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The Society of Jesus, formally approved by Pope Paul III in his bull Regimini Militantis

Ecclaesiae of September 1540, was one of many new religious orders of men and women

which appeared during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. All of these new orders

were both fruit and expression of that renewal of European Catholicism commonly known

today as the Catholic Reformation. The Jesuits, however, were the most renowned of

these new religions. This new religion was the vision of a man named Ignatius of Loyola,

who simply wanted to pursue a faith that would help more needy people. In order to

achieve this, he eventually set up colleges where his followers could train and educate

themselves. However, like all new things, this religion and everyone involved had strong


The Jesuits were the largest of the new orders of the Catholic Reformation. They

were the most clerical and highly organized. They were the most Roman – for their

Basque founder, Ignatius Loyola, committed his Company, as he usually called it, to the

service of the papacy and made Rome his headquarters. He was the first founder of a

major order to do so. Jesuits were also the most international of the religions. Though

always strongly Spanish (with a large Portuguese presence), the Society quickly gained

recruits from Italy, Germany, France and a surprising number from Central Europe and the

British Isles. They retained their cosmopolitan character thereafter, and they were

international in another sense: they were to be more widely distributed around the world

than even the friars – in the Near and Middle East, India, the East Indies, China, Japan,

Africa and the Americas (Broderick).

That Paul III should ever have approved them is surprising, for the mood in Rome

at the time of their foundation was unsympathetic to the religious and prevailing reformist

opinion was that there should be fewer of them rather than more. This was a time for

vigorous pruning and weeding out, not new plantings (Broderick). However, Pope Paul

eventually yielded to entreaty and gave formal approval to Ignatius and the companions he

had brought to Rome. The pope ruled that the new Society should not grow to more than

60 strong as he probably expected that it would be short-lived. By the time of Ignatius s

death in 1556 there were over 1000 Jesuits with the limit of 60 having been lifted in 1544.

In 1615 the Society had over 13,000 members and by 1679 there were over 17,600

(O Malley).

The original Jesuits were ten priests who had first come together at the University

of Paris and who, having been unable to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, decided to remain

united nonetheless and go to Rome. There they would place themselves at the pope s

disposal, as they had no precise plans. They were available to serve God and their fellow

humans by preaching, catechizing children, hearing confessions and administering other

sacraments, working in prisons and hospitals and among any other needy people. They

would undertake anything pertaining to the progress of souls and the propagation of the

faith, as well as any charitable work (O Malley). Though still particularly drawn to

Infidels (Moslems), they were ready to be sent among heretics (Protestants) or to Catholic

or pagan lands. So they were not founded simply to combat Protestantism or to be what

today would be termed foreign missionaries. They were available to go anywhere in

Europe or to new worlds beyond (Broderick).

That was Ignatius s vision. An ex-soldier consumed with desire to serve the lord

and a mystic of astonishing intensity, he saw his Company as a collection of individuals

ready to undertake any deeds of spiritual chivalry anywhere. This type of activism means

that there should be no excessive mortification – no long fast or vigils – and none of the

chief features of the contemplative life, such as the daily round of public prayer and high

mass, or a monastic habit. Ignatius shocked many with the idea that, since prayer is a

means to an end, formal praying is not necessary if one is already finding God in all

things , which was the heart of Ignatian spirituality. He fought a steady battle to keep his

order free of monasticising tendencies (O Malley).

Jesuits were not to accept any cure of souls , that is be tied down by any

responsibility for day to day parish work. In order to maintain nobility, they were not to

accept any type of ecclesiastical preferment (clerical gifts), a rule which Ignatius only

just succeeded in upholding in the face of repeated offers. The Society would accept no

fee for any spiritual service and no endowments, that is, no permanent income from land

or other sources. Jesuits were to be mendicants, like friars. They could accept the gifts of

a house and its contents for common use, but for daily living must depend on charity.

