This week, the eyes of Jesuits around the world are turned toward Rome. Since Oct. 3, 215 delegates have been assembled in a General Congregation — only the 36th in the 476-year history of the Jesuit order — and since Monday, they have been engaged in the election of a new superior general of the worldwide Society of Jesus.
It is an election unlike almost any other, embodying Jesuit values and ideals in a striking way. I wonder if we might draw lessons from it, especially as we engage politics in such varied settings as Hoyas on campus and around the globe.
The process begins in listening, when members humbly discuss together the needs and opportunities of the present moment. The delegates examine the current state of the Society of Jesus, the Catholic Church and the world. Individuals from around the world describe the situation in each of their home countries or places of work, and small groups look for commonalities, challenges and opportunities. Over the course of a week, they also begin to name the qualities that are most needed in the next leader, though the delegates themselves decide when they are ready to proceed to the election.
What is unique about this process is that there are no candidates. St. Ignatius of Loyola did not want ambition inside the Jesuits, so he avoided establishing regular elections that might lead to factions; elections only occur upon the death of the superior general — or, as in this case of the former leader, Adolfo Nicolás Pachón, S.J., upon resignation. The delegates are forbidden from seeking to be elected, and they cannot campaign for one another.
Instead, they begin the process with prayer and then undertake a unique set of one-on-one meetings: the delightfully named murmuratio. For four days, any delegate can speak to any other, and they are enjoined to speak only of the leadership qualities of others. Their conversation is always outwardly focused, aimed not at themselves but at the good of all.
All the delegates — and Jesuits around the world — share a deep belief that the process is bigger than any one person. They are nourished by prayer — and box lunches — and they are enjoined to approach the election with a sense of discernment. It is a shared process of discovering the right leader indicated by God through coordinated actions.
Delegates are instructed not to make up their minds until they enter the hall in which they will vote. Once the voting begins — with secret ballots, and the results read aloud after each round — delegates seek the interior freedom to adjust their voting based on the patterns that emerge. Ultimately, together, they find their way to the one they believe can best contribute to the mission of the Jesuits today.
Listening. Humility. A focus beyond oneself. And a deep belief in a purpose of ultimate value. As a professor of comparative politics, I recognize that the electoral rules the Jesuits employ would be ill-suited to other contexts. But I am moved by the values and spirit that underlie the process because they invite us to hope and trust in one another. Rather than divide, they invite all to share in a common endeavor, oriented to the greatest good.
Democracy, at its best, does this. It begins with listening to the voices of others, appreciating their unique perspectives. It looks toward the common good while aiming for values as exalted as justice, peace and freedom. Maybe this weekend, as we watch the Jesuits in Rome, we can learn more than just a bit of news — the name of the new Superior General — but also a new spirit to animate us in our political participation here at home.
Fr. Matthew Carnes, S.J., is an associate professor of government and the director of the Center for Latin American Studies. As This Jesuit Sees It appears every other Friday.