VATICAN CITY — The superior general of the Society of Jesus — sometimes called the “Black Pope” — wields significant influence, thanks to the order’s expansive network of schools, universities and missions in virtually every corner of the world.
On Oct. 3, 215 members of the Society of Jesus from 62 countries will gather in Rome for a general congregation to elect a new superior general who, like the pope, is elected for life. Along with choosing a new leader — who does have the option to resign — the gathering will set out new priorities for the order.
But the meeting this fall is unique as it takes place during the pontificate of the first Jesuit pope. While in the past the Society of Jesus was viewed with suspicion by the papacy and at one time suppressed by a pope, today things are very different.
There is also an added twist to this election: Pope Francis’ history with his own order. Despite being elected to run the Argentine Jesuits at the tender age of 36, his leadership was considered divisive and he was eventually removed from that position by his superiors in Rome. He has referred to this as a period that held lessons for him, and since his election as pope, there have been many public moments of deep affection between the order and him.
While the pope plays a minimal role in the general congregation (he is informed of who has been elected and does not have to approve it), the gathering is going to be heavily influenced by the priorities of this papacy.
The outgoing leader of the Jesuits, Father Adolfo Nicolas, is calling for “daring, imagination and courage” so that the order can respond to changing times — something Francis no doubt agrees with.
In the past, general congregations have been prophetic. Back in 1974, then-Father Jorge Bergoglio participated in the congregation that decided that the society should focus on the “service of faith and promotion of justice.” And 40 years later the church has a pope doing just that.
When the Jesuit meeting starts, however, Francis will be out of Rome visiting Azerbaijan, one of the more exotic destinations in his 16 visits outside of Italy.
It’s not an obvious place for the pope to visit, given that it is made up predominantly of Muslims, and has a tiny Catholic population of fewer than 300, with seven missionary priests. But Francis’ trip is part of a peace and dialogue mission to the Caucasus region, a part of the world that sits on the border between Europe and Asia and that suffers from conflicts the Western media often ignores.
On Oct. 1-2 Francis will be in Georgia, a country that is still suffering from a 2008 war with Russia. In June the pope went to Armenia, which has been in a long running conflict with Azerbaijan that last April cost the lives of 75 soldiers.
One of the motivations for this visit was the desire to bring peace and reconciliation — Francis believes that religions need to become mediators in the world’s disputes.
“Our path leads us to immersing ourselves in situations and giving first place to those who suffer; to taking on conflicts and healing them from within,” the pope told a gathering of religious leaders praying for peace in Assisi last month.
Francis has now taken on the role of a roving peace ambassador, rolling up his sleeves and digging in to solve problems in Colombia, Cuba and Central African Republic.
In Colombia, which has just signed a peace accord to end one of Latin America’s longest running wars, Francis played an important role in encouraging the government and FARC rebels to sit round the table and talk to each other. He’s also agreed to help Venezuela, another country in the region, which is facing civic strife thanks to an economic crisis. Following requests from the Union of South American Nations and former presidents of Spain, Panama and the Dominican Republic, the Vatican said that Francis will step in as a mediator.
For the pope, solving international disputes goes hand-in-hand with healing internal conflicts within Christianity. His trips to the Caucasus region have been opportunities to build bridges with the Orthodox, something that will be tested in Georgia where the local Orthodox church is not open to ecumenical dialogue. Francis is set to visit the Orthodox cathedral in Mtskheta on Oct. 1 and meet with the country’s Patriarch Ilia II — but the two are not expected to pray together.
Progress has been made in healing the East-West Christian rift recently, witnessed by the pope’s historic meeting with the Russian patriarch in February and a close working relationship developed with the leader of Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. In what is a sign of the progress Francis has made, a delegation of Orthodox will be present when he says Mass in Georgia, something that was out of the question when John Paul II visited in 1999.
The pope will also use his trip East to showcase interfaith dialogue, particularly in Azerbaijan, where he is to meet with one of Islam’s most important figures, the Grand Mufti of the Caucasus region, Allahshukur Pashazade.
Azerbaijan is expected to give the pope a warm reception, despite the scarcity of Catholics: Father Stefan Kormancik, a Salesian priest from Slovakia serving in the country, said Francis is revered by people there as a “holy man” with thousands expected to turn out to see him.
As a secular state, the oil-rich country is a place where religious traditions live together in harmony — this is something Francis will likely highlight.
Back in Rome, Pope Francis has continued his Vatican reform efforts with two announcements aimed at cracking down on corruption, something he has repeatedly condemned. The pope said that the temptation to take bribes is easy to succumb to. He wants to ensure it does not happen inside the church.
The first move in this area concerns the tightening up of rules on saint-making by banning cash payments to doctors involved in the process of approving potential miracles (each will be paid a modest $560 for their work). At the end of last year, leaked documents revealed that canonizations can cost up to $560,000, with almost no accounting of how the money was being spent. In March the pope announced tougher scrutiny of donations to sainthood causes.
The same day these rules were issued, the Holy See announced it was signing a U.N. convention aimed at halting bribery, money laundering and embezzlement.
Francis clearly knows that if he wants to condemn corruption and maintain credibility as a mediator on the world stage, he needs to ensure that his own house is in order.
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