They were to be intelligent and trained but not intellectuals, practical, worldly, modern and

well-groomed. They were to be tested and re-tested before final admittance into the

Society. For the normal recruit this meant 2 years of harsh apprenticeship doing menial

and sometimes disgusting work, added to strict discipline and humbling tests . There

would follow years as a scholastic, then ordination to the priesthood and finally a return to

the novice s life. The third year of special testing – a novel feature of Jesuit training -

before being allowed to make solemn profession of the vows of poverty, chastity and

obedience, and thus be fully incorporated into the Society. At any time until then, any

serious stumble of singularity could, and usually did, earn dismissal.

Above all a Jesuit must be obedient. Obedience, like the orthodoxy born of

thinking with the Church , was to be a hallmark of the Jesuit order. True, much of what

Ignatius said about obedience, such as the need to be as a stick or slay in a superior s

hand, was traditional enough. But Jesuit obedience was also different from anything

required before. First, no one had ever before asked for unquestioning obedience even if

the subject was convinced his superior was in the wrong. Secondly, the authority of

superiors was less tempered buy the need to consult or by right of appeal than in any

previous order. This was particularly true of the general of the order himself. Appointed

for life, vested with extensive powers of direct appointment throughout the Society and

untrammeled by any regular consultative body (a General Congregation was to meet only

to elect a general or at the general s dissection), he might seem to mirror the princely

autocracy which was becoming increasingly common in the early-modern secular world

(O Malley). Thirdly, as well as requiring the usual vow of obedience to the order itself,

Ignatius added the famous fourth vow of obedience to the pope. This was to be taken by

every fully professed member of the Society and would commit him to go anywhere on

any task assigned by the supreme archbishop.

That being said, the following must be added: Ignatius never envisioned that a

superior would bid anyone to sin and was insistent that all power be exercised in charity

and service of the Lord. His preoccupation with obedience sprang from his own

experience of human fickleness and disloyalty of Catholic clergy who had defected from

Protestantism. The emphasis on obedience owed much to the fact that some of the other

things he was saying and doing were so novel that he had to disarm critics, as well as to

provide against the misuse of Jesuit spirituality. Thus the fourth vow of obedience to the

pope protected the young Society against the continuing attacks that Ignatius had to

endure earlier. Finally, and most importantly, the obedience he sought consisted in

readiness to go anywhere immediately on the behest of the pope. His ideal was a Francis

Xavier, trail blazer in Asia and the first Christian missioner in Japan; Nobrega, the first

Jesuit in south America; or peter Canisius, missoner extraodinaire in Bavaria. Men whose

careers would later be matched by Matteo Rici, pioneer of the Jesuit mission to China;

Roberto di Nobili, the Brahmin Jesuit of Southern India; Possevino, who worked in

Sweden and even confronted Ivan the Terrible; the Frenchmen Brebeuf and Marquette,

famous for their exploits in North America; Edmund Campion and Robert Persons,

founders of the Jesuit mission in England (Broderick). These were pathfinders. Obedient,

yes, but often worked completely alone, making decisions themselves and sustained only

by their resources of will and mind. The picture is not that of massed infantry, blindly

going over the top at the request of the high command. Quite the contrary. The

Company was to be a community in diaspora, a band of heroic individuals of exceptional

self reliance and resourcefulness, able to survive in alien environments without the support

of a structured communal life or the protection of a monastery wall (Dalton).

Ignatian spirituality is dynamic, optimistic, incarnational, sacramental and centred

on the Resurrection of Christ – his victory and glory, rather than his passion and his death.

