December 9, 2014 — The Jesuits of Puerto Rico have joined a sprawling province in the central and southern U.S. as part of a larger reorganization of the Society of Jesus worldwide.
The 26 mostly native Puerto Rican men joined the U.S. Jesuits’ Central and Southern Province, headquartered in St. Louis, on December 3, a move prompted by calls six years ago for Jesuits around the globe to look for ways to serve more effectively. In 2011, Puerto Rico’s Jesuits were asked to rethink their future in light of their smaller numbers.
The province that Puerto Rico’s Jesuits are joining is itself a recent product of such streamlining. The Central and Southern Province (USC), begun last July, joined together what had been the former Missouri and New Orleans Provinces and consists of about 400 men. It stretches from the Atlantic Ocean to the Rocky Mountains and from Missouri to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond to the Central American nation of Belize. Now, the province also includes the island of Puerto Rico.
The Jesuit presence in Puerto Rico dates back to the 16th century, when the future martyrs Charles Spinola and Jerome de Angelis stopped at the island as they traveled to Japan. The first Jesuit community on the island was established in the mid-19th century. After a respite of several decades, the Jesuits returned in the 1940s, as part of a grouping of Jesuits in the Caribbean. In 1959, Puerto Rico joined the New York Province, before becoming an independent region of the Society in 1987, which it has remained until now.
Puerto Rico Jesuits serve in a variety of ministries, including two parishes; a grade school, high school, four universities and the diocesan seminary; two Newman Centers; a youth service program in Latin America; the Spiritual Exercises; a religious anthropology museum; marriage renewal; radio programming; and Christian Life Communities.
As they discerned their apostolic future, Jesuits in Puerto Rico noted major shifts in the island, from a worsening economy driving emigration to the U.S. South to increasing poverty, economic inequality and a growing disconnect between the official church and the lives of people, spurring a rise in the number of Evangelicals and Pentecostals. In the face of this, though, they also perceived signs of hope among young people, notably a deep concern for justice, a desire for "transcendence" and a growing ecological consciousness. They felt moved to respond with a renewed way of proceeding, in terms of a closer relationship with Christ, a broadening of apostolic horizons and an engagement in strategic collaboration with Jesuits of the U.S. and the Caribbean.
They considered a range of options, from creating a broader Caribbean province to allying with Spain, Chile or the U.S. Some Jesuits in Puerto Rico expressed fears of losing the region’s distinctive cultural character, their community’s identity in a larger province, and the possibility of ever integrating with others in the Caribbean.
In the end, though, a majority of Jesuits in Puerto Rico affirmed a desire to join with the Central and Southern Province, citing similarities in ministries, parallel apostolic challenges and opportunities, the relationship between the province and Central America as well as its emerging ties with Miami, the familiarity of men in formation in the two regions, and changing migration patterns, among other reasons. They felt that as members of UCS they could respond to Christ’s call with greater generosity and wider opportunities for service in the U.S. and beyond.
A recent wave of Puerto Rican migrants has been leaving the island for the U.S. South, primarily Florida, upending the U.S. territory’s traditional migration patterns to communities in the Northeast since just after World War II, according to the Pew Research Hispanic Trends Project.
The men of the Central and Southern Province, after a process of discussion and discernment, agreed to welcome the Puerto Rico Region, and the leader of Jesuits worldwide, Jesuit Father General Adolfo Nicolás, gave his approval on Nov. 14 to a union of the Region with the Province.
Details of uniting the Puerto Rico Region and one of the nation’s largest U.S. provinces, including the challenge of managing in two languages, are still being worked out. But as Central and Southern Provincial Jesuit Father Ronald Mercier said in a letter announcing the decision, “Knowing the challenges ahead, we all experienced peace in the decision to move forward, a sign of the working of the Spirit.”
Both the Puerto Rico Region and Central and Southern Province are now able to offer the other resources they would not have had otherwise. Uniting with a governance structure that is already in place frees more of the Puerto Rico Jesuits for ministry. The province already has a significant Hispanic ministry. Its Jesuits in El Paso, Texas, for instance, serve Catholics on either side of the border with Mexico. This latest move pushes the province to be even more multi-cultural. “Perhaps,” concludes Jesuit Father Mario Alberto Torres, Regional Superior of Puerto Rico, “if we, Jesuits from the U.S. and Puerto Rico, can discern and work together in a common mission, with a sense of respect and reverence for each other, the union between us will not only be an administrative decision, but will in effect constitute a renewed way of proceeding for all of us.” [Source: Central and Southern Province]