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Jesuits elect non-European leader for first time

The 36th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus has elected Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, of the Venezuelan Province, as Superior General. Father Arturo Sosa was born in Caracas, Venezuela, on November 12, 1948. He has a Ph.D in Political Science from the Universidad Central de Venezuela. Father Sosa speaks Spanish, Italian, and English, and he understands French. Fr Sosa works in the area of Faith and Justice at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome.

Fr Arturo, who was Venezuelan Provincial from 1996 to 2004, was generally critical of the Hugo Chávez regime. Speaking in 2003, he commented: “The great historical weakness of the Chaváz government is the enormous distance between its words and its deeds. One can have affinity with what Chávez says, but the distance between that which is said, is done, and how it is done, is very great.”

In 1996 he was one of eighteen Jesuit leaders in Latin America (he was Venezuelan Provincial at the time) who issued a letter denouncing the increase in levels of poverty and the tendency towards individualism in the region. The letter followed from an extraordinary meeting of Latin American Jesuits in Mexico, in which former Superior General Peter-Hans Kolvenbach participated.

Before taking up his role as Provincial he was coordinator of the social apostolate in that country and Director of Centro Gumilla, a centre of research and social action of the Jesuits in Venezuela.

He wrote a number of books about the history and politics of his country, researching and teaching at third level in the area of political science.  He was a member of the Foundation Council of the Catholic University Andrés Bello and for 10 years he was the Rector of the Catholic University in Táchira.

According to Irish Jesuit Michael O’Sullivan SJ, who worked in Latin America for a number of year: “The choosing of a  Latin America leader at this time is in keeping with the fact that the current Pope is a Jesuit from Latin America and has a strong commitment to a faith-based social justice stance, which includes a concern and care for the earth.”

Fr Michael O’Sullivan says this appointment underlines the Jesuit commitment to faith and justice which came to the fore a number of years ago at the thirty-second General Congregation in Rome in 1974-75. “At that time, the Jesuits in Latin America were very instrumental in developing this mission of faith-based solidarity with the poor. The second Vatican Council’s stance on the church and the modern world influenced the Latin American Catholic bishops and theologians. They went to develop a theology of a preferential option for the poor. Many Jesuits were part of this mission and gave their lives for it, including the six Jesuits murdered in El Salvador, along with their housekeeper and her daughter”.

The role of Fr General in the Jesuits is a prestigious one and the holder is sometimes jokingly referred to as ‘the black pope’. Though the position is normally for life, the three most recent incumbents have resigned. On Monday 8 October 2016 Fr Adolfo Nicolás resigned at the age of 80 and after eight years in office. On Monday 14 January  2008, Fr Peter-Hans Kolvenbach  formally submitted his resignation, with the approval of the Pope, after almost 25 years in office. And in 1983 Fr Pedro Arrupe stood down because of ill health.