Friends in the Lord: A Reading of the 34th General Congregation of the Jesuit

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Geoffrey  J. King, S.J.


From January to March 1995 the Jesuits met in their 34th General Congregation.  Like the general chapters of other religious institutes, such a Congregation has the task of defining the vision and mission of the institute.  The Jesuits had given such a definition at their 32nd Congregation in 1974/5:  They spoke of "the service of the faith which absolutely demands the promotion of justice".  At the recent Congregation they strongly reaffirmed this commitment, but expanded it in ways that, I believe, make great sense in an Asian context.  In fact, as we will see, the Congregation spoke in terms very similar to those of the FABC's "threefold dialogue" ÑÊwith cultures, with religions, with the poor.

The 34th General Congregation began with a desire to avoid multiplication of words, to concentrate on implementation of existing documents rather than on production of new documents.  With such good intentions was paved the path to the writing of a very large number of words, many of them, fortunately,  good words.  In this article I will try to draw together some of those words around some central and interrelated themes.  I do not pretend to summarize all the contents of all the documents.  And obviously my choice of themes is subjective: hence, I stress that this is a reading.

One further disclaimer.  I say nothing here about the matter that occupied most of my energy during the Congregation, the revision of Jesuit law.  That story I intend to tell elsewhere.  In fact, however, important parts of the decrees of the Congregation are being incorporated into the law's Complementary Norms before the Norms receive definitive approval in June.  I hope that the selection of material for the Norms will reflect the "reading" that I offer in this paper. 


Before GC34 I had suggested the word "partnership" as providing a possible focus for its deliberations.  That suggestion provoked a lively discussion on the e-mail circuit, but, as it turned out, the word was mentioned scarcely, if at all, in the Congregation sessions.

"Partnership" does, however, make a few, and not insignificant, appearances in the Congregation decrees.  In the decree on Cooperation with the Laity it receives passing mention in paragraph 2, and more importantly paragraph 25 invites Jesuits to "service of the ministry of the laity, partnership with them in mission, and openness to creative ways of future cooperation".  It occurs again in the decree on Jesuits and the Situation of Women (12).  Jesuits are called to listen to the experience of women: "Listening, in a spirit of partnership and equality, is the most practical response we can make, and is the foundation for our mutual partnership to reform unjust structures."  In passing it should be remarked that the committee preparing this document had practised what it preached: some fifteen women were consulted about the text.  Finally the closing decree on "Characteristics of our Way of Proceeding" gave partnership an important place.  "Partnership with Others" is the fifth of the Characteristics.  It is seen not as a pragmatic strategy in view of diminishing Jesuit numbers, but as "an essential dimension of the contemporary Jesuit way of proceeding".  As at the end, so at the beginning: the Introductory decree (11) speaks our cooperation with the laity as summoning us "to an attitude of listening and exchange with those who will be vital partners in our service of Christ and His Church".

If we move beyond simple word-counts we find that the notion of partnership (or its cognates "cooperation", "solidarity", "dialogue" and the like) played not merely a significant but indeed a central role in the Congregation decrees.  One way of entering into this vision of the Congregation is to look at its treatment of the Jesuit Brother.  Since the time of Ignatius, the Brothers have technically been referred to as Temporal Coadjutors.  This may sound even somewhat grand, but increasingly Jesuits have been shying away from the term because of its connotation of "assistant".  It easily sounds as if the Brothers (and also those priests who are Spiritual Coadjutors) are simply there to assist the "real" Society, namely the professed of four vows.  GC34 decided, however, that in future the term "Temporal Coadjutor" should be replaced by "Brother".  This was part of an effort to assert that all Jesuits share, albeit in different ways, in the one vocation and mission.  Genuine partnership rather than helpers and helped.

A similar shift can be seen in the decree on Cooperation with the Laity.  Some formulations in earlier times had suggested that the laity were as it were "coadjutors" of the Jesuits.  Even the call of GC31 to "foster the collaboration of the laity in our own apostolic works" could be read in this way.  But GC34 turns such an attitude on its head (talk of a Copernican revolution would not be out of place!).  Having seen the growth in lay ministry as a grace, it continues, "We seek to respond to this grace by putting ourselves at the service of the full realization of the mission of the laity.  We commit ourselves to that end by cooperation with the laity in mission." (1)  While the decree of course envisages the continuing involvement of lay people in works sponsored by the Jesuits (10-12), it does not begin there.  Rather, first to be mentioned is "Service to the laity in their ministry" (5-6).  In this sense, it's the Jesuits who are the coadjutors.