The Christian occupation is to fight under Christ s banner for the fulfillment of the Lord s

work of Redemption of the world and the coming of the kingdom. The living Christian

will find God in all things, from the smallest leaf on the tree or worm in the ground to the

wonders of the Heavens, and live always in his presence; but the spiritual life involves the

whole person and requires training, effort and guidance, as well as divine grace


This is the soul of the Spiritual Exercises, which Ignatius composed over many

years between his own conversion and the establishment of the Society. It is a manual for

use by a director of a spiritual gymnasium in which others could be helped to undergo,

slowly and deliberately, often in solitude and silence, experiences equivalent to those

which had overwhelmed and transformed him. Though leaving much to the discretion of

the director of the retreat, the Exercises laid down a daring program of methodical

spiritual training. If the full course of four weeks were completed, the participant would

have confronted his own sinfulness, re-created and re-lived in his imagination the life of

Christ, and been brought to irrevocable commitment to fight under his standard. Every

daily exercise involved planned meditation – in the dark or light, kneeling, standing or lying

on the floor, and always accompanied by Ignatius s famous composition of place , that is,

such intense use of the imagination that one could hear the shrieks of Hell, feel the heat of

its flames, smell the fragrance of Heaven, see the road from Bethlehem and the cave of the

Nativity, and so on (Mitchell). Ignatius intended the Exercises for anyone, male or

female, and not just for his Jesuits. His book became one of the spiritual masterworks of

the Catholic Reformation.

Initially it was probably presumed by Ignatius that the Company would remain a

small one and that any new recruits would be like the first companions, namely, mature

and already ordained. In the event, much younger men who were zealous and promising

soon began requesting admission, and since the Society s resources were already under

strain, they could not be turned away. They would require training and the obvious way

to provide this was to acquire a Jesuit residence where young postulants could reside

while completing their education at the nearby university. By 1544 there were six such

Jesuit residences, one in Paris and the others in Italy.

However, for various reasons, Ignatius soon decided that the Society itself should

undertake the instruction of its younger recruits. Thus there came into existence in Padua

the first Jesuit college, in the modern sense of the word, and Jesuits found themselves

involved in formal education. Other colleges soon followed in Italy. These began to take

externs, young men who were not intending to become Jesuits but were simply in search

of a good secondary education. In 1548 further steps were taken when the Society

acquired a college in Messina which was almost entirely for such youths. The next step

was to accept externs boarders at these boys schools, a practice which became

increasingly common as Jesuit college building advanced.

Meanwhile, since 1543, Jesuits had started teaching in the clerical seminary in Goa,

India, the capital of the Portuguese Asian empire, and this in turn paved the way for

accepting responsibility for tuition in the college opened in Rome in 1551 for training

German youths for the secular priesthood. This was the German, later

German-Hungarian, College. Five years earlier the young duke of Gandia, Francis Borgia

(future third general of the Society), had founded a college in his namesake town which

was to be a seminary for Jesuits and which finally persuaded Ignatius to found an

international seminary run by and for Jesuits in Rome. That opened in 1551. Finally, as

we shall see, Jesuits were soon to find their way into university teaching.

Thus, largely by accident and in response to unforeseen pressures and

opportunities, the Society whose founder had originally declared that it would not be

involved in study or teaching embarked on becoming the largest single provider of

education Europe had ever seen. All this had considerable repercussionson the evolution

of the Society. First, colleges were to be allowed permanent endowment. Unlike any

ordinary residence, no Jesuit college would be opened unless it was guaranteed sufficient

regular income to enable its pupils to get on with their studies undistracted by financial

worries and there would be free tuition for all. So the Society had begun to embrace

landlordship and endowments. Ignatius always saw colleges as centres of local missionary

and pastoral activity, as well as tuition. Did teaching duties not tie men down and militate

against that mobility which was the distinguishing mark of a Jesuit?

What was most new about the new orders of the Catholic Reformation was

commitment to good works, an active aide among the sick, hungry, poor and abandoned.

The early Jesuits had reflected this concern. In Rome, for instance, catechizing street

children, helping with a Martha house for ex-prostitutes and an orphanage, visiting

prisons and hospitals. The Society never lost sight of these activities, but more and more,

teaching became its sovereign good work and other new orders followed suit. Male

orders of priests and then brothers providing primary and secondary schooling for boys,

the nuns increasingly involved in educating girls.

