Army in Black

At other major church gatherings in Rome, the scene would have been bright with signs of clerical identity—the scarlet of cardinals, the purple of bishops, the variously shaded sashes of the seminarians. But the 180 priest-delegates who assembled in Rome last week, though members of an order that is organized like an army, wore plain black cassocks without sign of rank. The austere tradition recalls St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), who when he first took up a life of poverty insisted on wearing a woolen tunic, which earned him and his earliest followers in Spain the jeering nickname ensayalados, the men in wool.

In the Jesuit headquarters in Borgo Santo Spirito near St. Peter's Square, the modern men in wool met in Extraordinary General Congregation, the sixth since Loyola's death, to settle pressing business facing the Society of Jesus, largest and most powerful order in the Roman Catholic Church.

In the chapel, the delegates sang the Gregorian chant Veni Creator Spiritus (some priestly voices were off key; the Jesuits have never been famed for their singing), then briskly moved to a large, barnlike room and took their seats on plain wooden benches facing writing desks. From a raised table they were greeted—in Latin, the order's normal business language —by alabaster-pale, 67-year-old Jean-Baptiste Janssens, 27th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, also known (like his predecessors) as "the Black Pope."

Father Janssens, whose authority is as nearly absolute as any military commander's, called the Congregation for one major reason: to reorganize the command structure of his vast religious army (50 provinces, 33 vice-provinces, 5,000 communities all over the world), and to delegate part of his own power.

The Issue. For years, it has been plain that the top command job in the Jesuit order was too much for one man, that ailing Father Janssens' personal decisions were meticulous but sometimes slow. Toughest problem: every day Janssens must appoint from two to five new rectors or heads of globally scattered missions. Under the present system, the order's Provincials (roughly equivalent to local field commanders) submit names to Janssens' eight Assistants* (staff officers), but Janssens himself reviews all cases, makes all final decisions.

Issue before the Congregation: whether to vest some of Janssens' appointive powers in the Assistants or Provincials. Insiders believe that the delegates will plump for more power for the Assistants, fearing too much decentralization otherwise. But one powerful bloc—from the U.S. and Britain—favors increasing the Provincials' local powers. Since agenda and voting are secret, the decision may not be known till after the two-month meeting is over.

The Order. Whatever form the organizational change takes, the need for it is plain merely in the statistics of Jesuit growth and activity. Numbering 15,000 at the turn of the century, the Society of Jesus has since more than doubled in size, now stands at a record 33,732. Largest single contingent: the 8,156 Jesuits of the U.S. In various parts of the world, Jesuits:

Work in 71 missions, 6,640 mission stations, some 4,000 schools, 350 hospitals and 16 leprosaria (time, 9.16.1957),9171,809913-1,00.html

More Related