Interview with Fr John Dardis, SJ

Please tell us the history of UAPs. When did this practice of Jesuits discerning and discussing to fix their preferences or priorities begin?

The 36th General Congregation asked Fr General to review the Society’s apostolic preferences. The process was launched in late 2017 with a letter of Fr General. After that:

  • Communities and works made a discernment on where they felt the Lord was calling the Society for the next ten years.
  • They sent the fruits of this discernment to their major superior who in turn had a discernment of their own.
  • Each Conference of Provincials made a further discernment in the light of the material received.  Conference Presidents sent the fruits of their discernment to Rome.
  • Finally, in January 2019, for over a week, Fr General met with his Extended Council of about twenty-five people.

GC 36 had asked for maximum participation. Starting at the base, with communities and works, was a way to involve people, to give encouragement and to say “Even if you feel you cannot do a perfect discernment you can still make a beginning. Don’t be afraid”.  It was a way to move through any resistances and to rediscover that the Holy Spirit works in every person.

At the start, while there was clarity about the task of discerning Apostolic Preferences, there were some hesitations. Some people felt “How can we – working locally, in Mumbai or in Caracas, in Kenya or in Manila – how can we know what Universal Preferences should be?”  Father General gave key leadership at this moment. He said, “Do not doubt but trust. You know more than you think. Go ahead. You know a lot through global media and in our globalized world. Be courageous!” 

There was flexibility and room for innovation. Guidelines were given …but not in a narrow way. Some Provinces decided to do a really extensive consultation.  Other Provinces – especially if they had already gone through recent processes of restructuring or planning – did something more limited. 

Discerning serious issues takes time. When the material arrived in Rome, there was an amazing congruence already; so much so that some people were saying, “The results are obvious. Do we need so many days?  Maybe it will all be done quickly.”  But we needed to ponder the issues in our hearts, not just in our heads. We needed time for prayer; time in small groups; time to listen.

We finished the discernment with some iconic moments. Starting from the chapel of Madonna del Strada in the church of the Gesù, we made a short procession to the tomb of St. Ignatius. We lit candles for the different apostolic Sectors and Regions of the Society, for the Society as a whole, for those working in the General Curia, for those in formation and for our collaborators.  We then processed to the tomb of Pedro Arrupe, singing “En Todo Amar y Servir”  and then on to a small chapel in the scholastic house of the Gesù. After that we moved to the rooms of St Ignatius where Fr General celebrated Mass.At the end of the process, general council members felt consoled, joyful and energised.

Are the UAPs more indicative in nature – i.e. tell Jesuits, ‘These are the urgent, important issues’ or do they obligate them to prioritize these?

The preferences give orientations, compass points, that guide local provinces and regions as they discern priorities and actions for their local situations.

How did Fr. General finally come to declare these four as the UAPs? Could you describe the process?

After the meeting of the extended council the General himself took some time to pray. He f0rmulated the preferences, taking care especially to express them as calls to action. You can notice that the preferences are expressed not just as single words such as “Faith” or “The Poor” or “The Youth”. Rather they are expressed with verbs of action:

  • 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 with Gospel depth for the protection and renewal of God’s creation

Fr Sosa sent the fruits of his prayer to the Pope who confirmed these four preferences as a mission for the Society.

Can you tell us about what you learned, what you gained from this process?

 From this process of the UAPs we learned a lot, we received many graces and arrived at a deep clarity. We were aware that we were following what the First Companions did in Venice: praying and sharing together, making ourselves available to the Pope and to the mission of the universal Church. Since we want to play our part in making the Kingdom of God become real in our world today, we should ensure that our dreams and desires are aligned with those of Jesus, so as to follow Him joyfully with humility and in poverty. We learned that discernment gives us all a valuable tool and that a discerning lifestyle is key. Discernment is fundamentally about a desire to be with Jesus and having our lives aligned with Him. Discernment does not depend on learning some new skills – although skills can help – but about having a discerning will and living with a generous spirit. 

Once the UAPs are announced after a long discernment process, all that the individual Province have to do would be to implement them in their own context, right? Then why should each Province come up with its own Province Apostolic Preferences (PAPs)? If each Province could have its own PAPs, what happens to UAPs? Who will implement UAPs?

Implementation is key and for good implementation you need involvement at every level. We don’t want the UAPs to be words on a page. And we don’t want a top-down planning with priorities imposed from above. The UAP are expressions of how the Spirit is calling the Society as a whole; but the Spirit speaks locally, not just globally. So each province or region has to continue discerning. The Spirit is leading us….we have to keep listening …every day. We cannot just do a ‘once in ten years’ discernment …and then say “Ok, that is over. Now we take back control”. No! We need to learn that the Spirit is in charge and to learn humble dependence.

What was the feedback from Pope Francis, a Jesuit?

The most important point Pope Francis made was that the first preference is primordial – the call to show the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and Discernment. This is the foundation. And we cannot show the way to God unless we ourselves are trying to find the Way.

Dr. Christina Kheng

Are women left out or would they find their place among the marginalized and youth?

One of the graces of the process was to learn that we needed outside help.  And we got it – from a woman! Dr Christina Kheng from Singapore facilitated the discernment process of the General Council.  Having someone who was outside the General Curia structure opened us to new perspectives. It gave us flexibility; it gave us a whole different way of seeing things.  An accomplished Spiritual Director and skilled in management and planning, Christina made her interventions in a simple but profound way. As a woman she brought a  sensitivity and a different style of listening that was invaluable. Local provinces and regions are invited to involve lay people and other religious – women as well as men – as they discern the way forward.

Is there any mechanism in place to examine how far the Jesuits have adopted these apostolic preferences as their own?

Almost every province or region has allowed itself be guided by the UAPs and has taken them as key orientations for their planning. We see this in the apostolic plans that arrive here for the approval of Fr General. Also the annual letters that come to Rome give important feedback. And the upcoming Procurators’ Congregation in 2023 will be a chance to “take the temperature” of our life and mission in the context of the UAP. The Society is finding consolation in the UAPs.

If Jesuits let themselves be guided by these Apostolic Preferences, what will they gain in their daily lives?

Having to think beyond the local stretched our imagination. We saw the Trinity contemplating our broken world and we asked: “How can we help? How can we serve?” These are questions for the everyday life of each Jesuit. If we keep asking them, we will find renewal and hope; we will be more and more His companions; we will be true contemplatives in action.