By Joe Xavier A., SJ

At the outset I must state that my reading of the style of governance of Fr. Arturo Sosa, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, might be quite different or even the opposite of what he himself thinks. However, as a Jesuit, development practitioner and human rights activist, I am one of the guys fascinated by his style of governance. This is how I perceive it.

I consider his style of governance as something to be studied in depth, as he foregrounds the governance principles on Ignatian resources and attempts to operationalise these principles effectively by deploying secular tools and learnings, especially in the development sector. I had the opportunity to closely observe him for a short period and had a few opportunities to participate in some public events. I presume, his studies in social sciences as a Jesuit, and his engagement in social ministry and university education has helped him to develop a framework that can meaningfully combine the sacred and the secular, without minimising, contradicting, or extrapolating one or the other, and appreciating the distinctive usefulness of both.

Evidently, as a Jesuit he is rooted in Ignatian resources. This rootedness has helped him acknowledge and appreciate the experiences and learning in the secular arena, believing that the Lord of history guides human history. When Fr. Sosa assumed office in 2016, he introduced a new key position at the highest level of governance, Counsellor for Discernment and Planning. Discernment was not new to the Jesuits but combining discernment with planning was something distinctive. In common parlance, discernment is considered belonging to spiritual realm and planning as a secular activity.

For a few decades the corporates and humanitarian organizations have been grappling with finding the right tool for planning and they invented ‘Strategic Planning’ as a tool for organizational development. The corporate planning tool focused on ‘Unique Selling Point (USP)’, mission and vision, goals, strategies, and activities. The humanitarian organisations preferred the term ‘identity’ to USP. In the place of strategic planning, some organizations also experimented with ‘Results-based planning’ and ‘Outcome-based planning’. This type of planning process meant that the results or the outcomes must determine the activities and not vice versa. While the corporates used such a planning process for expanding their operation and increasing their profits, the humanitarian organisations used similar terminologies to measure the changes that have happened in the lives of the people they served. However, both agreed on the concept of Logical Framework (Logframe) as an effective methodology to conceptualise the planning process, articulated in the form of various templates.

The corporates preferred the term ‘Unique Selling Point’ (USP), an idea that would attract and expand the customer base. The advertising industry was roped in to give visual taste to the USP in the form of images and catchy slogans. The USP images were constructed with a high level of evocative appeal that helped the companies to connect people with products emotionally, sometimes without any rational basis or scientific understanding of the product.

On the other hand, humanitarian organisations, especially the donors, felt that the logical framework clearly gives a sense of direction and goals to be realized in the social change process.

The fundamental question that is dealt with in a logical framework is where the members want to see the organization in the future, say 5 years from now. Note, this is not about next year or a year after, but a reasonably distant future. For some, this might be a pure imaginative exercise. Such an exercise is not done in a vacuum. The organizations undertake various analyses such as SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses Opportunities and Threats) analysis. Strengths and weaknesses are internal dimensions of an organization, while opportunities and threats are external dimensions.

Fr. General foregrounds the governance principles on Ignatian resources and attempts to operationalise these principles effectively by deploying secular tools and learnings.

Some organizations prefer objective analysis, or gap analysis (in terms of governance and administration) and so on. Learning from the past, the members of the organization imagine a distant future and articulate that future as a ‘big picture’ to be realised in 5 years’ time. Such a big picture becomes the guiding star for the organization for the next 5 years. It is this ‘big picture’ that would determine the present strategies and activities, progressively to be undertaken from now on, until the big picture becomes a reality. Assessment and evaluations are done, or progress made is measured not with reference to completion of activities, but in terms of the distance covered in reaching the big picture or the outcomes.

Strategic planning tool mandates that every member of the organization gets involved in the process and the organization also invites external experts to be participants and observers to monitor the process. It is ideal to have an external facilitator of the process. However, the process gets vitiated if the facilitator gets into the content. At the end of the planning exercise, every member of the organization feels that they are owners of the plan, and it is each one’s responsibility to give the best to realize this plan.

Evidence shows that the big picture creates new passion, energy, and power among members of the organization and renews every aspect of the organisation. Some organisations have ended up in making huge structural changes because of the planning process. Such an exercise is not done frequently as it involves a lot of time, energy, and substantial resources.

Fr. General Sosa seems in favour of adapting this type of planning process in the life-mission of the Society of Jesus, but rooted in the Ignatian resources. Firstly, he sees life and mission as one continuum and prefers the use of the term life-mission instead of life and mission.

