Beginning on October 3rd the Jesuits held their 36th General Congregation. General congregations are a fundamental governance mechanism of the Society of Jesus where delegates elected from the various Jesuit provinces around the world vote upon decrees that determine key aspects of the mission and procedures of the Order. GC 36 was prompted by the resignation of the previous Father General, Adolfo Nicolás, SJ. As their first order of business the Congregation fathers set about electing a new Father General, or superior, of the entire Order. 

As the largest religious order in the Catholic Church, the Society of Jesus, and its Father General, have considerable impact in the Church and the world. On October 14th Fr. Arturo Sosa, SJ, was elected as the new superior. Like Francis, who is the first pope from Latin America, Sosa, who is a native of Venezuela, is the first Latin American Superior General of the Order. To gain some perspective on this I asked Fr. Eduardo Soto Parra, SJ, also a native of Venezuela, to offer his thoughts on Sosa’s election. He has know Artur Sosa, SJ for a number of years.

This is a two part interview. Part 1, below, provides a broad perspective on the impact of Sosa’s election on the Jesuits and the Church. Part 2 will delve into more detailed questions concerning the intellectual / theological, socio-economic, and political context of the Jesuit mission in Venezuela and Latin America more generally, in order to provide more insight into Fr. Sosa’s outlook and how it might impact the Society of Jesus and the Church.

Please introduce yourself to our readers. Where are you from? How long have been with the Jesuits? What sort of ministry have you been involved with?

My Name is Eduardo Soto Parra, I am from Venezuela (Cabimas, Zulia State). I entered the novitiate in September 1998 (Arturo Sosa was the Provincial who received us in the entrance ceremony). When I entered the Society of Jesus I was a tax lawyer, working in the National Tax Administration. After my vows I did my formation in The University Simon Bolivar (Master in Philosophy) and Theology (Catholic University Andres Bello). I was also missioned with the JRS (Jesuit Refugee Service) on the border between Colombia and Venezuela from 2003-2005, when Arturo was the Rector of the Catholic University of Tachira (only 213 kms away from where I was serving as field advocate for the refugees). Before and after my ordination as a priest, in 2009, I have been living and serving Christian communities in the slums of Caracas and also teaching (Philosophy or Religion, Philosophy of Law, Human Rights, etc) at the Catholic University Andres Bello. Now in Canada, since 2011, I have been doing prison ministry, helping out the mission in Winnipeg, and  living with former offenders from the Federal Penitentiary of Manitoba at 'Quixote House', an experimental community, transitional home for ex-offenders, made of Jesuits and parolees. Also, since 2012 I have been pursuing a PhD in Peace and Conflict Studies (University of Manitoba) and since 2014 I am the Superior of the Jesuits of Winnipeg, as well.

The Society of Jesus is the largest religious order in Catholic Church. Father Arturo Sosa SJ was just elected to be the new Father General, or head of the Jesuits. Rocco Palmo, the author of the popular blog Whispers in the Loggia recently stated, "the Jesuit Father-General is the second most powerful cleric in the universal church" behind the pope. I'm not sure whether that is true but can you tell us about the importance of the General and likewise tell us about Father Sosa? He is the first Latin American General, what does that mean for the Society of Jesus? For the Church?

Due to the hierarchical structure of the Society of Jesus and its presence worldwide, the Father General, maximum authority of our Order, is the "commander" of more or less 17.500 men all over the world. Also, due to the importance and impact of many of our works in many regions of the world, such as the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, Georgetown University in Washington, DC, Jesuit Refugee Service (present in 50 countries), Fe y Alegria (present in 19 countries, and educating more than 1 million young students from popular areas), the decisions taken by Father General can have a great impact upon direct and indirect beneficiaries and collaborators of our works.

To be from Latin America is a sign of the times. It shows that the Church in Latin America is vibrant in ideas, leadership, and creative ways of being integrated with the rest of society. In fact, the theological thinking produced in Latin America has foreseen many of the social problems concerning the faith and linked to justice and equality, which are now a concern on a global scale. Father Sosa, has been deeply involved in the analysis of society and the role of the Church in the midst of socio-political problems. He is a man who is not afraid of the complexity of the world’s problems, all of this combined with a deep humanism and 'networking' personality. This will impact the way in which Jesuits are working around the world and will enhance the collaboration of  sectors and people who traditionally have not been associated with the work of the Church.

In his first homily after the election Fr. Sosa stated, "At the same time, it is necessary to have an extraordinary intellectual depth in order to think creatively about the ways in which our service to the mission of Christ Jesus can be more effective, in the creative tension of the Ignatian magis. To think about ways of deeply understanding the unique moment of human history in which we are living, and to contribute to the search for alternatives for overcoming poverty, inequality, and oppression."

What is the Society of Jesus doing "to contribute to the search for alternatives for overcoming poverty, inequality, and oppression?" Can you tell us about your experiences with JRS and what the Society is doing to address the tragic refugee crisis? Will the election of Fr. Sosa change or sharpen the focus of the Society as it seeks to address this crisis?

