Once every 10 or so years, all Jesuit Provincials and delegates from each province gather together for an important meeting in Rome, called the General Congregation. Often the meeting is to elect a new leader - the Superior General, but not always. Protocol often dictates that the assembled Jesuits meet the incumbent Pope for his blessing and also for a formal address. At the outset of the 31st General Congregation, Pope Paul VI gave the Jesuits a challenge - a new focus to their mission - to combat atheism. This it what he said.
We gladly take this opportunity to lay serious stress, however briefly, on a matter of grave importance: We mean the fearful danger of atheism threatening human society. Needless to say it does not always show itself in the same manner but advances and spreads under many forms. Of these, the anti-God movement is clearly to be reckoned the most pernicious: not content with a thoroughgoing denial of God’s existence, this violent movement against God attacks theism, aiming at the extirpation of the sense of religion and all that is good and holy. There is also philosophical atheism that denies God’s existence or maintains that God is unknowable, hedonistic atheism, atheism that rejects all religious worship or honor, reckoning it superstitious, profitless and irksome to reverence and serve the Creator of us all or to obey His law. Their adherents live without Christ, having no hope of the promise, and without God in this world. This is the atheism spreading today, openly or covertly, frequently masquerading as cultural, scientific or social progress. It is the special characteristic of the Society of Jesus to be champion of the Church and holy religion in adversity. To it We give the charge of making a stout, united stand against atheism...... You will carry it out with greater readiness and enthusiasm if you keep in mind that this work in which you are now engaged and to which you will apply yourselves in the future with renewed vigor is not something arbitrarily taken up by you, but a task solemnly entrusted to you by the Church and by the Supreme Pontiff.
Atheism may have changed since the sixties, when it was dominated by a political, ideological and global struggle, with the Cold War starting to freeze public discourse. A new atheism has emerged, angry, with a strong scientific flavour and disdain for religion. The terrorist attacks of 9/11 has changed the terms of reference. As a British Jesuit I am conscious that we (as a nation) are responsible for exporting a lot of new atheism, through angry speakers such as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens et al. Two interesting responses to the 'new atheism' have also come from Britain with Tina Beatties 'The New Atheists' and Hitchens' brother Peter's 'The Rage against God' . In spite of the fall of communism it seems that this mission form the Pope is a long term one. It maybe the most important mission given to the Restored Society.