There was a major evolution, too, in the structure of the Society. Partly because

the recruitment of young men would take time to yield mature men, and partly because not

all would prove to be of necessary quality. Ignatius secured papal approval for the

establishment of the grade of spiritual coadjutors , that is formed and ordained men who

had taken the three public vows of poverty , chastity and obedience and been finally

admitted to the Society, but had not taken, and might never take, the fourth vow to the

pope, and hence would not become fully professed members (O Malley). Alongside the

spiritual coadjutor there also appeared the temporal coadjutor , the unordained lay

brother who had taken the same three vows but whose duties ranged from domestic

chores to oversight of buildings and accounts (O Malley). As it happened, they were to

include some of the most remarkable members of the Society; Alphonsus Rodriguez,

humble doorkeeper in Majorca; Joseph Anchieta, poet and cripple, and Apostle of

Brazil ; Nicholas Owen, master carpenter, who constructed dozens of hides and priests

holes in English recusant houses; Portuguese Goes, who crossed the Himalayas and almost

reached western China (O Malley).

The Society had acquired scholastics, who often spent at least a year or two

teaching in boys colleges, a growing number of lay brothers, spiritual coadjutors who had

not yet been allowed to take the fourth vow and were involved in all kinds of teaching and

other activities. Over them was the top flight of those professed of the fourth vow.

Ignatius probably intended that spiritual coadjutors would eventually not be numerous, but

rather used as a stop-gap. At his death, however, out of a total membership of over 1000

only 38 had been fully professed and there were three times as many spiritual coadjutors.

The rest were scholastics and novices. Furthermore, because much higher academic

qualification was subsequently required for admission to the fourth vow than the founder

himself had envisioned. The proportion of spiritual coadjutors rose steadily from eight per

cent under Ignatius to forty-six per cent under the fourth General. The number was still

over forty per cent under General Aquaviva (1581 – 1615) and remained at about thirty

per cent over the next half century.

Jesuits seemed to excel in whatever they did and to lead almost everywhere that

they went. That, at any rate, is what they themselves usually claimed. But they were

rarely bashful about singing their praises, not least in order to hearten patrons and

encourage recruitment. Ignatius had insisted on good communications between centre and

provinces, and was eager to record and publish accounts of the Company s progress.

Before long, publications like the Annual Letters edited accounts of Jesuit successes and

heroism, were being widely circulated. Jesuit self-appreciation was often confirmed by

enemies of the Society who exaggerated its power and achievements.

Jesuits made their largest contribution to the Couter Reformation in the

Rhineland, Franconia and Bavaria, the Austrian Habsburg lands, the Spanish Netherlands

during the rule of the Archduke Albert and Isabella (1598 – 1633) and Poland-Lithuania

(Broderick). They were the dominant religions in these places and a key to Catholic

recovery, but they were not alone. Older orders, especially friars, and other newcomers

(Capuchins) were often conspicuous and collectively more numerous. In Poland where

the Society enjoyed a dominant role, Piarists, Vincentians and eventually two native Polish

orders began to rival them, especially in schooling.

In some other important parts of Europe, Jesuits were not the leading religious

group. In Catholic Switzerland Capuchins were the dominant group; in Ireland there

were as many Dominicans as Jesuits and five times as many Fransiscans by the early

1620 s; and it is easy to be so dazzled by the heroes of the Jesuit mission in England that

the contributions of other orders and, above all, of the secular priests from the English

seminaries in Europe are seriously undervalued (Broderick).

