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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
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
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
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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