A New Horizon: Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus

A New Horizon: Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus

By Marcel Uwineza SJ1

A new horizon for discernment in common, guidance and orientation for apostolic planning of the Society of Jesus’ resources at all levels was ushered in on February 19, 2019 by Fr. Arturo Sosa’s promulgation of the new Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs). These preferences are: (1) Promoting Discernment and the Spiritual Exercises; (2) Walking with the Excluded; (3) Journeying with Youth; and (4) Caring for our Common Home.

These preferences have come as a culmination of a two-year process that started when the Fathers of the 36th General Congregation asked Fr. Arturo Sosa to review the 2003 Apostolic Preferences of then Fr. General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. The 2003 UAP were adopted by the 35th CG. In 2003, I had just taken first vows. The new UAP come after many years of Jesuit formation and their ten-year span (2019-2029) touch me, and unquestionably many others, profoundly during the promising years of Jesuit life and ministry. The previous UAP focused on China, Africa, the Intellectual Apostolate, the Roman Houses, and Migrants and Refugees. My observation is on the difference between the 2003 UAP and the 2019 UAP. The former were particularly focused on special areas with specific options, while the new ones can be justified in any applicable Jesuit apostolate. In the process of discernment, the new UAP may not compel some ministries to make needed changes to respond to the universal needs of the Society of Jesus.

After his election in 2016, Fr. Arturo Sosa started a new process of discernment with his October 2017 Letter inviting all Jesuits to start a five-step discernment process. The first step in the discernment process began in late 2017 and early 2018 and comprised of different meetings of “the six Jesuit Conferences worldwide to prepare their constituent Provinces and regions for the consultation process. The second step, during Spring and Summer 2018, saw consultation taking place in each Province and Region and within the international works (e.g. the Jesuit Refugee Service) and Roman Houses (e.g. the Gregorian University) of the Society of Jesus, as well as apostolic networks and formation networks.”2


Discerning at JCAM level
In the seven provinces and two regions of the Jesuit Conference of Africa and Madagascar, Jesuit communities took the next step to discern together where they think the Lord is leading the Society of Jesus today and what he demands of us. The guiding question was: “how and where should the Society of Jesus as a whole carry out its apostolic mission in the world today?” We remember how Fr. Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator graciously led some African Provinces and Regions in the discernment process. As an example, he led the Rwanda-Burundi Region in its discernment process on May 2-3, 2018. Most of us will recall our Major Superiors’ eight-day retreat in Zimbabwe led by Fr. Roland Von Nida from Arrupe Jesuit University, after which the Jesuit Superiors from Africa and Madagascar started their discernment meeting to focus on Apostolic Preferences as a priority on their agenda. In January 2019, Fr. Arturo Sosa met with his extended General Council to reflect on the results received from all Conferences and international ministries before formulating its own ideas. Finally, Fr. General presented his own discernment to Pope Francis who then gave the Jesuits the four preferences we now have.


Why preferences?

Why are they named “preferences?” We call them “apostolic preferences” because they mark a “priority of discernment” in which we acknowledge the Holy Spirit’s invitation to us after reading the “signs of the times” of our era. They will guide each Province and Region to discover different ways where Jesus Christ is leading us together with many Jesuit collaborators in order to continue proclaiming the reign of God. They “narrow” our focus, which help us to make decisions about the mission of Jesuits in each province. They will orient Jesuit formation in the coming years, because they are a reflection of what Jesuits believe to be urgent in today’s complex world. To this end, the Jesuit intellectual apostolate is a vital component and indeed Fr. Arturo Sosa writes: “At the same time, responding to the call of the universal apostolic preferences necessitates that we strive more than ever for the intellectual depth that our foundational charism and tradition demand; such depth must always be accompanied by an attendant spiritual depth.”3 The UAP are in synch with Pope Francis’s desire for Jesuits to be rooted in our Ignatian Spirituality and Jesuit heritage (The Holy Father reiterates this again and again in his encounter with Jesuits whenever he visits a particular country). The new UAP join Pope Francis’ desire for a Church with and for the poor, with the passion to journey with youth as he did recently in Panama at the World Youth Day, and to seek an “integral care of our common home” as Pope Francis urges the Universal Church in his Laudato Si’. They are what Ignatius would call “sentire cum ecclesia.” The UAP offer a vorgriff –a horizon for discernment and priorities for Jesuit resources.


