Father Arturo Sosa SJ in an exclusive interview with katholisch.de.

For almost five years, Father Arturo Sosa SJ has been at the head of the Jesuits. In an interview with katholisch.de, the General Superior explains what fascinates him about Ignatius, the founder of the order, the current situation of the Society of Jesus and his personal relationship with the Pope.

This year the Jesuits are celebrating an “Ignatian year” on the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the conversion of Saint Ignatius of Loyola. In an interview, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Father Arturo Sosa SJ, explains why the founder of the Jesuits can be a role model for today's believers, what the abuse scandal means for the Jesuits and what the Pope's relationship with his order is like.

Question: What does St Ignatius of Loyola still have to say to the faithful of our day?

Sosa: The life of Ignatius can teach us two things above all: The first is the great capacity to change oneself and one's life - even quite unexpectedly. St Ignatius did not frantically stick to his plan for a successful life, but allowed himself to be guided by unforeseeable events, such as being wounded in the Battle of Pamplona or the failure of his plan to live in the Holy Land, which he had actually wanted so much. He did not let setbacks get him down and went new ways. In doing so, he trusted in the Holy Spirit and finally founded the Jesuits. Ignatius dared to let himself be changed by trusting in God.

Question: And what is the second remarkable point about the life of St Ignatius?

Sosa: The deep personal encounter with Jesus Christ. That was the centre of his life and is also the centre of the Society of Jesus as well as the whole Church - yesterday and today. As Christians, we are called to place Christ at the centre of our lives, our feelings and our motivation. This was eminently important to Ignatius when he founded the Society of Jesus. Therefore, in this Ignatian Year, we have resolved to place the orientation towards Christ more and more at the centre of our mission. Hence the motto for this year: " To see all things new in Christ." This unusual perspective is an enrichment for today's world.

Question: But do the people of today really need this new look of Ignatius, who allows himself to be changed by the unfamiliar?

Sosa: Definitely, because Ignatius experienced that God was working in his life. The Second Vatican Council gave the so-called "signs of the times" a special significance for the Church. This is precisely what Ignatius also learned: God speaks to people, to the Church, in the present, and gives them signs for the journey he invites them on. In view of the current state of the Church, it is especially necessary to be able to read the signs of the times. This includes the ability to discern which signs really come from God and which have their origin in other sources, such as ideologies or political ideas.

Question: Especially in Europe and North America, but also on other continents, believers are demanding the opening of the ordained ministry to women and more participation in the Church. Are these also "signs of the times"?

Sosa: There is nothing wrong with making these demands, because they pick up on significant developments in society. But one must learn to read whether they are signs of the times that are in the spirit of the Gospel. We have to ask ourselves what makes the Church in Germany or any other local church a better Church of Jesus Christ in the light of the Good News. With the signs of the times, it is not a matter of making oneself comfortable in the present and causing as little offence as possible. The Church must also distance itself from some tendencies in society. That is why it is important to learn to discern. This means to decide where to go with the gaze of Jesus Christ. It is about being guided by the Gospel, by the Holy Spirit. This is indeed a very difficult task, because it is not always obvious what God wants from us. And it takes time: discernment is not something you learn from one day to the next.

Question: The Pope's decisions and statements are not always easy to understand and are sometimes contradictory. Is this due to the discernment of spirits? Can the Pope be better understood by those who know his Jesuit influence and Ignatian spirituality?

Sosa: Those who know more about the history of the Jesuits and know our spirituality definitely understand the Pope better, because he is, after all, a Jesuit. But it must also be said that the discernment was not a discovery of Ignatius. It has been part of the people of God since biblical times. Even Jesus Christ knows this practice: a good example is the night in the Garden of Gethsemane before his Passion. Jesus wonders what to do. He weeps, prays and sweats blood because there is such fear of the impending suffering. But he finally decides to go that way. Or the prophets in the Old Testament: they have a message from God to proclaim and, despite adversity, choose the best way to carry out their mission. So, discernment already occurs in the Bible and is not a proprium of the Catholic Church, but also takes place outside of it, worked by the Holy Spirit. Moreover, I believe that the Synod of Bishops on Synodality and the preparation for it in the local Churches will sharpen the sense in the Church of the importance of discernment.

Question: But can you understand the people who cannot understand the Pope's decisions and statements because they are based in discernment, that is, in a very personal act?

Sosa: It is important to note that we are not only talking about the discernment of one person, but of the whole ecclesial community. That is why it is so important to stimulate the synodal spirit in the Church. This concerns everyone, from ordained ministers to the faithful in parishes. They all have the task of discerning spirits in their personal lives, but also in the community of the Church.

Question: What can the Jesuit Order contribute to the synodal development of the Church?

Sosa: Synodality is not an invention of Pope Francis, but is based on Vatican II. The Council Fathers wrote synodality into the DNA of the Church. The Constitution Lumen Gentium defines it as a wandering people of God guided by the Holy Spirit. The people and the community are at the centre. Only from this are the roles of bishops, priests and religious in the Church described. We need to rediscover this today and to realize this structure of service and community more and more in the Church. The contribution of us Jesuits, who are particularly involved in the areas of theology, education and pastoral care, is the obligation to implement the Second Vatican Council. We are called to do all that is necessary now to advance synodality in the Church.

Question: If we look a little at the history of the Jesuits: What is the greatest achievement of the Order? And where has it been guilty?

Sosa: I do not presume to answer this question, because it is a history of more than 500 years, countless persons and thousands of departures. The Society of Jesus was and is so diverse and present in so many different countries that such a judgement seems impossible to me.

