Discerning the Discernment of the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP)of the Society of Jesus – Vincent Perepppadan, SJ

Promulgating the Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP), Arturo Sosa, the present Superior General of the Society of Jesus, said the following words: “For the last sixteen months the Society of Jesus has been following a process of discernment as to better meet the new needs of our mission at the present time” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019). This process had been “to guide the apostolic effort of the Society of Jesus [for] the ten coming years” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019). Following is a succinct summary of the four apostolic preferences that signal a call for transformative change in the organizational mission and priorities of the Society of Jesus as presented in the website (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019).

1. Discernment and the “Spiritual Exercises.” This represents the legacy and the spiritual tradition that the Jesuits preserve, as handed down by Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus, for discernment in life. In the present age, this Apostolic Preference seeks to help people to find God and to accompany them in discerning complex choices of life; to give the world a spiritual orientation that leads humanity to its creator, which is a deeper alternative to secularism.

2. Walking with the excluded. In a world that casts out the poor, and violates human dignity, the Jesuits profess a preferential commitment to the mission of reconciliation and justice by engaging their social centers and universities with others to address the world’s economic and social problems. It is also a commitment of education for reconciliation, solidarity, and healing the world. It also includes promoting healthy and safe environment for children and young people against all abuses.

3. Caring for our common home. Recognizing how the environmental crisis impacts particularly the poor and the vulnerable, Jesuit institutions of higher education commit to engage in ecological conversion; social centers engage in studying and propagating environmental concerns; schools pass the message of caring for environment; and all other Jesuit activities in parishes and elsewhere promote the values of ecological conversion.

4. Journeying with youth. Identifying the predicament of youth in “the uncertainty of relationship in a digital era, diminishing opportunities for work, the growth of political violence, discrimination, degradation of the environment” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019), Jesuits want to open their houses of apostolic work for youth creativity, which reveals God’s presence in their lives.

Concluding the promulgation of the Universal Apostolic Preferences, Arturo Sosa states: “It’s time to change the course of history. We accept the invitation to be actors of this change by living out these preferences in our life and mission” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019).

Discerning the Discernment
Every organization across the world is undergoing significant changes for survival (Farazmand, 1999; Rainey, 2009). According to Rainey (2009), “[a] sprawling literature addresses organizational change and innovation, with much of it focused on how to change the organizations for better” (p. 383). Observing the compulsive antecedents that necessitate organizational changes, Farazmand (1999) adds that “[t]hese changes include structural adjustments, organizational reconfiguration, and process improvements to maximize rationality and bottom-line concepts” (p. 321). Marshall Jones (2007) argues that an organizational change in nonprofit and voluntary organizations also could represent a mission drift, even when the shift is not toward a for-profit arena.

Promulgation of the four Universal Apostolic Preferences (UAP) “the fruit of a process of discernment lasting almost two years” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019) is an organizational attempt to make the Society relevant in the contemporary history. As the introduction in the website announces, the Universal Apostolic Preferences “give a horizon, a point of reference to the whole Society of Jesus. They capture our imagination and awaken our desires. They unite us in our mission” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019). It is projected that the four areas identified by the organization are vitally important for the world today. And for the Society of Jesus, the UAP collectively is a project for next ten years to pay special attention.

In the context of applying organizational theories to situations that the organizations confront, it becomes significant to ask how the Society of Jesus discerned for two years to formulate these Preferences in a universal context of the mission. It is important to check if the process had taken into consideration the geographical and cultural diversities and needs of mission and how such differences have been accommodated in the UAP. In the theoretical framework of organizations, these two years of discernment represent a process of organizational sensemaking (Weick, Sutcliffe, & Obstfeld, 2005). Therefore, the question that seeks explanation is the extent of participation and involvement of the global stakeholders in the organizational sensemaking. In other words, a critical question surfaces is, whether the organizational sensemaking behind the formulation of the UAP has been a process of discernment of an influential coalition in the Society. From the organizational theoretical frame, another question which gathers significance is about the organizational change. By paying “special attention to them (proposed four areas of the UAP) in the next ten years” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019), what would be the extent of change that the organization achieves? Would the change represent a mere adjustment, or an isolated change, or a far-reaching change with less organizational impact, or a transformational change (Eckel, Hill, & Green, 1998) in the Society of Jesus? The website announcing the UAP further states, “[w]e invite you to learn more and take action with us!” (“Universal Apostolic Preferences,” 2019). This invitation involves the perceived nature of implementing the program of the UAP. It envisages a collaborative effort, involving, along with the Jesuits, the mission partners and the beneficiaries of the services of the Society of Jesus. However, this brings forth another question in the context of organizational theories on stakeholder relationship management (Friedman & Miles, 2006). What would be the extent of the involvement of the stakeholders? Would they be mere spectators or partners in the decision-making process both in the process of formulation and implementation of the UAP?

A process of constant critical self-examination has been integral to the tradition of the Society of Jesus, an organization that has survived well over four centuries. Therefore, posing these questions is a significant attempt along the tradition of the Society.

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