Europe: The Inexorable Decline of the Society of Jesus

October 24, 2019

The German, Lithuanian, Austrian and Swiss Jesuit Provinces will form only a single entity: the Province of Central Europe, with headquarters in Munich, Bavaria, in April 2021. It is to this end that Fr. Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, visited Switzerland from September 19-22, 2019.

Fr. Sosa has been Superior General for 3 years and is the head of 15,000 Jesuits worldwide, including 3,000 in formation. The creation of a single province in Central Europe—a project that had been under discussion for almost five years—matches demographic realities. There are only 5,000 Jesuits left in Europe. “Today we are fewer and we will be fewer in the coming years for purely demographic reasons,” he said on March 11, 2018 in Vatican News.

In Spain, out of nearly a thousand Jesuits, 10% are over 90 years old! Switzerland has only about fifty Jesuits, whose average age is about 67 years old. Elsewhere, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) has more than 4,000 Jesuits with an average age of 57, Latin America has 2,200 Jesuits, the Asia-Pacific region has more than 1,500. And unsurprisingly, Africa, with 1,650 Jesuits, records the highest number of vocations: many entered the Society less than 5 years ago, and are in formation. For the record, in 1966, the Jesuits numbered more than 36,000 worldwide.

Faced with such a decline, the current Jesuit General is advancing propositions in the spirit of what some today call the “pastoral cacophony.” “This reality [of decline] invites us to offer the message of the Gospel in a creative way. We must accept Christianity as a very personal proposition, that it be a free choice, different from what was more cultural Catholicism,” he says. And to clarify, in Europe and North America, we must speak of "disaffection" rather than secularization. It is not that Catholics are distancing themselves from the Church, “it is that they have lost the affect,” having lost their relationship with religion, he explains gravely to the Swiss—Such an approach leaves you speechless. Rather than playing with words, if the faithful have lost their relationship with religion, how can they not distance themselves from the Church?—the causes of this catastrophic situation should be studied.

On September 20, 2019 at the University of Zurich, a roundtable organized by the Swiss Jesuits entitled “Being a Christian Today—Which Way for the Church?”, gathered around the Jesuit General, Barbara Hallensleben, professor of dogmatic theology and ecumenical theology at the University of Friborg, Daniel Kosch, Secretary General of the Central Roman Catholic Conference (RKZ), Bishop Felix Gmür, Bishop of Basel, Pastor Gottfried Locher, President of the Federation of Protestant Churches of Switzerland (FEPS).

“What does it mean to be a Christian today? Where is our Church going? How to find God in these increasingly secular times?”, asked Father Sosa, before answering: “We are invited to read the ‘signs of the times’ and then ask ourselves: What could be a life of faith in a secular age? Our era is marked by growing secularization. If we are only looking for “old ways,” this can be considered a threat. We can fear secularization as a weakening.” However, in the face of this secularization and the decreasing influence of the Church, Fr. Sosa thinks that these changes must be met, not in fear, but as opportunities to propose the Gospel in a new way. “A free society benefits greatly from a renewed proclamation of the faith” that really seeks to understand what is the will of God today.  Paradoxically, here Fr. Sosa, very Jesuit, abandons “disaffection” and returns to “secularization,” positively received.

The Superior of the Jesuits has thus encouraged the asking of “good questions,” which, for the Catholic Church, means, “How to move the Church so that she can overcome clericalism?” One of the possible solutions to these challenges lies in a reorganization of the Church where, according to him, it is necessary to drive the Church out of its power structure, so that it can become a “Church of service.” It is a question of fundamentally rethinking the hierarchy, to reduce clericalism. Faced with the disaffection that is emptying the novitiates, Fr. Sosa’s only urgency is the fight against clericalism!

A few days earlier, in Rome, on September 16 at the headquarters of the foreign press, Fr. Sosa explained, without batting an eye, that Pope Francis “promotes synodality against clericalism. The true reform is that the Church is close to the plan the Second Vatican Council imagined when it defined the People of God. In Latin America, we like to say that the People of God on the move is the sense of synodality, and that the word synod means ‘to walk together,’” he emphasized.

“Walking together,” but in which direction? “They are blind, and leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both will fall into the pit” (Mt 15:14). Such is the concrete meaning of the synodal dream promoted by the Council.