A similar attitude can be seen on the decree on Priesthood (19).  The growth of lay ministries is seen as corresponding to one of the fundamentals of the Ignatian tradition, the recognition of God working through each person for the life of the Church.  "Through the Spiritual Exercises, Jesuits are particularly concerned with helping others enter more into their baptismal dignity . . .".  This is in turn "in profound agreement" with the recent Catechism's perspective on ministerial priesthood.  Ministerial priesthood is at the service of the common priesthood of the faithful, which is exercised by the "unfolding of baptismal grace".

The hoped-for mutuality in such relationships is indicated in the decree on Cooperation with the Laity in paragraph 6: " . . . we join them in companionship: serving together, learning from and responding to each other's concerns and initiatives, dialoguing with one another on apostolic objectives".  The same emphasis is present in the introductory decree Union with Christ on Mission (6):

But the overarching motive is the simple Ignatian desire to help people in Christ.  At the same time, the documents of this Congregation also call us to learn how to be helped by people: how to be poor, how to see the Church as richer for lay leadership, how to listen to the experience of women today, how to find God in the religious traditions of people from other beliefs, how to engage in respectful dialogue, and how to let the young give us hope and dreams for the future.

That list of ways of "learning how to be helped" takes us more broadly into the Congregation's concerns.  They continue to be about partnership in its various senses, especially touching on dialogue and solidarity, and more generally on the need to cross borders and go beyond boundaries.  Let us see first how these themes appear in the central documents on mission (with its special dimensions of justice, culture and interreligious dialogue).


When this Congregation speaks of the mission of the Society of Jesus, it strongly re-affirms the commitment of GC32 to the "service of faith which absolutely demands the promotion of justice".  It sees this option as a great grace, bringing with it the costly grace of martyrdom and the "wonderful gift" of putting us "in such good company Ñthe Lord's surely, but also that of so many friends of his among the poor" and those committed to justice (Our Mission and Justice, 1).  But GC34 seeks to further broaden this vision.  Profiting perhaps especially from Asian experience, it sees the connection between faith, justice and culture, and between justice and dialogue with members of other religious traditions, a dialogue which is seen as effective "when there is a shared commitment to a transformation of the cultural and social life within which people live" (Servants of Christ's Mission, 18).


The question of dialogue is taken up in a special decree "Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue".  This decree begins by imagining our world, a world rich with religious diversity, but also a world fragmented by racism, cultural prejudice, religious fundamentalism and intolerance (1).  Hence, it encourages a move beyond prejudice to wholehearted cooperation "with all men and women of good will in promoting peace, justice, harmony, human rights and respect for all of God's creation".  This requires "dialogue with those inspired by religious commitment, or sharing a sense of transcendence that opens them to universal values." (2)

It is clear from this passage that dialogue involves more than conversation: it is about sharing of life and acting in concert.  The decree in fact follows the 1991 document of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue in distinguishing four "stages" of dialogue:

  • the dialogue of life, where people strive to live in an open and neighbourly spirit, sharing their joys and sorrows, their human problems and preoccupations;
  • the dialogue of action, in which Christians and others collaborate for the integral development and liberation of people;
  • the dialogue of religious experience, where persons, rooted in their own religious traditions, share their spiritual riches;
  • the dialogue of theological exchange, where specialists seek to deepen their understanding of their respective religious heritages, and to appreciate each other's spiritual values.

Dialogue involves a search for community.  "Our commitment to justice demands that we share in the life and the struggles of the poor and work with believers of other religions in creating basic human communities based on truth and love." (Mission and Dialogue, 9.6)

This leads us to the emphasis of the Justice decree on "communities of solidarity".  But first it is worth noting how well this call to dialogue fits with the Ignatian tradition, especially "finding God in all things", in all peoples, all traditions.  "Our spirituality should be characterized by a 'deep respect for everything that has been brought about in human beings by the Spirit who blows where he wills' (John Paul II)" (9.1).


The connection between faith, justice, community and solidarity is eloquently expounded in Servants of Christ's Mission.  The relevant passages are worth quoting at length:

. . . Our Jesuit mission touches something fundamental in the human heart: the desire to find God in a world scarred by sin, and then to live by his Gospel in all its implications.  This, the instinct to live fully in God's love and thereby promote a shared, lasting human good, is what we address by our vocation to serve faith and promote the justice of God's Kingdom.  Christ invites us, and through us the people we serve, to move, in conversion of heart, 'from solidarity with sin to solidarity with him for humanity', and to promote the Kingdom in all its aspects.

