The Society of Jesus, the order known as the Jesuits, will shortly convene its 36th general congregation. This gathering in Rome will bring together some 215 members of the 16,000-strong order, who will be charged with the task not only of electing a new Father General, but also of reflecting on the role and mission of the Jesuits in the contemporary world.

The Society was founded by a Spaniard from the Basque country, St Ignatius of Loyola, and for much of its history it has been predominantly Spanish. In the 20th century, the American provinces came to the fore, thanks, in large part, to the many prestigious universities that the Society founded in the United States. More recently, the centre of gravity has shifted again. As vocations have declined in America and Western Europe, they have soared in India and Vietnam, and it is now possible, even likely, that the next Father General will be from Asia.

Whoever the new leader may be, he will be one who will be alive to the challenges faced by the Society and the wider Church today. Just as the cultural background of the average Jesuit has changed over the years, so has the emphasis of the Jesuit mission. Once it was education, and while this is still important, in recent decades the Jesuits have, perhaps prophetically, been involved in work with poor people, and refugees in particular. The Jesuit Refugee Service was founded in 1980, long before the Syrian crisis erupted. Its work is now more important than ever. Indeed, the plight and fate of refugees is perhaps the most pressing practical concern of our time.

But the traditional task of education must not be neglected and the role of the Jesuit intellectual should not be forgotten. Just how central the task of a Jesuit intellectual can be is illustrated by the radio discussion on the existence of God between Fr Frederick Copleston SJ and the atheist philosopher Bertrand Russell which took place in 1948. It is not simply that one or other man won this debate that counts, but rather that the discussion took place at all. Fr Copleston, perhaps the archetypal English Jesuit of his time, was not there simply to fight the Church’s corner, but to do something far more important: to raise the tone of the national conversation. In so doing, he and Professor Russell left us with a radio classic, widely available on the internet today.

In many countries, and in the Church as well, what is seen as intellectual is in steep decline, replaced all too often by demagoguery, populism or loony conspiracy theories. This is not good for society, and not good for the Church either. The revival of intellectual life, both secular and sacred, should be an urgent concern. Given that the Jesuits remain the Church’s largest order, and given their history, the Catholic world is right to look to them for a lead in this matter.

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