Christina Farrell reports on the Pontiff's first address to the Church's largest male order PoPE BENEDICT has delivered his first major address to the Society ofJesus with a solemn reminder that its priority should always be obedience to the Holy See.
Speaking to Jesuits and layworkers at the close of an anniversary Mass in Rome last weekend the Pope offered his thanks to God for granting the Society the gift of men of such "extraordinary sanctity and of exceptional apostolic zeal" as St Francis Xavier and Blessed Peter Favre. They were, he said, models for all Jesuits to follow.
But Pope Benedict also reminded the delegation that the holy men who inspired them had honoured the vow of "special obedience" to the Pontiff. "This ecclesial character, so specific to the Society ofJesus, continues to be present in your persons and in your apostolic activity. dear Jesuits, as you make yourselves able to encounter faithfully the Church's urgent necessities of each time," he told the congregation.
During his address the Pope re-dedicated the Society ofJesus to the Blessed Virgin Mary and praised the work of Jesuits in education. with a special mention for a delegation from Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. It was good, he explained, that the intense spiritual and cultural demands of Jesuit formation should be maintained given the growing complexities and vastness of modern culture.
"Continue.dear Jesuits, this important apostolate, maintain ing unaltered the spirit of your founder," he said.
The Mass at St Peter's Basilica was arranged to mark the Jesuits' triple Jubilee Year, the 450th anniversary of St Ignatius of Loyola's death and the 500th birthday of St Francis Xavier and Blessed Peter Favre. But it follows a period of upheaval in the Society of Jesus. All priests take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience but the Jesuits take a fourth vow of obedience to the Pontiff. Detractors have accused the Society of neglecting this vow.
Writing to Jesuit superiors before the Jubilee Year began, the Society's Superior General Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach said the anniversaries would "invite us to examine and intensify our fidelity to the call of the Lord".
But while the meeting in Rome was warm and welcom ing, the Society's critics claimed that the Pope's decision to refer to obedience was a clear indication that he would not tolerate some of the practices and ideas of Jesuits around the world which, they have argued, brought the order into disrepute. The previous two popes had both been critical of the direction in which the Society had been moving since the 1960s.
For more than 30 years, as cardinal and now as Pope, Joseph Ratzinger has been mentor and friend to Fr Joseph Fessio SJ, director of the Ignatius Press which publishes the English-language imprints of the Pope's books. In the 1990s Fr Fessio publicly demanded that the Society's Superior General declare his allegiance to Church teaching on homosexuality, contraception and women priests.
The Mass in Rome was presided over by Cardinal Angelo Sodano, Vatican secretary of State, who also offered his thanks for the gifts and work of the society. However, he too called on those present to ask for forgiveness for the times they have failed to live up to their vocation. Human beings are inclined to sin, he said, and each day must pray for the strength to be faithful, obedient and holy.
Ged Clapson, spokesman for the Jesuits' British Province, insisted the Pope's words were complimentary and should not be interpreted as an admonition.
"As you can see from the text, the Pope actually thanked the Jesuits for their faithfulness to this vow," he said.
The Jesuits, in common with other religious orders, have seen a steep decline in membership over the past 40 years but continue to run hundreds of schools and colleges in addition to major social justice and humanitarian projects including the Jesuit Refugee Service, which ministers to some of the poorest people in the world.