Since 1974, under the leadership of Pedro Arrupe, as Father general, the Society of Jesus made an explicit turn to address the situations of oppression and inequality all over the world. I can mention four dimensions: 1) In Education, enhancing the access of people of lower means to Jesuit Education or Jesuit sponsored Education, through movements like Fe y Alegria, in Latin America, Africa and Timor Leste, and the Nativity / Miguel School systems in North America (Canada and the US). Also, by directing our Education toward a more just and hospitable world, with programs in our schools that ensure the connection between faith and justice and the importance of inter-religious dialogue and social aware leadership in our alumni. 2)  Direct attention to specific problems, by addressing the situation of HIV patients and their family, by building the African Jesuit AIDS Network (AJAN), or the Refugees and Migrants in the work of the Jesuit Refugee Service and the Jesuit Migrant Service. 3) In the Intellectual Apostolate, in which Jesuits and non Jesuits are encouraged to spend long hours of analysis, study and research about the socio-political, cultural and religious problems of the world in our Universities and Research/ Publication Centres. 4) Through our qualified participation within the structure of the Catholic Church in the Jesuit parishes, in which social justice and direct assistance to the needy, migrants and refugees is always present.

In my experience, I admire the way in which our work in the JRS has expanded, maintaining its quality and the mission of the Society of Jesus.  We are not social workers, we are men of Faith which work along with the Spirit to build a world free of oppression through means of respect and mutual understanding. This task cannot be done in isolation. In the case of my work in the Venezuelan/Colombian Border, we work along organizations within and outside the Catholic Church, ACNUR and agencies for foreign countries, without fearing the differences, but seeing them as an opportunity to enrich the accompaniment, service and 'defence' of the refugees and other vulnerable people. We did that mission from the parish, but not limited to parishioners but to all men and women of good will who wanted a Border free of injustices for the refugees and migrants who were seeking peace in our communities.

Father Sosa was very close to this process and he encouraged us to pursue it, caring for us and for others. He is a leader for our times. He is a visionary but also a man of action, who spends long hours reading, writing and connecting with people every day. His style will impact many, from every stream of society, who want to join us in the mission that we have received.

Your comments above ("This will impact the way in which Jesuits are working around the world and will enhance the collaboration of  sectors and people who traditionally have not been associated with the work of the Church.") recall Benedict XVI's words to the Fathers of General Congregation 35 (in 2008). He said, "The Church thus urgently needs people with a deep and sound faith, a well-grounded culture and genuine human and social sensitivity, of Religious and priests who dedicate their lives to being on these very frontiers to bear witness and to help people understand that on the contrary there is profound harmony between faith and reason, between the Gospel spirit, the thirst for justice and initiatives for peace."

In some way Pope Francis has pushed the entire Church toward the "frontiers" asking us to step outside of our familiar routines. In the light of Francis's pastoral priorities, what is the role of the Society of Jesus in the Church and the world today? How important is it that both the pope and the "black pope" are Jesuits from Latin America?

How has Ignatian Spirituality shaped Fr. Sosa? What is the relevance of Ignatius and the Spiritual Exercises to today's Church and the world?

I think that the role of Arturo, in line with the role of Pope Francis will be to de-center the Church and the Society of Jesus. This is a movement that was started many years ago, but now is more urgent. A Church that is not defined by its institutions, works or buildings but as a way to establish and maintain relationships. Relationship in "Jesus Christ's mode": fully respectful of others, caring and willing to give life. Everybody is welcome to join this. It is not a privilege of some fortunate few. Only Faith makes this possible. That's why this proposal can only come from men of Faith such as Pope Francis and Arturo Sosa. Likewise, only people with Faith will understand the changes that may be proposed.   

In this sense, Arturo Sosa, and Pope Francis, are men of fine discernment, and this is a product of Ignatian Spirituality, which has been for both of them their "only" Spirituality. They identify and obtain good from where many can't see anything good and they warn about evil from places and dynamics when normally many people see good. With his brilliant intellect enlightened by his deep and very down-to-earth faith, Father Arturo will guide the Jesuits and all those who want to be part of our mission in the constructions of bridges for dialogue, communities of care and solidarity, and spaces of growth in which a better world not only will be possible but lived, always in the direction of and with 'creative' respect for the best of the Tradition of the Church and the Society of Jesus.

Please give us your closing thoughts.

This touches me very close. Many people don't understand why I am not living with the rest of the Jesuits and working in the parish and instead I am living with guys who have been incarcerated. Only a person of faith can see how my relationship as a housemate with them may open up possibilities for me and for them, which are impossible if we keep the traditional way in which this kind of accompaniment has been given, even with the best of intentions. The Periphery becomes the new center, not for an act of the will or by force, but by faith. A faith that believes in the potential of every people and wants to respectfully embrace all.

Thank for Fr. Eduardo for your time and God's blessing on your future work. We look forward to hearing from you again soon.