Secondly, he makes a conscious shift in the planning approach by deploying an appropriate terminology rooted in the Ignatian tradition and converts the secular planning approach into a spiritual process. ‘USP’ or ‘identity’ becomes ‘charism’; ‘strategic planning’ is articulated as ‘apostolic planning’ since we are talking about the primacy of apostolate or mission. We are not an NGO or a business entity. What is termed as ‘discussion’ and ‘reflection’ in a non-religious setting becomes ‘a discernment process’. The mandatory participation of every member takes the form of communal discernment. In the apostolic planning it is not an imagined ‘big picture’ but ‘the call of Christ’, who always invites us to perceive the new possibilities, to courageously take risks and experience the Paschal mystery, as a seed dies to enter a new life.

Methodologically, the process is led by spiritual conversation characterized by active listening, intentional speaking and sharing in three rounds, while being in touch with interior movements. In other words, during the process we do not ask what we can do or what we are capable of realizing, but what God wants from us, say, in 5 years from now, as we believe that the Lord of history is inviting us to be on a different plane in the near future and not to be bogged down by the past successes or our woundedness.

Comparatively, the sacred and secular process of planning might look similar. But the fundamental difference is in prayer and ‘listening to the Spirit’, as Sosa puts it. We can’t plan unless we are praying and listening to the Spirit.

Fr. General Sosa seems in favour of adapting this type of planning process in the life-mission of the Society of Jesus, but rooted in the Ignatian resources.

Let me quote a few texts from Fr. General’s writings which highlight his style of governance that combines the sacred and the secular or communal discernment and apostolic planning. Fr. Sosa does not use terms like ‘sacred’ and ‘secular.’ In his letter on ‘Discernment in Common’, 2017, Fr. Sosa said, “The conviction that God is acting in history and is constantly communicating with human beings is the assumption on which our efforts to discern in common are based. For this reason, we should seek out those conditions that allow us to hear the Holy Spirit and be guided by him in our life-mission… Apostolic planning is a time to let go of many old ways of being.”

In 2021, on becoming better at apostolic planning Fr. General said, “Discernment and Apostolic Planning go hand in hand. We are starting a whole process of planning here in the General Curia and as we begin we want to ensure that we see the big picture and the road ahead – a road where the role played by the Spirit is vital.”

The ‘cannonball moment’ was the foundational experience of Ignatius. The conflict was between the plans Ignatius had for himself and God’s plan for Ignatius. Finally, God took possession of him and Ignatius could understand, probably against his will, what God wanted of him. It is this ‘big picture’ or ‘the call of Christ’ that led him to found the Society of Jesus to serve the Church under the Roman Pontiff. Fr. Sosa well captures this process in his letter on Convocation of the 71st Congregation of Procurators. He wrote, “The cannonball of Pamplona shattered not only Ignatius’ leg, but also his dreams, and all that he imagined his life might be. Yet out of this moment of confusion and suffering, the Lord invited Ignatius to imagine a new future, and a bigger dream, one closer to Him and filled with hope.”

Let us look at the process of preparation of apostolic preferences. It was a bottom up approach. The members of the entire Society of Jesus were asked to get involved. Probably, for the first time such a massive exercise was undertaken. Probably Jesuits must have begun this exercise with optimism as well as skepticism. Assistance was provided on how to engage in apostolic planning. The pressure to complete the exercise was palpable, as the provinces were asked to send the plan document to Rome. When apostolic plan documents of some provinces were sent back by Rome for lack of clarity, the provinces intensified the process of learning apostolic planning tools.

In his letter on ‘Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAPs) of the Society Jesus’, Fr. Sosa wrote, “During the next ten years, UAPs will guide us in incarnating the mission of reconciliation and justice in all the apostolic services to which we, along with others, have been sent… With these apostolic preferences, we resolve to concentrate and concretise our vital apostolic energies during the next 10 years, 2019-2029.” In other words, the mission of reconciliation and justice is well articulated as the big picture for the members of the Society of Jesus and their collaborators. The UAPs, Conference Apostolic Preferences (CAPs) and Province Apostolic Plans (PAPs) are roadmaps. Our faithfulness to the charism of the Society of Jesus will be measured, in measurable terms, quantitatively and qualitatively, in 2029. For me, personally, the culture of grounding our life-mission in communal discernment and apostolic planning is the unique feature of Fr. Arturo Sosa’s style of governance. Adherence to this process will bring rich fruits to the Society of Jesus, the Church and the people they serve.

Joe Xavier A., SJ, currently serves as Director of Indian Social Institute, Bengaluru, India. He holds a Master’s in Human Rights and Ph.D in Human Rights and Criminology. One of the founders of Lok Manch, which works on People’s access to entitlements, he recently developed modelling on Migrant Assistance and Information Network. He conducts workshops on research methodology, apostolic planning and organisational development process. He has published about 10 books. He was a close associate of Fr. Stan Swamy for the past 20 years and accompanied him in the last two years of his life.