Malta will no longer form an independent Jesuit province, but a new province will be formed together with Italy and Albania in the middle of next year.
This is part of a global trend in the Order as the number of Jesuits declines and the need is felt to strengthen the smaller provinces, to share resources and work more closely together, Maltese provincial Fr Patrick Magro SJ told The Sunday Times of Malta in an interview.
“The process of consolidation of provinces is going on worldwide, and has been going on for a long time now,” he said.
In Spain, for example, six provinces have become one, making it the biggest province in the Society of Jesus with 1,200 Jesuits serving there. The same happened in Brazil and the process is under way in the US. Southern Belgium and France will form a new province by 2017, and the following year will be the turn of Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania and north Belgium.
However, Fr Magro is not worried by the trend. For Ignatius of Loyola, who founded the Jesuit Order nearly 500 years ago, “the idea of the universality of the Society was always paramount”.
“When a person joins the Jesuits, he joins a universal Society, a Society without borders, which means that he is available for service wherever in the world he may be needed,” he said, adding that the idea of provinces arose simply to facilitate administration.
There will be several changes to the new set-up, he explained, but the main ones will be in governance, administration and shared experiences and resources.
It means there will be one provincial for the three-country province and one administrative set-up.
“More importantly, all three countries will work closely together with regard to apostolates. For example, we have one college in Malta – St Aloysius’ College – and there are five colleges in Italy. So we are now talking of our six colleges, not just of one. This makes us more efficient when it comes to things like formation for assistant heads and staff and sharing of ideas.”
We Jesuits like to plan ahead. This formation of a new province will all make sense in 10 years’ time. Instead of being alone we will be part of a bigger, richer reality
Another example, he went on, is chaplaincy work. “We have common priorities and can share so much. Local laws are different but the main principles are the same worldwide. In Malta we run the University Chaplaincy, and there is so much richness to be shared now with, for example, the Jesuit-run chaplaincy at La Sapienza University, Rome, the biggest university in Italy and one of biggest in Europe.”
Spirituality centres will have shared programmes, retreats for Jesuits from all three countries, and shared opportunities for Jesuit and lay formation.
Even the Jesuit Refugee Services, which started in Centro Astalli in Rome, will have a lot of scope to work together, dealing as they do with the same migration routes. “We share a lot with Italy culture-wise and we have a lot in common. Perhaps one of the biggest challenges is that the language is different.”
How will the creation of the new province affect the Maltese province? Will more Jesuit houses need to be closed down?
“We do not see ‘closing down’ as a negative thing. When we move out of a community house or when a service of ours comes to an end, it is to strengthen communities elsewhere or to move on to service new opportunities and needs.
“One of our most important principles from the time of Ignatius was to be so free from our works to be able to close what is not working and open up what we discern as a more urgent mission. It does not depend only on the number of Jesuits.”
For example, in Italy, while some communities were closed down, in Pisa, on the request of the local bishop, a new Jesuit community moved to live and work at the Pisa university chaplaincy.
“This is extremely positive, since working with young people is a top priority for us Jesuits today.
“We look at today’s society and its needs, and our constant challenge is to have the freedom to close what is not rendering fruit and open new avenues.”
There is no fear of having fewer Jesuits either – the “shared mission” among Jesuits and lay people is getting stronger, said Fr Magro.
“We Jesuits like to plan ahead. This formation of a new province will all make sense in 10 years’ time. Instead of being alone we will be part of a bigger, richer reality.”
He is convinced this is a step forward. It will not be plain sailing – there are language and cultural barriers, a big geographical extension, deep poverty in one of the three countries involved (Albania), a reduction in vocations and many institutions to manage. But, he believes, the many positive aspects are far more important than the barriers.
“Our opportunity to live our universal vocation as Jesuits is in itself life-giving. It will be great to be able to work with more Jesuits, an opportunity to be more effective in our mission, and it will be a far richer experience for all.”