This faith in God is inescapably social in its implications, because it is directed towards how people relate to one another and how society should be ordered.  In many parts of the world, we see social and moral disintegration.  When a society has no moral and spiritual basis, this breeds conflicting ideologies and hatreds which provoke nationalistic, racial, economic and sexual violence.  It multiplies the abuses that breed resentment and conflict; it locks groups into aggressive fundamentalisms which can tear the fabric of society apart from within.  Society then becomes prey to the powerful and the manipulative, the demagogue and the liar; it becomes the place of social and moral corruption.

But a faith that looks to the Kingdom generates communities which counter social conflict and disintegration.  From faith comes the justice willed by God, the entry of the human family into peace with God and with one another. . .   If wrongs are to be acknowledged and resolved, then possessiveness, chauvinism and the manipulation of power have to be challenged by communities grounded in religious charity, the charity of the Suffering Servant, the self-sacrificing love shown by the Saviour.  The community which Christ creates by his death challenges the world to believe; to act justly; to speak respectfully to one another of serious things; to transform its systems of relations; to take Christ's commandments as the basis of its life.  (11-13)

Thus the decree on Our Mission and Justice speaks of "communities of solidarity".  "Full human liberation, for the poor and for us all, lies in developing communities of solidarity at the grass roots and nongovernmental as well as political level, where all can work together toward total human development.  And all this in a sustainable, respectful interrelation between diverse peoples, cultures, the environment, and the living God in our midst." (10)

Such communities are seen as necessary precisely because their absence, the presence of fragmentation and exclusion, is so frequent.  "Servants of Christ's Mission" (5) speaks of a broken world.  The Justice decree singled out in particular the marginalization of Africa; the fragmentation of post-Communist Europe; the isolation and marginalization of indigenous peoples; the exclusion from the benefits of society of millions of people ÑÊunemployed youth, street children, the aged, those with AIDS;  the situation of refugees and displaced persons (7).

Creation of communities of solidarity needs then to be carried out in all Jesuit apostolates:

Working together with our colleagues, every Jesuit ministry can and should promote justice in one or more of the following ways: (a) direct service and accompaniment of the poor; (b) developing awareness of the demands of justice and the social responsibility to achieve it; (c) participating in social mobilization for the creation of a more just social order. (19)


Similar themes recur in the decree on Mission and Culture.  It speaks of the need for dialogue with members of the cultures of our contemporary world. (6)  The aim of this dialogue is community, communion:

Ours must be a dialogue, born of respect for people, especially the poor, in which we share their cultural and spiritual values and offer our own cultural and spiritual richness, in order to build up a communion of peoples instructed by God's Word and enlivened by the Spirit as at Pentecost. (8)

Sometimes, in speaking of "evangelization of culture", the documents can give the impression that the traffic is going all one way, from the Gospel to culture.  But in the passage just quoted the Congregation is at pains to state that intercultural dialogue is precisely dialogue, involving mutual teaching and learning.  The decree begins by speaking of mutuality between the Gospel and the cultures it engages (2).  Dialogue is a conversation of equal partners (17), each of whom is open to transformation, to conversion.  Or, as the decree Servants of Christ's Mission expresses it:

The dialogue between the Gospel and culture has to take place within the heart of the culture.  It should be conducted among people who regard each other with respect, and who look together towards a shared human and social freedom.  In this way, too, the Gospel comes to be seen in a new light: it is enriched, renewed, even transformed.  Through dialogue, the Gospel itself, the Word ever ancient and ever new, enters the minds and hearts of the human family. (17)

Dialogue with cultures that are inseparably bound up with one or other of the world religions or with indigenous religion is spoken of at length in the decree on Interreligious Dialogue.  The decree on Culture touches also on "cultures where there is a difficult dialogue with those who think they have gone beyond Christianity and any religious commitment" (19), dialogue with "critical modernity".  It recognizes that the boundary between this culture and the Gospel "passes through the heart of each of us" (20).  Again, the approach is that of "a meeting of equal partners in dialogue (23):

A genuine attempt to work from within the shared experience of Christians and unbelievers in a secular and critical culture, built upon respect and friendship, is the only successful starting point.  Our ministry towards atheists and agnostics will either be a meeting of equal partners in dialogue, addressing common questions, or it will be hollow.  This dialogue will be based upon a sharing of life, a shared commitment to action for human development and liberation, a sharing of values and a sharing of human experience.  Through dialogue, modern and post-modern cultures may be challenged to open themselves towards approaches and experiences which, though rooted in human history, are new to them. (23)

If this sounds unduly optimistic, we should read on into the next paragraph:

