VATICAN CITY -- The independent-minded Jesuits, the largest and most influential order of Roman Catholic priests, opened a worldwide congress yesterday under a papal injunction to "totally and without reservation [be] of the church, in the church and for the church."
Addressing 223 delegates to the 34th congregation of the activist Society of Jesus, Pope John Paul II lauded the Jesuits for their global contribution to learning and education. But, ever stern in defense of church dogma, the pope cautioned against straying from the Catholic mainstream.
"We must be very attentive lest the faithful be confused by questionable teachings, by publications or speeches clearly at variance with the church's teachings on faith and morals," the doctrinally conservative pope told leaders of an order with whom he has crossed swords in the past.
Founded by the Spaniard St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1540, the Jesuits are the church's most rigorously educated priests and are noted for their scholarship. There are 185 Jesuit colleges and universities around the world, 28 of them in the United States. In Rome, the Jesuits run Vatican Radio and provide the multinational faculty for three pontifical universities.
Praising the Jesuits for "collaborating in every part of the church's life," Pope John Paul admonished the 23,179-member order to overcome "every temptation of provincialism, regionalism or isolationism."
Disturbed by what he considered too much independence in Jesuit theological and social thinking, Pope John Paul curbed the Jesuits in 1981, when the order pressed for a stronger church voice in defense of human rights and the poor in the Third World.
Jesuits elect their own superior-general, but the pope named a caretaker to succeed the ailing Rev. Pedro Arrupe until the 1983 election of the Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach as the order's new leader.
Historically, the Jesuits' chief has been so influential that he is nicknamed "the black pope," but under the conciliatory Father Kolvenbach, a peacemaking moderate, the order has steadily improved relations with the pope, to whom Jesuits swear a special vow of loyalty.
"The tone of the speech was positive; it marked a definite warming. Many delegates saw it as a sign we are back on good terms with the Holy See," said the Rev. Thomas Lucas, a congregation spokesman.
Father Kolvenbach called the congress, the first since 1983, to update the order's legal structure, and to consider a response to papal calls for new evangelization on the eve of Christianity's third millennium.
At the three-month congregation, delegates chosen from Jesuit communities around the world will also weigh the cloudy future of a thinly spread order whose membership is declining by about 1 percent a year.