get to know him and find out how he thinks.”

“As an elector, I feel a need to have a personal relationship with the person I am thinking about electing,” Fr Lombardi said. It is not enough that “someone said he is good. No. We must verify that and know him personally.”

Picture: Jesuit Fr Orlando Torres, rector of the International Gesu College in Rome, gestures during a news conference in Rome to discuss the general congregation meeting, which will open on 2nd October. Fr Patrick Mulemi, communications director at the Jesuit headquarters, is pictured at right. (CNS photo/Robert Duncan).