Interview with Fr Vernon D’Cunha, SJ | Assistant ad Providentiam

Fr. Vernon D’Cunha, SJ, comes from the Province of Bombay (BOM). He was born in Mumbai, India, in 1956. He entered the Society on 30 July 1977 and made his final vows on 8 December 1994. A former Provincial of Bombay Province and a Novice Master, he was elected one of the four Assistants ad Providentiam at the last General Congregation.

Fr Vernon, thanks for this interview. You are one of the four Assistants ad Providentiam, who were elected by and at the last General Congregation, right?

Yes, it is the General Congregation that elects the Assistants ad Providentiam. The number is fixed at four. The delegates at the GC elect these four from among the professed of four vows. They are to be from different Assistancies, keeping in mind the General Counsellors appointed by the General, but with the freedom of the congregation remaining intact to choose other persons. (NC 364 § 1).

What do these four AaPs do?

By a decision of GC 34 d. 23 E 1 no.2, they are also General Counsellors of Fr. General (NC 364 § 3). The Assistants ad Providentiam are required to meet every three months to consider among themselves and give feedback about where we see things going well and offer suggestions for improvement. If needed, we can meet more frequently. While the Complementary Norms say that the Assistant who has been professed for the longest time should convoke these meetings, we have, for the sake of convenience, placed this mantle on the Admonitor of Fr. General, who is also an Assistant ad Providentiam. (NC 365)

If the majority of the Assistants ad Providentiam, out of love for the Society and their knowledge of it, judge that the Superior General, for a grave reason, ought to resign his office, they should advise him of this through the Admonitor (NC 366 § 1). So we, as Assistants ad Providentiam, meet at least four times a year – on an average about once in three months. We share among ourselves what we have observed and what we have heard from others about the functioning of Fr. General. On a couple of occasions, we have interviewed the Presidents of Conferences and members of Fr. General’s Council so as to gather information about the functioning of Fr. General from the wider Society.

This has certainly been helpful. After each meeting, a summary of the points that we all agree upon, or at least a majority of us agree upon, is communicated to Fr. General orally and in writing by the Admonitor. We communicate also what we are happy about in the functioning of Fr. General and things that he could be mindful of, especially in the area of his personal health.

How is Fr. General’s health?

So far, Fr. General has kept good health and has been performing well as Superior General. Hence, there has been no cause for concern or need for extra meetings on our part. In fact, it is amazing and inspiring to see the amount of work he manages to do and see how much he cares for the mission and the life of the Society.

You communicate with Fr General through the Admonitor. The administrative genius of St. Ignatius is seen in this unique position he invented – the Admonitor. But probably the Admonitor does what he is supposed to do only here – at the General Curia. How many Provincials, and how many Rectors and superiors, in your view, would respect the role of the Admonitor and let him do his duty? In most places their role is sadly restricted to being mentioned as the Admonitor in the province catalogue, isn’t it?

Well, every Socius of a Major Superior is ex-officio, admonitor of the Major Superior, unless otherwise specified or unless another Jesuit has been appointed by Fr. General for the purpose. For those who would like information on this, they could refer to the Manual for Juridical Practice of the Society of Jesus: no. 272 of this document talks about who designates an admonitor and no. 276 explains his role and responsibilities.

An admonitor, and this is one of the genial facts of our governance, is always appointed by a higher superior. Hence the admonitor of Fr. General is elected by the General Congregation. So, while every Major Superior without fail has, theoretically, an admonitor, not many of such admonitors, at least in South Asia, perform this role as expected. The reasons are understandable: firstly, it is not pleasant to do so especially because a Socius has to work very closely with a Major Superior. Secondly, there could be ignorance about what, when and how to function as an admonitor.

Every local superior is also required to have an admonitor, who functions along similar lines as mentioned in number 276 above. However, most often they are not designated by the Major Superior concerned, or if they are, due to difficulty or ignorance of how to function, they do not fulfill their responsibility as desired by the Society.

However, some do it and do it well. It is an important part of Our Way of Proceeding and our governance structure.

Do you accompany Fr General during his visits to provinces?

Sometimes. If one of the Assistants ad Providentiam accompanies Fr General, then this Assistant would normally make sure that Fr. General is not stressed out or over-stretched because of too many demands made on him by well-meaning Jesuits and Catholics.

Don’t some people refer to these four as Assistant Generals?

Yes, in some parts of the Society, Jesuits mistakenly introduce us as “Assistant General”. Firstly, this is not true. Secondly, there is no such thing as “Assistant General”. The Assistants ad Providentiam are also General Counsellors and, in the current scenario, Regional Assistants as well. So personally, I am one of the two Regional Assistants for South Asia, a General Counsellor and an Assistant ad Providentiam.

