Jesuits to Choose New Superior

Rome, Italy - The Jesuits, one of the world's largest Roman Catholic religious orders, are meeting in Rome to elect a new leader and chart a future amid a decline in their numbers and lingering tensions in their relationship with the Vatican.

The Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, who was elected superior general in 1983, officially resigned Monday. On Tuesday, the more than 200 delegates attending the Jesuits' 35th general congregation began four days of "murmuratio," or murmuring: private discussions on who might replace him, with a first vote expected Saturday.

No one is supposed to campaign for the job, but a few candidates have been mentioned, including some from the developing world and others with Vatican or broad international experience.

"By choosing one among the thousands of capable Jesuits, the society will say what it expects for its future: a prophet or a sage, an innovator or a moderator, a contemplative or an active (priest), a strong pointman or a unifier," Kolvenbach said in a recent interview with the Vatican newspaper L'Osservatore Romano and Vatican Radio.

The Society of Jesus was founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola, and counts 19,216 priests, brothers and novitiates as of last January.

They are renowned for their intellectual rigor and excellent scholars and scientists; in the United States alone, the Jesuits run 28 colleges and universities and 71 middle and high schools.

But like all religious orders and the Catholic clergy in general, the Jesuits have seen a decline in their numbers in recent years, with the number of new priests routinely unable to offset those who die each year. Last year, there were 364 fewer Jesuits worldwide than in 2006.

As a result, the order is increasingly looking to lay Catholics to help in its mission _ and that is one of the top issues delegates will be discussing during the congregation, said the Rev. James Martin, acting publisher of the Jesuit magazine America.

Delegates attending the conference have also listed globalization and its impact on the poor, as well as environmental concerns as top issues to be discussed and, perhaps, result in documents to help guide the society in coming years.

Another top concern is the society's relationship with the Vatican.

The Jesuits have long had a tense relationship with the Vatican on issues of doctrine and obedience, with the Vatican regularly disciplining Jesuit theologians and reminding the religious of their vows of obedience to the pontiff.

Such disputes were on display during the sermon delivered at the meeting's start by the Vatican's head of religious orders, Cardinal Franc Rode.

While praising Kolvenbach's loyalty, Rode urged the Jesuits as a whole to recommit themselves to their vow of obedience, saying: "With sadness and anxiety, I also see a growing distancing from the hierarchy."

The issue of obedience is a recurring one for the Jesuits since they routinely work in the margins of society and face issues that the broader church hasn't yet had to deal with, Martin said.

He cited the example of Jesuits working with the poor in Latin America and the perception in Rome that they were aligning themselves too closely with liberation theology and Marxist political movements.

"Whenever you're working with people on the margins, there's a chance you might step out of the margins," he said. "Frequently, Jesuits are trying to break new ground."

That willingness to break new ground resulted in an unprecedented incident of papal intervention in the affairs of a religious order.

In 1981, Pope John Paul II named a temporary replacement to lead the Jesuits after its superior, Rev. Pedro Arrupe, suffered a crippling stroke, brushing aside Arrupe's chosen successor. Paolo Dezza, an Italian who later was made a cardinal, guided the Jesuits until 1983.

Arrupe, who died in 1991, had pushed for the church to move for a more socially just world while remaining faithful to papal authority.

Kolvenbach _ who turns 80 this year and asked to resign for reasons of age _ is widely credited with having mended fences with Rome after the Arrupe turmoil. The position is actually a lifetime appointment and Kolvenbach required the assent of the pope and the Jesuits to step down.

His successor, chosen by a simple majority of the delegates, will be announced after Pope Benedict XVI is informed of the choice and confirms it, officials said.