Perhaps the most intriguing of all is the story of the Society in France. Jesuits

established themselves there quickly, as they were zealous in the rich and diverse renewal

of French Catholicism during the seventeenth century. But they never really flourished in

Gallic soil, though they always had many good French friends and patrons like Descartes,

Moliere and Voltaire. They were too Roman and above all, too Spanish for many tastes

most of the time. Initially a large proportion of the Jesuits in France were not French, the

largest single national group in the Society was Spanish. The first five generals of the

order were subjects of Philip II of Spain and the Austrian Hapsburgs were eventually the

Jesuit s best friends. Much of this helps to explain why, in 1595, the Society had its first

taste of what would become an all too familiar experience by the end, expulsion. It was

not that the Jesuits had played a conspicuous part in the French Wars of Religion, that is,

in the Catholic League, and were now being punished for their misdeeds. Contrary to

what has sometimes been thought, they had not. Friar and secular clergy had been much

more active in stirring and leading with pen and processions. No, parliament and the

Sorbonne, traditional homes of Gallicanism and now political loyalty to Henry IV, saw

Jesuits as agents of Spain, the enemy of France (Mitchell). In fact no royal edict ensued,

some other parliaments failed to follow Paris s lead and, before long, Jesuits were

reinstated. But what had happened left, or exposed a wound that never really healed.

Though most numerous in Spain and Portugal, the Society was not always the

most important force in these countries, and in Italy it was often overshadowed by

Barnabites, Theatines and Capuchins. Not all popes were enamored of the Society,

despite the fourth vow. Paul IV nearly wrecked it by trying to force it into a monastic

mold. Other pontiffs often kept Jesuits at arms length. The greatest bishop of the

Catholic Reformation, Carle Borromeo of Milan, had reservations about them. He took

his seminary out of their control and patronized other orders, including his own Oblates of

St. Ambrose.

Rivalries between orders and friction between religious and secular clergy had long

been a feature of Church history. So there was nothing new about the animosity that

Jesuits aroused among many fellow clergy. But that ill-will was often deplorably intense

and doused sores that never healed. Jealousy was partly to blame for this. The Jesuits

successes, their privileges, patronage and property brought about the worst in other

orders. So too did their novelty, that is, the fact that they were religious but neither liked

nor behaved like them. From early times, critics, especially Spanish Dominicans, were

remarking that Jesuits were neither fish nor fowl. Paul IV, not least because he personally

disliked Ignatius, pounced on this fact and tried to make them accept the daily discipline

of office in choir. Some of these same opponents were deeply suspicious of Jesuit

spirituality, scenting illuminism in Ignatius s appeal to sense and imagination, and heresy in

Jesuit sermons. On the other hand Jesuit devotion to Rome, exemplified in the fourth

vow and the strong papalist line taken by Lainez and others at Trent, made them suspect

in Gallican circles, while their international character and apparent solidarity as an order

were often as unpalatable as their Romanities (O Malley). So conservatives disliked their

novelty, others their conservatism. Even before Ignatius died they had been formally

censured by the Sorbonne, that bastion of Gallicanism, for all these reasons.

Since the inception of the idea that bore the Jesuit religion, there have always been

skeptics. However, there have also been many followers of this religion. To say that

being Jesuit is good or bad would be wrong, as it is not possible to rate how effective any

particular religion is in achieving its goals. Ignatius tried to remain true to his original

formula, but as the popularity increased passed a point he had never imagined, he was

forced to make changes to ensure that the faith could survive the ultimate test of time. It

was these changes that brought about the official training and education made available in

private colleges that were funded, solely for the purpose of recruiting and developing the

Jesuit faith. As the numbers of participation continued to grow primarily due to these

colleges, the Jesuits were met with more and more opposition.

Broderick, James S.J. The Origin of the Jesuits. Great Britain: Longmans, Green and

Company, 1940.

Dalton, Roy C. The Jesuits Estate Question 1760-1888: A Study of the Background for

the Agitation of 1889. Great Britain: University of Toronto Press, 1968.

Lacouture, Jean. Jesuits, A Multibiography. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995.

Mitchell, David. The Jesuits, A History. New York, N.Y.: Franklin Watts, 1980.

O Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. London, England: Harvard University Press, 1993

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