The Society of Jesus, whose members are called Jesuits, one of the largest and most powerful Catholic orders, is holding a meeting in Rome at which it is to elect a new superior general to head its 19,000 members - writes Luigi Sandri from Rome.
The current superior general, the 79-year-old Rev Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, a Dutch-born priest, who has served in Lebanon and the Middle East, is to step down, but he attended an opening Mass for the 226 delegates at the Jesuit's Church of Gesu near the Vatican.
Vatican Cardinal Franc Rode, who led the opening Mass, thanked Kolvenbach for his leadership, and urged the Jesuits to elect a successor who would help the Society of Jesus to remain united and devoted to the church, its members and its hierarchy.
"Consecration in service to Christ cannot be separated from consecration in service to the church," said Cardinal Rode, who is the prefect of the Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, and who is not a Jesuit.
"With sadness and anxiety I also see a growing distancing from the hierarchy," among the world's Jesuits, Cardinal Rode said, Catholic World News reported.
It noted that the cardinal challenged the order's leaders to embrace what was started by its Spanish founder St. Ignatius of Loyola, who, CWN said, had insisted on loyalty to the church and the Roman pontiff. Pope John Paul II, who died in 2005, was at odds with some Jesuits and said the order had become too independent, with a leftwing political agenda, particularly in Latin America. A number of theologians disciplined by the Vatican in recent years have been Jesuits.
The all-male order currently has just over 19,200 members in 112 countries, a much trimmed group from the 36,000 who were Jesuits in the early 1960s. The order's Latin motto is "ad majorem Dei gloriam" which means "to the greater honour and glory of God".
"Love for the church in every sense of the word - be it the church as the people of God or the hierarchical church - is not a human sentiment, which comes and goes," depending on who its leaders and members are at any given moment, Cardinal Rode said.
The cardinal also encouraged Jesuits to strengthen their work by working against a separation between faith and culture and said this could be done by prayer and education, for which the order has been renowned, through its work in founding well-known institutions all over the world.
The society's General Congregation has elected a new secretary, the Rev Luis Orlando Torres, a Puerto Rican. The Rev. Ignacio Echarte, a priest from Spain's Loyola Province, who oversees the international Jesuit communities in Rome, was elected assistant secretary. The superior general is expected to be chosen around 19 January 2008.
The order has a strict rule that no Jesuit can be seen aspiring to become the next superior general, who is elected in a secret ballot.
[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]