Sharing the Experience of the Congregation
David Schultenover, S.J.
January 19, 2008

The Election

Fr. Don Doll, S.J. took the photos
in this reflection.

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Dave Schultenover, S.J. is a delegate to the Congregation from the Wisconsin Province, in the US Assistancy.

He is a Consultor to the Provincial of the Wisconsin Province and a professor of historical theology at Marquette University.

He is the editor in chief of THEOLOGICAL STUDIES, A Jesuit Sponsored Journal of Theology.


The election of the general of the Society of Jesus is preceded by four days of “murmuring,” a process of one-on-one conversation about potential candidates for the office. Those who have never been involved in such a process can be expected to think it completely arcane. It is as low-tech as can be. But it’s the process that has been used for electing a general from the beginning. The process is described by Ignatius in the Constitutions: During the murmuratio, the electors “will seek to be informed by those capable of supplying good information, but make no decision until they have entered and been locked into the place of the election. . . . After all together have recited the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus, they should be locked inside the place of the congregation . . . in such a manner that they may not leave nor be given any food except bread and water until they have elected a general” (nos. 694, 698).

The two or three of us who had experienced previous elections of generals exhorted us to trust in the Holy Spirit and to trust the process. They insisted on that: trust the process! The rest of us went into it blind, trying blindly to trust—like going on one of those 1960s trust walks where you’re blindfolded and someone leads you around by the hand. “It works,” they said. All of us 217 electors spent four days of this—within an edifying atmosphere of prayer and recollection, making appointments with as many men as we could stand in a given day, trying to see those who would best know possible candidates and learn why this or that one would make a good general, or not. I suspect that most of us went through periods of light and shadows, clarity and confusion, until gradually we had settled peacefully individually and collectively on a small number of candidates, so that when the first ballots were counted, it became quite clear where the Holy Spirit was leading us in our choice.

Today, election day, I awoke well before dawn and looked out my window. I saw tiny bright lights against a black sky. The day would be clear as predicted. A good omen, I thought. At 8:00 AM all us electors, vested in albs and stoles, made our way across the street from the curia to the Church of the Holy Spirit—a church connected to the Hospital of the Holy Spirit which has medieval foundations and where Ignatius and some of his early companions ministered to the sick and homeless. The celebrant for the Mass of the Holy Spirit was Frank Case of the Oregon Province and Secretary of the Society of Jesus. It was again a beautifully planned Mass, and Frank delivered a superb homily, the text of which I hope will find its way onto this site. The end of the Mass, when all of us filed out of the church two by two chanting the Veni Creator Spiritus was especially solemn and moving: we were heading to the aula where we would begin the voting process for the new general of the Society of Jesus. . .

Why Adolfo Nicholás as the new general? At age 71 (72 in April), I can imagine that the rest of the world is saying to us electors, “What were you thinking?! You couldn’t find a younger man?!” Well, God alone knows the real reason. Of course, age is a factor. But there are many other factors too, factors that apparently outweigh the age factor. The first time I met Adolfo, the day he arrived, I was instantly impressed with his youthful spirit, which belied his age, and his integrity. He was clearly a man at home with himself and of good humor. In fact, I told him, kiddingly, that he was a marked man—kidding, because I figured that for all his personal gifts, experience, record of accomplishments, and reputation, he would be a dark horse simply because of his age. But apparently most of us—and eventually all of us, I hope—concluded that this was in fact the man God was calling to be general of the Society of Jesus. John XXIII was elected pope at age 76, and Benedict XVI at 78, so why not Adolfo Nicholás at 71? What I find especially attractive about him is that he is a professional theologian who has very broad and deep experience of a part of the world—the Far East—that is becoming increasingly important as world-hegemonies shift. He will bring that perspective to the Society of Jesus and to the church it serves. The Basque Pedro Arrupe came to us as general from Japan in 1965. Forty-three years later, the northern Spaniard Adolfo Nicholás also comes to us from Japan. I trust he’ll be the proverbial wise man from the East.

David G. Schultenover, S.J.
Residenza San Pietro Canisio
Via dei Penitenzieri 20 – 1
00193 Rome

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