It is not hard to see a modernist, scientific-technological culture, often one-sidedly rationalistic and secular in tone, which can be destructive of human and spiritual values . . .   One of the most important contributions we can make to critical contemporary culture is to show that the structural injustice in the world is rooted in value systems promoted by a powerful modern culture which is becoming global in its impact. (24)

The tragedy of our world is even more clearly seen in paragraph 26 Ñ massive dislocations and inequalities, the brutal and the demonic in the totalitarian experiments of this century.  Yet even within these situations is seen a flawed attempt to attain community, the community that the book of Revelation calls the "New Jerusalem".  Until its advent, "our vocation is to work generously with the Risen Christ in the all-too-human city where there is poverty of body and spirit, manipulation of mind and heart, and to serve the Lord there until he returns to bestow perfection on the world where he died" (26).


What has been said so far could perhaps be summed up as saying that the service of faith and promotion of justice requires a crossing of the boundaries of culture, religion and social class, a befriending of the poor, of those of other cultures and other faiths.  In doing this we seek to form communities of solidarity, which stand out against the fragmentation and exclusions all too apparent in the world.  We are inspired to do this by the vision of Ignatius, who tried to share in the vision of a Trinity looking in compassion on the world, who sought to find God in all things.

This same attitude of boundary-crossing, of befriending is apparent in many other decrees of the Congregation.  I offer only a sample.

The decree on Ecumenism begins: "The signs of the times demonstrate starkly how a faith that does justice must necessarily engage in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue and cooperation.  In many parts of the world, it is precisely religious divisions that are a major contributing force to injustice, violence, even warfare." (1)  It goes on: "In a word, ecumenism seeks what unites rather than what divides; seeks understanding rather than confrontation; seeks to know, understand and love others as they wish to be known and understood, with full respect for their distinctiveness, through the dialogue of truth, justice and love." (3)

The decree on Priesthood, echoing the Formula' of the Institute's [the foundational Jesuit document] "reconciling the estranged", includes the following:

A special challenge today is to embody Christ's ministry of healing and reconciliation in a world that is increasingly divided by economic and social status, race and ethnicity, violence and war, cultural and religious pluralism.  These divisions must be a focus of Jesuit priestly ministry because Christ's work of reconciliation breaks down the walls of division among peoples "in order to create in himself one new humanity" (Eph 2.14ff). (14)

This ministry reaches out to those who are excluded.  Paragraph 11 quotes Ignatius' younger contemporary Jerome Nadal: "The Society cares for those persons for whom no one will care or who are neglected.  This is the fundamental reason for the founding of the Society . . .".

The decree on Chastity sees this virtue as being about a love that includes those whom social structures exclude.  Celibate chastity is about an apostolic availability which is ready to cross borders, to go beyond boundaries.  Let me quote from paragraphs 10 and 11; the language is perhaps a little lofty, but I did find in these words an echo of my own best, if very imperfectly realized, aspirations.

This [the consequence of a call to love] may be especially true in our times when so many tend to put whole classes of human beings beyond the margins of their concerns, while at the same time identifying love with eroticism and hedonism and exploiting such an identification to fuel financial gain and human degradation. . .

Because of his chastity, a Jesuit can live in radical apostolic availability.  His assignments always have something of the provisional about them; he must remain open to the summons of obedience to another place, to another task.  This detachment from stabilitas, from the definition of himself within a single family or extended set of relatives or even a particular church, culture and place, characterizes a Jesuit.  It is constitutive of his obedience, and it is his remaining celibate for the kingdom of God that makes such obedience for mission possible.  If this apostolic availability is not to dwarf his affectivity, it is only because his chastity embodies a contemplative love that encloses all human beings and makes the Jesuit able and open to find God everywhere.

The Characteristics decree highlights solidarity as its fourth point, again, it must be acknowledged, setting forth an aspiration rather than a fact.  In this solidarity we both give and receive:

Today, whatever our ministry, we Jesuits enter into solidarity with the poor, the marginalized, and the voiceless, in order to enable their participation in the processes that shape the society in which we all live and work.  They, in their turn, teach us about our own poverty, as no documents can.  They help us to understand the meaning of the gratuity of our ministries, giving freely what we have freely received, giving our very lives.  They show us the way to inculturate Gospel values in situations where God is absent or forgotten. (16)

The introductory decree ("Union with Christ on Mission") stresses the need for dialogue within the Society, as well as the need for an outgoing hospitality:

Again, there is need for Jesuits themselves to be in dialogue with one another, to create an atmosphere of discerning listening and exchange.  While the term was rarely used, GC34 was touching upon the Christian virtue of hospitality, of making the Society a symbol of welcome ÑÊto the poor, to lay people, to those searching for meaning, to those who want to talk seriously about religious issues. (11)

