The General Congregation (GC) of the Jesuits is the highest governing body of this religious congregation. It is usually only called for to elect the successor of the Superior General, and this is precisely the case of the General Congregation 36 which will have to appoint the successor to Father Adolfo Nicolas, elected in 2008.

The GC is currently a complex assembly. Originally, it was made up of the forty most veteran Jesuits living in Rome. Over time, it became apparent that the entire international Society of Jesus should be represented, not simply Rome. Therefore, the GC has undergone several changes to try to balance, on the one hand, that this organization operating worldwide is well represented; and secondly, that the number of participants is not too excessive, making the work of the assembly difficult. Currently, the number of participants is about 210, and it is easy to imagine the complexity of such a large assembly, with Jesuits who come from all over the world with such diverse experiences and cultures.

Managing cultural diversity is important for such assemblies. There is undoubtedly a common background: men, Catholics, trained for the priesthood (the brothers, who are not priests, are a very small group) and immersed in Ignatian spirituality. All these features could make us suspect that they have all been molded in the same way; however, this is not the case, and there are many differences between them that could lead to different classifications: their cultures of origin, the places where they develop their apostolic work, international experiences, specialized studies, social commitment, or understanding of the relationship between faith and justice, would be some of the characteristics that would allow us to perceive not-so-small differences between the Jesuits gathered.

In this sense, the collaboration necessary for the development of the Congregation requires a dose of intercultural mediation.  This mediation is not formal, it is done informally. The first level of this mediation is done through translators who help to make sure that both the texts and discussions are understandable. The second level is carried out in the working groups; here, the international experience of many Jesuits is key, making sure the discussions in the working groups are focused and ensuring the participation of all, providing that differences are recognized and that all participants have access to the dialogue taking place. Finally, and this has been increasingly evident in recent GCs, the final texts are increasingly recognizing regional differences. We are more and more aware that it is difficult, and in fact, naive, to think that we can globally interpret the phenomena of our time. The Jesuits have also gained the ability to engage in much more realistic and effective regional analysis over time.

A paradigmatic case of this cultural diversity refers to “collaboration with others”, where “others” refers to the laity, with whom we share our mission. Socioeconomic and cultural differences means relationships with the laity are not the same everywhere. Similarly, the degree of involvement in our work, shared responsibility and the role of the Jesuit are not homogeneous worldwide. Not to mention the different legal frameworks governing the activity of our works in different countries, their diversity offers a constellation of possibilities. Attempting to offer a homogeneous or global response to the issue of the relationship with the laity perhaps has led to our response not always being understood or attractive. Perhaps, recognizing the possibility of a regional approach to this issue, with different solutions, would allow us to offer more suitable alternatives to the mission, which is ultimately what we seek.

This GC36 has launched a procedure that includes preparatory work. Aware of the difficulties of effective work, cultural diversity, the high number of participants and the complexity of the issues to be discussed, a new working procedure has been proposed, which has allowed the development of some previous documents. Several commissions formed by Jesuits chosen to participate in the GC have been working throughout 2016 to propose a series of documents that will serve as working documents when the GC meets in Rome. All this with the intention to accelerate and facilitate the work of those gathered.

The novelty of the preparatory work is admittedly made possible through networking . The preparatory groups had physical meetings in Rome, but most of the drafting, proofreading and editing has been done online. And finally the texts have been made available online for consultation and comments from the more than 200 congregants. Can you imagine the number of working days that this method of virtual participation has saved? Before starting this work, it was determined whether all participants have sufficient internet access, something that is not evident in all parts of the world, in order to make sure that we are not adding technological inequalities to cultural differences.

José Ignacio García SJ
Director of the Jesuit European Social Centre, Brussels

Stay tuned to Jesuit Networking’s blog to follow updates regarding the General Congregation 36 from the perspective of networking and collaboration.