But why should we call them by this strange name which has one English word and two Latin words? Can’t we find a good, helpful English equivalent? Can’t we give to a group of English scholars this task of finding English equivalents to the Latin terms we still cling to – terms that sound incomprehensible to others, even to some Jesuits? ‘Socius’ is another such term.

Well, every group of people and every profession has their “jargon” which is natural and which members of that group or professions are supposed to understand. We are normally introduced to these terms from the novitiate itself and these get repeated over the years. However, this does not preclude from having helping English equivalents. For example, if you look at the English translation of the Manual for Juridical Practice of the Society, the term used there is, “Assistants for provident care” or “General Assistant for provident care” (see alphabetical index of this manual and no. 304, §3, 3° of the same).

The term “socius” is again part of our Jesuit jargon. A socius is much more than an “assistant” or an “executive assistant”. A socius is meant to be an assistant, an executive assistant, a friend and a companion, the hand and the memory of a Major Superior and more….all in one! It is difficult to find a term that would encompass all these in English, although some provinces, especially in the west, have tried to do so.

What is the meaning of this term – ‘Assistants ad Providentiam’? Is this how they were always called?

The term “assistants ad providentiam” signifies that these persons are specially charged with the responsibility of caring for the person and performance of Fr. General. While every Jesuit is expected to take care of Fr. General wherever he is, these four are charged specifically with this mission.

If one looks at the Constitutions (the translation of George E. Ganss, the term used is “assistants”, the Society should depute four assistants (Const. 779). The original in Spanish also uses the same term, “assistentes”. I suppose with the passage of time, and with more assistants gradually being added to Fr. General’s Council, the term became more precise since the others had this word as part of their designation e.g. “Regional Assistant”.

Apart from the duties you have talked about, can you be given other duties?

Occasionally, yes! For example, Fr. General constituted a search committee with the four of us in the run up to the appointment of a new General Treasurer. In addition, all the Acts of the Province Congregations had to be ultimately approved by the four Assistants ad Providentiam. All the correspondence that comes from the Holy See to Fr. General is passed on to the four of us.

Does an Assistant ad Providentiam have a term?

First of all, Fr. General is emphatic about the fact that no responsibility in the Society has a term. For a Provincial, the Constitutions (no. 757) suggest a period of 3 years, which can be lengthened or shortened. Normally, since an Assistant ad Providentiam is elected by a General Congregation, they hold office from one GC to another. However, if there are serious reasons, they can ask to be relieved from the office or they can be asked to resign. But the process is a bit laborious.

Tell us about your experience as an Assistant ad Providentiam, a General Counsellor and a Regional Assistant.

I have found the job a responsibility as well as a privilege. It is a responsibility to care for the person and well-being of Fr. General. It has been a privilege and an opportunity to help Fr. General in his governance. It has also been a service and a responsibility to the entire Society. I am happy to be able to render this assistance and service.

As Assistants ad Providentiam, it is neither our duty nor our responsibility to evaluate neither the works nor or the provinces and regions of the worldwide Society. This would be part of the job description of a General Counsellor and a Regional Assistant.

I have found my job as Regional Assistant very fulfilling and rewarding. It has been an opportunity to give helpful guidance to all those who seek it, especially Major Superiors. It is impossible for Fr. General to know every Province/Region and every issue that comes to his table from the Assistancies. In this, he relies on the Regional Assistants for information and suggestions regarding solutions or actions that could be taken. It is in this connection that my visits to the provinces and regions that come under me assume great importance. During these visits, I meet a number of Jesuits, in fact anyone who would like to meet me. I try to visit as many communities and works that time and distances allow.

Normally, a Regional Assistant is required to make a visit to a province/region in the run up to the appointment of a new Major Superior. After a Major Superior completes three years in office, the Regional Assistant, depending on the need, may make a visit. However, whether he makes a visit or not, Fr. General would like the performance of a Major Superior to be evaluated after 3 years in office so as to provide the Major Superior with feedback and help for the years that remain.

I must say, I have enjoyed every visit I have made to the provinces and regions I work with. It is a joy to meet and see the hard and committed work being done by Jesuits, often in difficult and challenging situations. The lifestyle of most communities and the commitment to the poor and disadvantaged are a source of much inspiration for me.

Meeting individual Jesuits is another source of great consolation. It is a privilege, a joy and a humbling experience to encounter so many Jesuits at a personal level. I often meet with communities or groups of Jesuits during these visits and this gives me an opportunity to share about major happenings in the Roman Curia, the major plans and concerns of Fr. General, important happenings in different parts of the Society etc.

These visits also offer me possibilities of meeting and thanking our partners in mission – like religious congregations, lay partners and partners of other faiths. Meetings with these partners in mission and with the local hierarchy help to get feedback about how we Jesuits come across to them and how we can improve our service.

Thank you, Fr Vernon, for your service to the Society, Fr General, and our Region. Thank you for finding the time for this interview in the midst of your many responsibilities.