Religion: Making Up with the Jesuits

The Pope gives a new assignment to his church's famed order

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For centuries, the Society of Jesus has been considered both a blessing and a bane to the Roman Catholic Church. The order has been expelled at various times by the rulers of France, Spain, Portugal, Austria, Russia, Japan; the Papacy itself once suppressed the organization for 41 years. In modern times, no episode was as humiliating as the vote of no confidence that Pope John Paul II cast in 1981. After the society's head, Superior General Pedro Arrupe, suffered a stroke, the Pontiff suspended the normal succession and installed his own men as the Jesuits' temporary leaders.

Seven years after the Pope ended that purgatorial receivership, the Jesuits appear to have won John Paul's approval. Confronted with the task of re- evangelizing the formerly communist countries of Eastern Europe and the newly tolerant Soviet Union, the Pope has called upon the Society of Jesus to direct the task of training priests and rebuilding the long-oppressed clergy of these sensitive areas. Next week Jesuit experts will be gathering in Rome to plan how to go about that job. For starters, East Europeans are being brought to Rome to receive special training at the Pontifical Gregorian University and other Jesuit-run institutions. Many will return to their homelands as seminary teachers to begin the work of strengthening the church in the East.

The assignment signals John Paul's renewed trust in the Jesuit order, which was founded with a special mandate to obey missions assigned by the Pope. The Eastern mission has particular significance for the society right now, since the Jesuits are marking this year's 450th anniversary of their founding and the impending 500th anniversary of the birth of the society's canonized creator, the Basque nobleman Ignatius of Loyola.

The thawed relationship with John Paul is a major accomplishment of Peter- Hans Kolvenbach, 61, who was elected the society's superior general when the Pope restored normal self-rule in 1983. A low-key and unflappable native of the Netherlands, Kolvenbach was formerly a missionary educator in the Middle East and head of Rome's Oriental Institute.

Kolvenbach must lean on reduced forces to tackle the Eastern Europe assignment and other challenges to his men. Although the Jesuits remain the biggest Catholic male religious order, they have declined from a 1965 peak of 36,000 members to the current 23,870 or so. The rate of loss is slowing, however, and the number of seminarians has increased steadily since the nadir in the 1970s. Significantly, the sources of decline are largely limited to the First World; 63% of today's Jesuit recruits worldwide are Asians, Africans and Latin Americans. There are 3,522 Jesuits in the area covering India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, and the 20 Jesuit training houses there have waiting lists.

In all, Kolvenbach's priests and brothers are at work in 113 countries, with about one-fourth of the order's members involved in education. There are 1.8 million students in the 177 Jesuit universities (28 in the U.S.) and 356 secondary schools around the world. One index of Jesuit influence is the fact that the Gregorian University alone has trained one-fifth of all the world's bishops.

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