Gratitude for Society’s Leadership: Holy Spirit at Work among Jesuits, Church

By Rev. Patrick Lee, S.J., Vice President of Mission & Ministry, Gonzaga University

Rev. Patrick Lee, S.J. (Photo by Gonzaga University)

Rev. Patrick Lee, S.J. (Photo by Gonzaga University)

As we in the Society of Jesus transition from the leadership of retired Superior General Rev. Adolfo Nicolás, S.J. to newly-elected Superior General Rev. Arturo Sosa, S.J., I am struck by how fortunate we are to have such outstanding men as leaders, and how the Holy Spirit is at work among the Jesuits.

I have been privileged to have had both men as my superior. Fr. Nicolás, a Spaniard, resigned in October at age 80 after serving as the Jesuits’ leader since 2008. Fr. Sosa, a 67-year-old Venezuelan, was elected Superior General on October 14th. Fr. Nicolás was my superior when I was provincial of the Oregon Province from 2008 to 2014. As Superior of the Holy Land, Jerusalem (from 2014 to 2016), I reported to Fr. Sosa, who was then serving as Delegate for Interprovincial Houses of the Society in Rome. I came to like and love both of these extraordinary men as my superiors and as brother Jesuits.

Looking back, the Society has been blessed with exceptional leadership throughout my life. Rev. Pedro Arrupe, S.J., who, like St. Ignatius Loyola, hailed from the Basque region of Spain, was elected Superior General in 1965, and was deeply committed to peace and justice. He was a visionary leader who guided the Society through the changes following Vatican II. Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J.*, Superior General from 1983 to 2008, left a legacy of ministry and leadership grounded in a faith that seeks justice. He gave us great depth into who we are in the Society and all of our collaborated works.

Fr. Nicolás’ major gift was the globalization of the Society and its works. It came mainly in his April 23, 2010 talk in Mexico City to the presidents of Jesuit universities when he discussed the “globalization of superficiality,” a concept in which he identified how explosive technological growth and rampant worldwide consumerism, among other factors, threaten authentic human relationships and the hard work of critical thinking. In particular, Fr. Nicolás said this impacts the lives and futures of youth and their ability to study, pray and discern an individual path.

He wrote:

When one can access so much information so quickly and so painlessly; when one can express and publish to the world one’s reactions so immediately and so unthinkingly in one’s blogs or micro-blogs; when the latest opinion column from The New York Times or El Pais, or the newest viral video can be spread so quickly to people half a world away, shaping their perceptions and feelings, then the laborious, painstaking work of serious, critical thinking often gets short-circuited.

Fr. Nicolás advanced the Society from the inspiration of Fathers Arrupe and Kolvenbach to the revolutionary social teachings within the Church, including the new ideas from Latin American leaders like Pope Francis and now, Fr. Sosa.

Fr. Nicolás helped us move to a place of real depth, which Fr. Kolvenbach had begun, and said we must go to the depths in our search for the truth. That was a call to Jesuit higher education worldwide: to discern how we are serving the marginalized and, in particular, refugees. At the 35th General Congregation, Fr. Nicolás affirmed the call from Pope Benedict XVI for the special mission of the Jesuits to discover new horizons and reach new social, cultural and religious frontiers.

One of the things I remember about Fr. Nicolás is his smile and wonderful warmth and care that he brought to the Society. He is an extraordinarily good man whose care for others and deep love for the Society always showed wherever he went and was evident in my experience in his real care of provincials. He had a strong sense of collaboration, and had all of us call him “Nico.”

Fr. Sosa brings that sense of liberation theology, deep care for the poor, and the belief that we will always find Christ in the poor and marginalized. I think he too has a vision for the world, particularly in the Middle East, and what it could look like. I see him bringing to the Society a vision for the world, and a vision of justice and peace from the Latin American perspective. He was a university president and lived through a very difficult political and economic crisis in Venezuela. He is working with all of our universities to orchestrate our collective advancement. 

Fr. Sosa is also a very warm person whose kindness readily shines forth. He is a great listener who takes a personal interest in who we are. He moves toward solutions, and has a deep respect for higher education and its value in society. I expect he will challenge us to account for how our institutions in the United States and the English-speaking world care for the poor and implement mandates of General Congregation 36. He is saying that Jesuit educational institutions must prioritize the mission of the Society, which is distinct from our institutional missions. His perspective of mission is directed toward the work of the Society in the world. I think he will challenge the Society to integrate faith and justice to carry out our mission in the world more fully and more deeply than ever before.

Like Pope Francis, Fr. Sosa calls our institutions to be counter cultural, to move away from institutional self-centeredness or any sense that we are better than others. The Society calls us to find humility as an institution, and to help our students find a deep love for the poor. One priority will be to find the means within our institutions to provide scholarships for low-income students to help them experience Jesuit education. While St. Ignatius taught us to train leaders, Fr. Sosa insists we develop leaders who care and work for the marginalized. He’s saying that when our students go out into the world, they should think of the world first, not of themselves. And clearly, Pope Francis is saying this as well.

It’s a fascinating moment for Jesuit higher education with a Latin American Pope and Superior General for the first time in history. Our leaders from Latin America bring a different perspective with a greater emphasis on justice, and care for the poor, the marginalized and the voiceless. The Holy Spirit is doing something special with our leadership in the Church and the Society. As Jesuit institutions of higher education, we must search and discern God’s will. I’m very optimistic and feel so fortunate to have this kind of leadership. 

Rev. Patrick Lee, S.J. has served as Vice President of Mission and Ministry at Gonzaga University since August 2016 (he previously served in the role from 2005 to 2008). Most recently, he served as Superior of the Holy Land, Jerusalem (2014-2016), and Provincial of the Oregon Province of the Society of Jesus (2008-2014).

*Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J. passed away on November 26, 2016.