Reflecting on life and mission: A personal reflection 
I have already highlighted what the four preferences are. I would like to focus briefly on one of them: Walking with the Excluded (no. 2). To begin with, all the four preferences are to be rooted in the Jesuit personal relationship with Jesus Christ, central to the first preference. We, Jesuits, are first men in love with and passionate about God, revealed in Jesus Christ and the Spirit. In fact, CG 35 has given us a high barometer: “they should know who Jesuits are by looking at Jesus.” It is this Jesus who made a preferential option for the poor and the excluded, those who cannot repay us. The same Jesus took the side of those who had been hurt in their dignity and sought by all means to restore and reconcile them with God and the society.

During my two years in Cyangugu (Rwanda) as a novice, eighteen years ago, I was particularly struck by Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman and that story still galvanizes my life. The story (Jn 4:1-42) reveals that we do not earn God’s love, we return it. The woman is perplexed by Jesus’ request: “Give me a drink.” (Jn 4:7) In his conversation with her, Jesus reveals that he is not bound by customs that discriminate or exclude. The Samaritan woman is surprised to meet a Jew who asks for a service from someone who otherwise should be despised. The woman had some strikes against her: (1) she was known as a sinner likely reviled by others because of her several marriages. This may explain her lonely trip to the well at the hottest hour of the day. She probably hoped she would not find anyone there. (2) She was a person at the margin and excluded. Jesus saw her poverty and had pity on her. He revealed her misery to allow her to discover the loving presence of God, source of everlasting Love that quenches the thirst from unsatisfying and temporal loves. Jesus revealed to her that in Him, God encounters those we despise. (3) She was a Samaritan and, as it were, Jews and Samaritans had very little, if anything, that brought them together. Jesus breaks down the barriers that divide people. 4) As a woman, she was to be silent when a rabbi was present. Jesus offers her a golden opportunity, not only to be closer to the master of masters, but also to engage in a life-changing conversation.

The story of the Samaritan woman illustrates what Jesuits desire to do: “walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.” In fact, many Jesuit works are deeply engaged in this mission. There are many examples. I highlight only a few. One cannot help but think of the ministry of Jesuits working in South Soudan; the work done by AJAN, accompanying people living with AIDS; the Jesuit Centre for Theological Reflection JCTR in Zambia; the Jesuit Hakimani Center for Social Concern in Eastern Africa; Silvera House: Jesuit Social Justice and Development Center in Zimbabwe  and the ministry of accompaniment by the Jesuit Refugee Service, CERAP-Inades and L’Action Social Cheche

Walking with the excluded calls us to coordinate our efforts in the work of advocacy, in promoting cultures of transparency, fighting negative ethnicity and anthropological poverty that one can also find among the rich, domestic violence, poor, unstable and undemocratic governance structures that have wounded many in Africa, challenging multinational corporations that often exploit our people with no urgency to create Africa’s stable industries, and entering into serious dialogue with organizations that fix prices for Africa’s raw materials at the expense of farmers and miners. It also means equipping young Jesuit with adequate intellectual and spiritual formation to be ready for mission in today’s changing world and to dialogue with culture.

The scourge of clerical sexual abuse of minors and women has wounded many victims who are the wounds of the Body of Christ. It would be unrealistic for anyone to deny that this is real, only those living in an alternative world with wrong alternative facts could do so. We need more than policies and apologies. As I write, Pope Francis is meeting a worldwide meeting with Presidents of the Episcopal Conferences in Rome to find a way forward. We need a change of heart, transparency, fidelity to our evangelical promises and a fight against clericalism. We have been set apart but not above God’s people. While there may not be one-size-fit all solution, walking with those “whose dignity has been violated” demands an acknowledgement and attacking the problem. As Fr. Roger J. Landry4 notes, this demands “eliminating a culture of unchastity in the clergy by communicating quite clearly that sins against chastity will not be tolerated. This means reaffirming the basic standards of insisting clergy be faithful to their promises, and if they refuse, or discover they can't, to remove them from a situation in which they can take advantage of their office to engage in spiritually incestuous relations with the sheep and lambs Christ has entrusted to their care.”4

