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General Congregation 34

January-March 1995

This document assembled by:
George Traub, S.J.

From January to March of 1995, 223 Jesuits from 61 countries met in Rome for the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits). Their task was to chart a vision for Jesuit mission in the years to come. The documents produced by GC 34, though addressed to the Jesuits around the world, caught the attention of the secular press, and they were hailed in some religious quarters as major church documents setting a course for the 21st century.

As Vatican Council II (1962-1965) had shown a world church in action for the first time, so GC 34 was the first Jesuit legislative assembly to show a predominantly non-western face (only 49 percent of the delegates came from Europe and North America). “It was truly an experience of the ‘body’ of the Society in all its multi-cultural richness,” wrote Vincent O’Keefe, delegate to four congregations and long-time assistant and confidant of the late Pedro Arrupe as superior general. The effect of that richness was to slow the process down. Delegates from Western Europe and from formerly Communist Eastern Europe, from Asia, Africa and North America, from Australia and Latin America struggled to speak and listen to one another. For a while, it looked as if the congregation would not be able to produce anything with a unified voice. But in the end, the vision that emerged had much to do with the experience of multi-cultural dialogue that the delegates had given themselves to in faith.

In key documents, the Jesuits see themselves as “servants of Christ’s mission.” It is a justice-based mission mindful of the needs of the poor and marginal; it seeks to understand differing cultures on their own terms; it is open to the religious experience of people from other traditions; it works with the laity; it learns from women; it serves and enables others.

First of all, the congregation reaffirmed what GC 32 (1975) had said about any mission deserving of the name Jesuit—that its integrating principle should be “the service of faith” and the “promotion of jus-tice”; and further, that to remain genuine these two aspects should never be separated.

GC 34 recalled that for the 32nd congregation the promotion of justice included “working for structural changes in the economic and political orders; working for peace and reconciliation through nonviolence; working to end discrimination based on race, religion, gender, ethnic background or social class; working to counter growing poverty and hunger while material prosperity becomes ever more concentrated.” But GC 34 went on to name other dimensions of the struggle for justice that now demanded attention and action: recognition and observance of the full range of human rights—“economic and social rights to the basic necessities of life and well-being [health care], personal rights such as freedom of conscience, civil and political rights, and rights such as development, peace and a healthy environment.”

Further, GC 34 devoted an entire document to the “Situation of Women in Church and Civil Society,” citing past and present injustices and calling discrimination against women “a universal reality.” It acknowledged that Jesuits “have been part of a civil and ecclesial tradition that has offended against women.” And it urged Jesuits to listen “carefully and courageously” to the experience of women and “to align themselves in solidarity with women.”

“Without listening,” the document continues, “action in this area, no matter how well-intentioned, is likely to bypass the real concerns of women and to confirm male condescension and reinforce male dominance.” Practical ways of acting in solidarity include “explicit teaching of the essential equality of women and men . . .especially in [Jesuit] schools, colleges and universities; genuine involvement of women in consultation and decision-making in . . .Jesuit ministries; specific attention to the phenomenon of violence against women; and support for liberation movements that oppose women’s exploitation and encourage their entry into political and social life.”

To GC 32’s “No service of faith without promotion of justice,” the 34th congregation added, “No service of faith without entry into (other) cultures” and without “openness to other religious experiences” [that is, those of people from religious traditions other than Christianity].

In the tradition of Jesuit mission dating back to Matteo Ricci in the late 16th century, the congregation expounded a missiology based on “inculturation,” a presentation of the gospel, not in European or Western terms, but in terms of the culture being approached. For God is already present there; “God’s action is antecedent to what we do.”

This is the case even with people in our “post-Christian” culture of “critical modernity” and “post-modernity.” “A genuine attempt to work from within the shared experience of Christians and unbelievers in a secular and critical culture, built upon respect and friendship, is the only successful starting point.” It will either be “a meeting of equal partners in dialogue, addressing common questions, or it will be hollow.”

At the same time, the presence of the gospel in a given culture is not simply receptive. It exercises a prophetic and critical witness “in the all-too-human city where there is poverty of body and spirit, domination and control, manipulation of mind and heart.”

Finally, work in the Jesuit spirit of mission involves dialogue with other religious traditions. “To be religious today is to be inter-religious in the sense that a positive relationship with believers of other faiths is a requirement of a world of religious pluralism.” “Believers of other religions . . . have helped us to respect the plurality of religions as the human response to God’s salvific work in peoples and cultures.” In short, “Dialogue is a new way of being Church,” for “we are all pilgrims set out to find God in human hearts.” We are once again invited to make ours St. Ignatius’ “principle of respect for others and of giving others the benefit of the doubt.”