Question: That is of course understandable. But I am taking up a painful subject: The abuse that has also happened in Jesuit parishes and schools. Is this a big problem for the Society of Jesus?

Sosa: The issue of abuse is unfortunately present in us Jesuits, but it is also prevalent in other bodies and institutions. I think we have responded very strongly to the problem and today we are fully committed to the welfare of children and young people in our schools and parishes. First of all, we acknowledged what had happened and started detailed discovery processes in many countries, for example in Germany, but also in Ireland, Canada, the USA or in Chile. It was important to us to do everything as transparently as possible. We asked for forgiveness and also made amends. Now the focus is on the prevention of abuse. We want to create a "safe environment" for everyone in our institutions, a "culture of child well-being". Unfortunately, this is not always easy, because the cultural differences in the individual countries are very great. However, it is important to us to achieve a high level of prevention and transparency on the topic of abuse everywhere as soon as possible. The time of covering up is over.

Question: In Germany, the Jesuit Province was recently dissolved and a Province for Central Europe was founded. Has the number of vocations in Europe decreased so much that this step became necessary?

Sosa: Jesuit membership has changed a lot, especially in Europe and the USA. However, we do not base our structures so much on numbers, but on fulfilling our mission in the best possible way. Europe has become a strong political community in the past decades, where communication with each other is much easier and borders have less and less meaning. Therefore, it is no longer so important for us to align our provinces exclusively with national borders. These decisions are also linked to considerations of how we can best use our resources for our mission. The establishment of the new Central European Province was a very long process of discernment. But it stands in a series of similar mergers in recent years, for example into a Francophone Province in Europe or a single Province for Spain. Similar changes are also in the offing on other continents. Moreover, these structures are not created for eternity, but can be adapted in 20 years or so if external or internal circumstances should have changed. In this respect, the Jesuit order is a very flexible organisation, unlike the Benedictines, for example, who have associations of individual monasteries as their congregation. There, changes are more difficult. We are also flexible in our religious institutions. For example, the Jesuit Refugee Service has an international structure and adapts to current needs. As the paths of refugees change, so does this service.

Question: Let us look at the figures: Where is the Order growing, where are there fewer Jesuits?

Sosa: If we look at the numbers alone, Europe is still our focus. However, that is also where the oldest members are. Vocations are rather few in Europe compared to the numbers of 75 or 50 years ago. In Africa, the Society of Jesus has very high entry numbers and is growing steadily. This also has to do with the population development in most African countries, because there are many young people there. In Europe, on the other hand, there are fewer young people and therefore not so many vocations. In Latin America, for example, the number of Jesuits is very stable, but India is home to a quarter of all Jesuits: 21 provinces with more than 4,000 members.

Question: You are at the head of the Society of Jesus. How do you keep this order together, whose members have the reputation of being great individualists?

Sosa: (Laughs) That is only possible because the unity of the Order is not only guaranteed by its leadership, but by each Jesuit himself. We are one body and Jesus is our head - not me as Superior General. On this subject, the vow of obedience is particularly important. But obedience is not to a human association, but to the Holy Spirit, to our mission. Therefore, it is not the task of the leadership of the Order to command, but to see where in the Order and beyond each Jesuit can best serve our mission. This requires that all members are as well educated as possible, can think for themselves and are diverse. Diversity is a distinguishing feature of us Jesuits. You can see this in the multiculturalism of our community: never before have Jesuits come from so many different cultural contexts. This is a great richness, but also an enormous challenge. We always have to ask ourselves how we use this diversity for our mission. It is precisely my task as General to keep this alive.

Question: You mentioned obedience, for which the Jesuits are known. But obedience can also be misunderstood...

Sosa: Of course, that's true. There are so many satirical comparisons of the Society of Jesus with the military. But it is exactly the opposite with us. We don't want cadaver obedience, but we are looking for men who can think and discern for themselves. Obedience means seeking together how and where one can best make one's contribution to the whole. I have experienced this throughout my life as a Jesuit.

Question: As Superior General of the Jesuits, you have great influence and are therefore also called the "black Pope". Recently you vehemently rejected this designation. Why? It is also a kind of distinction...

Sosa: I don't like this designation at all! Because it is the exact opposite of what the Jesuits see as their mission. People want to say with this expression that the Superior General of the Jesuits has a power similar to that of the Holy Father. This is not true and I cannot accept it, not even as a joke. Jesuits want to serve the people and the Church by putting themselves at the disposal of the Pope. Therefore, there must not be a second Pope. We Jesuits therefore take a special vow not to aspire to ecclesiastical offices and titles, not even the office of bishop - let alone the papal chair.

Question: But today the successor of Peter in Rome is a Jesuit. What is the Order's relationship with the Pope?

Sosa: Pope Francis is first and foremost the head of the Church and not a Jesuit. He spent many years of his life in the Society and that has of course shaped him - positively, I mean. (laughs) But the Jesuit relationship with him is no different than with any other Pope. We always submit to the Pope, whoever he may be. But of course there is another level of relationship with the Pope, because we know each other personally, speak the same language and have a similar spirituality. But the Pope is the Pope. There is a huge respect for him and his office on the part of the Jesuits, but also respect on the part of the Pope for the work of our Order - but not only for the Jesuits, also towards other Orders. Pope Francis is very close to all religious orders and spiritual communities.

Question: So there is no special affection of the Pope for the Jesuits?

Sosa: Often no one believes me, but I don't have a shorter line to the Pope than other Superiors General. If I want to speak to Francis, I have to request it through his secretary just like everyone else.

From Roland Müller