The crime of sexual abuse has rightly disconcerted many people of God and some have already quit or are almost quitting the Church. The second UAP thus offers Jesuits an opportunity to go out, meet, and walk with those “whose dignity has been violated.” Jesuits can also run the risk of giving up, asking ourselves what people think of us when we stand before them. I remember the words of Karl Rahner when he was asked why he has not left the Church, given the pain he experienced from some of its leaders. Rahner replied: “I heard of Christ only through the Church and not otherwise. Hence I cannot be content with a purely private Christianity, which would repudiate its origins. Attachment to the Church is the price I pay for this historical origin.”5

To conclude, I am convinced that central to our “walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice” is the fact that the human person is the question to which God is the answer. The human person is the articulate mystery of God and only God and nothing else can be our fulfillment, and nothing about who we are is outside our relationship with God. Any speech about God therefore makes no sense at all if our back is turned to the suffering of the powerless and oppressed in our world. In his Journal of the Second Vatican Council, the ecclesiologist and ecumenist Yves Congar remarks how Thomas Aquinas paid special attention to his surrounding context: “What I saw explained to me how it was that St Thomas paid so much attention to the Arabs, to the Gentiles. I perceived St Thomas filled with an extremely open and active attention to the world which surrounded him. He experienced there a perceptible revelation of a whole world of a great culture.”6 Agbonkhianmeghe Orobator also says astutely: “theology in Africa cannot fall into mere abstractions with no connection to the contexts of our people.” This is so because the human person is not one thing among others at the material level, as one might think of one tilapia among other tilapias. No, the human person is the inconceivable being who is open upwards to the Mystery of God, made concrete through the experience of and the love of neighbor. And this love was made incarnate in Jesus Christ who reveals what God intends for humanity. As a result, we have no reason whatsoever to belittle anyone or ourselves—on the contrary, because in doing so we belittle God.

In Burundi, where I worked for some time, I met some H.I.V.-positive women who had been excluded by relatives because of their HIV status and they frequently told me, “Father Marcel, if we had not met the Service Yezu Mwiza AIDS Project , we would now be turning in our graves.” Some of those women got H.I.V. through rape, war or domestic violence, but their lives had completely changed because of access to antiretroviral drugs through the Jesuit health center. They are now living with great hopes of seeing their children go to school. As a Jesuit, I have experienced “the Lazarus effect” in working with people living with H.I.V. and AIDS. All this energizes us to be ministers of reconciliation, justice, and hope. In the face of suffering, tears do not replace action. The New UAP give us this challenge to go out and make God’s people sentire (feel) that everyone is loved: rich and poor, black and white, Jew and Arab, Palestinian and Israeli, Serb and Bosnian or Albanian, Hutu and Tutsi, Pakistani and Indian—none are outside the purview of God’s love. Remember what Jesus said: “I, if I am lifted up, will draw all to me” (Jn 12:32). Not some, but all.



Fr. Marcel Uniweza SJ, Rwanda-Burundi Region


1Marcel Uwineza is a Rwandan Jesuit Priest and a PhD candidate in theology at Boston College, USA.
2See Jesuits in Britain, “Universal Apostolic Preferences Announced” http://www.jesuit.org.uk/universal-apostolic-preferences-announced, accessed February 21, 2019.
3Arturo Sosa, “Universal Apostolic Preferences of the Society of Jesus, 2019-2029,” p. 9.
4Father Roger J. Landry is a priest of the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, who works for the Holy See’s Permanent Observer Mission to the United Nations.
5Karl Rahner, Concern for the Church, trans. Edward Quinn (New York: Crossroad, 1981), 9.
6Yves Congar, My Journal of the Council, trans. Mary John Ronayne and Mary Cecily Boulding, Denis Minns (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2012), 248.
7Marcel Uwineza, “On Christian Hope: What makes it distinctive and credible?”
America (4-11 April 2016), available online at http://americamagazine.org/issue/christian-hope