Finally, and very obviously, the decree on Inter- and Supra- Provincial Cooperation addresses some of these same issues.  It emphasizes the universality (8), the "universal character" (9) of the Society, and makes concrete recommendations about intercultural experience (8-9), the learning of languages (10), global networking (14).  All this is in view of mission in a divided world: 

A growth in global consciousness has allowed us to become aware of the universal nature of some problems, which require global solutions: e.g., the rich-poor divide and the necessity of seeking an alternative socio-economic global order; Africa's perception that from a global perspective she is marginalized; the need to reconstruct societies after the collapse of totalitarian regimes; better distribution of resources for evangelization. (2)


I wrote at the beginning of the previous section of "a befriending of the poor, of those of other cultures and faiths".  In fact, I think that this notion of making friends across the borders catches even better than "dialogue" or "solidarity" or "partnership" the central concern of the Congregation.

A key passage occurs in the decree Servants of Christ's Mission.  Paragraph 8 quotes a remarkable letter of Ignatius' secretary, Polanco: "So great are the poor in the sight of God that it was especially for them that Jesus Christ was sent into the world. . .  Our Lord so preferred the poor to the rich that he chose the entire college of his apostles from among the poor, to live and associate with them . . .  Friendship with the poor makes us friends of the eternal King".  Paragraph 9 continues: "Being 'friends of the Lord' [and presumably also being 'friends in the Lord'], then, means 'friends with the poor', and we cannot turn aside when our friends are in need.  We are a community of solidarity with them because of Christ's preferential love for them."

It has long seemed to me that one of the major fruits of any experience of "exposure" or "insertion" is precisely the forging of friendships.  The poor become no longer of a category to be concerned about (and perhaps even patronized) but some people that I know and indeed love.  Likewise Buddhists, or Filipinos, or agnostics gain faces, personalities, names, individual histories.  Hopefully some of them become my friends.  This kind of friendship takes us across borders, makes possible "communities of solidarity".  It is also from our friends that we learn the deepest truth about ourselves.  Friends are the people who tell us of the goodness within ourselves.  It is also friends who are able to tell us painful truths about ourselves in a way that we can hear (the same thing said by an "enemy" may produce only denial and defensiveness).  Presumably the "dialogue of life" is about this.  It forges the friendship that makes possible truthful and respectful conversation even about what divides us.

I think that GC34 recognized all this, and that in consequence it often spoke of friendship, in Servants of Christ's Mission (as we have seen) and elsewhere.  Union with Christ on Mission reminded us of the call to be (in the term favoured by the first Jesuits) "Friends in the Lord" (10), and immediately (11) connects this with hospitality and with listening and exchange with all those who will be our "vital partners" in mission.  The Characteristics document saw this friendship as making possible a union that is enriched, not threatened, by cultural diversity (12).  The decree on Chastity speaks of this friendship in the context of a community life that is "strong in its support and truthful in its challenge" (21).  The decree on Priesthood saw this friendship as underlying the "single apostolic vocation" of priests and brothers in the Society (6).

We have heard already the Justice decree giving thanks for the gift of so many friends among the poor and among those working for justice (1).   It goes on to state: "Our sensitivities for such a mission [the promotion of justice] will be most affected by frequent direct contact with these "friends of the Lord", from whom we can often learn so much about our faith." (17)

The decree on Cooperation with the Laity uses rather the term "companionship".  Earlier it spoke of Jesuits and lay people joining in companionship: "serving together, learning from and responding to each other's concerns and initiatives, dialoguing with one another on apostolic objectives" (6).  The company, the companionship, of Jesus stretches beyond the formal boundaries of our Company.  The decree concludes with a call to "creative companionship" for "the help of souls and the greater glory of God." (25)

The Chastity decree, in speaking of "affective maturation" notes:

Finally, and most important, friendships should be very much part of his life.  The ability to form mature friendships with other Jesuits and with women and men who are not Jesuits as well as the ability to collaborate in equality with others are signs of affective maturity.  Friendships can not only support a life of dedicated chastity, but can deepen the affective relationship with God that chastity embodies. (32)

Let me conclude.  An organization that has achieved great prominence in recent times for its work in the most troubled parts of the world is médecins sans frontières.  I think it is obvious that GC34 has once again called Jesuits to be people sans frontières, in the many senses of that term.  While Jesuits are certainly called to a ministry of healing, it would be more than ordinarily presumptuous of them to appropriate the title médecins.  Perhaps amis sans frontières is not a bad substitute.  Maybe it could be part of the logo of GC35.

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