I was introduced to the notion of ‘critical friends’ when working at the University. A group of my peers were looking for people who could speak honestly to us, encouraging our strengths while not ignoring our weaknesses. We wanted people we could trust to critique our work, remind us of what we didn’t see or weren’t even aware of. We wanted to have friends who could speak openly and truthfully to us but also with kindness and understanding.
Such people are treasures when we find them. It is easy enough to receive criticism, or simply perceive any comments about ourselves or our work as negative. It is also tempting to give it in kind. Not just at a University. Our world is full of fast moving sound bites of comment, often sharp with criticism, rejection and negativity. It is, as they say, often easier to knock down than build up. We might need and want good critical friends but they are not necessarily easy to find.
The Congregation – after a further period of murmuratio – has just elected four critical friends for Fr General. In our Jesuit tradition we call them Assistants ad Providentiam, ‘assistants for provident care’. We took some days to consider whom to elect and our voting to personal and group prayer. In order to have some diversity in this group, and help represent our many differences, we elected them from different Assistancies.
The function of these Assistants is to assist Fr General on behalf of the whole Society of Jesus. That is, assist him for the greater good of our lives and mission. Such assistance involves external matters, his behavior and outward expression, for example, but also his health and well-being, physical, mental and spiritual.
These Assistants regularly meet and are prepared to step in if, for serious reasons, he or they believed he could not continue. We hope that any such interventions will not be needed but we allow for such human possibilities and the capability and responsibility of this group to then respond.
We also elected an Admonitor. His task is to ensure that any concerns of the Assistants ad Providentiam are communicated to Fr General. The Constitutions suggest a mature Jesuit, one who both knows and loves the Society but also one who can communicate well with Fr General. Again, a good and wise ‘critical friend’.
As all Jesuits know, not only does our Superior General have an Admonitor but also our Provincials and local superiors. How well they work depends largely on the personalities and relationships of all concerned. But, in terms of being critical friends their support and advice can prove invaluable.
The election of these men, and the trust they now hold, reminds us that there is much wisdom in seeking and finding good critical friends. It also encourages us to pray for those who are and, when asked, to be good and loyal critical friends to others.
Brian F. McCoy SJ