[A contribution to the conversation on the Universal Apostolic Priorities of the Society of Jesus]
Recently the Society of Jesus articulated four universal apostolic preferences (UAPs):
- To show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment;
- To walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice;
- To accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future;
- To collaborate in the care our Common Home.
Webster defines preference as a priority.
But the Society of Jesus does not want preferences to be confused with priorities.
Priorities have to do with agenda: the choice of these over those. Prioritization belongs to a plan, where the human planner is in control. It belongs to the realm of human rationality.
They do not place walking with the poor over accompanying students who pay tuition in our schools to succeed in their preparation for life.
They are, I think, more profound than that.
Sometimes, “preference” is a weak word – close to the expression of an arbitrary choice. One can prefer chocolate over strawberry; but the preference is not of great consequence. One prefers a Nissan over a Toyota. But a Suzuki would have done just as well.
But “preference” in the UAPs is a strong word, expressing a deep discerned personal desire in communion with the body of the Society of Jesus, as soon as one allows the Spirit to lead oneself to “prefer” in this way.
This is, indeed, a bit tricky, because my spirit, my rationality, my wisdom, my defenses, my smugness and self-satisfaction tend to resist the urgings of the Spirit towards this way of “preferring.”
The latter is a preferring against what I unguardedly prefer, an “agere contra” in the range of possible preferences. In unguarded moments I prefer to lead people to the wisdom of a worldliness insulated against a God and the promptings of His Spirit; I prefer to walk in the company of the wealthy, the decision makers, the honored and admired, even should they be compromised by their inhumanity; I prefer to be in the company of the adult, sophisticated, important people of this world who create the despair of the present; I prefer the consumption and the wastefulness of a comfortable life. Even as a Jesuit. I prefer it even against intrusions of guilt and shame.
Preferring “to show the way to God through the spiritual exercises” is not an arbitrary choice over “showing the way to God through prayer and meditation over scriptural passages.” It is an active desire in grace led by the Spirit, as long as one allows the Spirit to lead.
It is in this personal preferring in the communion of the Society of Jesus that one discerns the Jesuit mission within, not without.
It is not therefore an external, rational, appreciation of mission and its many strategic aspects that precedes my “preferring.”
But it is in my free “preferring” any of the UAPs that I am led to the “necessities” and “commitments” and “resolutions” described in each of the UAPs,
Already in Preference 1, “To show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment,” the whole mission of the SJ is discerned in the Contemplation on the Incarnation through the Spiritual Exercises. It is the same with “preferring” to walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated in a mission of reconciliation and justice.” Here, the preference explicitly mentions the mission.
Therefore, not preference between faith, justice, cultures, inter-religious dialogue, and the environment arbitrarily, but an active preferring… desiring…with the communion of the SJ…which discerns in the Spirit the Jesuit mission within. The preference is the manner in which an individual, a Jesuit or a partner in mission, appropriates an external mission in interiority.
It is only in this context that one “implements the preference,” which is at first glance a jarring agendum, since one intuitively implements a mission. But one does not implement an arbitrary or indifferent preference of an aspect of our mission against its other aspects. In preferring… one implements the exigencies of mission freely appropriated in preferring. It is, surprisingly, not a sobering proposition in its demands, but empowering in its freedom and joyful in its possibilities.
This said, it may be helpful to note the explicitated context of Fr. Sosa’s letter (June, 2019) in “secular society” and the challenges coming from “new secularisms” and from “mature secularised society.” Fr. Sosa also points out that the UAPs “are in agreement with the current priorities of the Church as expressed through the ordinary magisterium of the Pope, the Synods, and the Episcopal Conferences, esp. since Evangelii Gaudium.
In an apostolic context such as Mindanao were the concerns of diversity of religions, faiths, and cultures are of greater urgency than of secularism and secularization, even while the latter cannot be discounted, it would have been good if the communion of Jesuits had also “preferred” inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue, as had been explicitated as a dimension of the mission of the Society of Jesus in GC 36. Indeed, the context here is not only Mindanao, but Saudi Arabia, Syria, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, Libya, Indonesia, Malaysia, in interaction, too often with extreme violence and war, with such as Israel, the US, France, and China. This would also have been congruent with the ordinary teachings of the magisterium in such documents as the Document on Fraternity for World Peace and Living Together (Pope Francis and the Grand Imam of Al Azhar, Ahmed Al Tayyeb, Feb 2019), Nostra Aetate of Vatican II, Redemptoris Missio of Pope Paul VI, and Dignitatis Humanae (Vat II).
In “preferring” inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue one certainly might have appropriated the mission of the service of the faith, showing people the way to God through the SpEX and discernment, but in the context of diverse religions, some of which contradict religion in extreme and violent convictions. It would have led to walking with the poor, the outcasts, those whose dignity had been violated because their religions had been “othered”. It would have led to accompanying the youth of these religions to reconciliation not only between different religions but among receptions of the same religion, and to the building of a common home in fragmented worlds hostile to othered religions.
Nevertheless, the apostolic concerns of inter-religious and inter-cultural dialogue are expressed in Fr. Sosa’s letter under the first priority. Leading people to God through strengthened faith involves “a dialogue with other religions and with all cultures.” What appears overlooked or understated comes to light in praying to prefer “to show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and Discernment.”
Finally, even as we can better appreciate the special Jesuit nuance in the “preferences” of the UAPs as expressed by Fr. Sosa, it is empty without arriving at a fresh appropriation in freedom of the Society’s profound mission of participating with the Father in his work of reconciling humanity with himself, human beings with other human beings, and humanity with creation, and understanding the consequent exigencies of this mission. Here the initiative is not with the apostolic zeal and power of the individual Jesuit nor of the Society of Jesus but in the compassion of the Father who “prefers” over condemnation dialogue and reconciliation with humankind through love, walking with sinners and failures and even Jesuits who’ve sinned messed up, walking with the old as well as with the young, and restoring a destroyed earth to a common home. Here the surprise is the awesome vocation gifted to each of us to be a part of this work of reconciliation, despite our unexamined preferences.
But its joy may be revealed in what the Spirit leads the communion of Jesuits to prefer.