1966: Total Maltese Jesuits: 255, of whom 64 were in missions abroad.
2016: Total Maltese Jesuits: 84, of whom 47 are in Malta and 37 are studying or working abroad.
The Jesuit life
Community life is one of the most fundamental factors that a young person will look at when discerning his or her vocation to become a religious, according to Fr Magro.
While diocesan priests mostly live alone or with their family, when one chooses to join a religious order, one joins a community.
“It is appealing to share one’s life with others, to share a mission and so on.”
“The Jesuit order was the first not to have fixed meal times and prayer times (St Ignatius actually got into trouble because of this), making it different from other male orders. Convent life traditionally centred within the convent. But St Ignatius wanted a community focused on mission – there was to be no cosy schedule and no structure that would hinder its mission and service.
“The only thing he said must never be given up was the daily Examen (an examination of conscience that strengthens one’s relationship with God and prepares one better for mission).
Despite the fact that the world is more secular, it is a time of strong religious and spiritual searching
“So not having fixed times, having a welcoming community, that is, houses where other people can share in our lives, praying together but not at strictly fixed times, and the centrality of our service… these might all be aspects of our community life which make it attractive.
“A healthy and open community is so central to our charism that one of our past superior generals, Fr Peter Hans Kolvenbach, who passed away last week in Lebanon, put it this way: Community isn’t only at the service of mission, but community life is in itself a mission, because lived well, it is an example to the wider community.”
Asked about new vocations, Fr Magro said a “good number” of young Maltese men are in the process of becoming Jesuits, with six currently at various levels of study and formation, leading to their ordination.
“In fact, in relation to population, the number of Maltese Jesuit vocations is very high, he added.
But there has been a rise in vocations worldwide, including Europe and particularly Asia. The total Jesuit population currently numbers 17,000, and in 10 years’ time more than half of them will be from Asia.
“This is a sign that the focus of our Church is shifting radically from Europe to the East.”
Some speak of the ‘Pope Francis effect’, where young men considering a religious vocation have been attracted to his Jesuit way of doing things. Certainly more attention is being given to vocation promotion too, Fr Magro said.
“Despite the fact that the world is apparently more secular, it is also a time of strong religious and spiritual searching. Funnily enough, the majority of novices got to know the Jesuits through the internet.”
A new provincial as from July 31, 2017
The process of choosing a new provincial for Italy, Malta and Albania is starting straightaway with feedback and suggestions being gathered from all Jesuit communities, so all Jesuits can have a say.
The regional assistant for this area of the world will visit as many communities as he can from these three countries to better advise the new Fr General, Arturo Sosa SJ, on the present state of affairs. Ultimately it will be Fr General who decides who the new provincial will be. Officially the new province will be set up on the feast of St Ignatius, July 31, 2017.
The provincial could be anyone, says Fr Magro. “Being a provincial is a service that is crucial for the good running of Society. Nobody has the ambition to be provincial!”
The Jesuit way of choosing a leader is to focus on the right man for the job in the present situation.
Before there is any talk of individuals, a profile is built up of the provincial needed for today’s reality. Each Jesuit community works on this. Only then do they move to seeing who could be the right person to fit this profile.
Replying to the call from Albania
Albania, one of the three countries to be incorporated in the new province, is a very poor part of the world, in several senses due to its recent history. It has a tiny Jesuit presence that needs particular attention.
Albania needs support, but it also has alot to teach us
Worldwide, says Fr Magro, the focus of Maltese Jesuits used to be on India for many years.
“But today our focus is now replying to a new call. Albania needs support, but it also has a lot to teach us.
“Just take a look at the martyrs who were canonised a few weeks ago, and the case of Fr Ernest Troshani Simoni, who was only recently named cardinal, a priest who suffered two decades of imprisonment, torture and forced labour under Albania’s communist rulers for refusing to renounce his Catholic faith.”