Despite being one of the world’s most Catholic countries, the number of Jesuit vocations in the Philippines is on the decline - and it’s something that’s happening across the entire Asia Pacific region.
But according to Fr Antonio Moreno, the Prior Provincial in the Philippines, the order must worry less about numbers but more on strategy: he wants a set of clear priorities focussed on the “needs of the times” to come out of the General Congregation gathering in Rome this month.
And he believes these need to define a mission that looks beyond Pope Francis, who turns 80 next year, admitting that some in the order fear a backlash against the Jesuits after Francis - whose opponents are numerous - has gone.
Speaking to The Tablet in the Jesuit’s headquarters on the Borgo Santo Spirito, Fr Moreno explained he is now in charge of 261 Jesuits - with a third aged over 70 - with this figure down from a peak of 443 around 30 years ago.
The decline, he explained, is across all of the countries in Asia Pacific with only Vietnam seeing an increase. Fr Moreno says the downturn is due to changes in family life, new job opportunities for young people thanks to economic growth and says the past growth in the Philippines was partly due to the persecution of the church is under the Marcos regime.
The 55-year-old, who has a PhD in Development Studies from Swansea University, says while the decline is a concern, the numbers cannot make up for a strong sense of mission.
“As Fr Adolfo Nicolas [outgoing Jesuit General Superior] once said ‘you can increase by a thousand but if we are not clear about our priorities you will always be overloaded’,” Fr Moreno explained.
The Society of Jesus, he said, need to follow the example of the most famous member of their order - Pope Francis - and discover new places to evangelise, which includes cyberspace in order to reach those who have “gone virtual”.
Fr Moreno, who is a member of the General Congregation co-ordinating committee, explained: “We have to ask ourselves: are we in the peripheries? Are we in the frontiers?”
He is particularly worried by the growth of extremism and political violence across the world, including in his own country which, following the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, has seen a brutal crackdown on crime with thousands of extra-judicial killings.
“Right now we are still a divided nation,” he said.
For their part, the Filipino Jesuits, whose major work is in university education, are working on efforts to bring about dialogue and peace.
Fr Moreno used to run the Ateneo de Zamboanga a Jesuit university in the south western part of the Philippines which specialises in trying to mediate between armed groups - a number of them Islamic extremists - in the surrounding areas.
He explained the university offered Islamic theology courses to Muslim students while trying to engage in meaningful dialogue and reconciliation work where it could.
It is the kind of work that this Pope would approve, but for Fr Moreno the Jesuits need to take ownership of Francis’ message for themselves.
“He has given us so many inspiring messages, inspiring homilies and encyclicals,” he said. “But we realise also that he’s not going to stay forever. So what will happen if he’s no longer there? We cannot simply say ‘oh, because Pope Francis inspired us then we go this way’. We should be prepared for all seasons.”
Are the order worried about a “backlash” against the Jesuits after this Pope has gone?
Particularly has he has run up against such opposition internally to his reform drives.
“It’s a possibility but it’s also possible that his inspiration will stay a little bit longer,” he said. “|n the short run maybe that’s the fear of people, but we’ve endured - the holy spirit is there. It may go in cycles.”
Voting for the election of the new Superior General will start on Friday and Fr Moreno says the field for candidates is a wide open. He argues that while there has been a demographic shift among Jesuits to the global south there is no guarantee the candidate will come from the region.
What is crucial for Fr Moreno is less where the new Jesuit leader comes from but more about where he is leading them to.