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The Jesuits, Foot-soldiers Of Christ

What do Pope Benedict XVI, Mary Higgins Clark, Bing Crosby, Bill Clinton, Charles de Gaulle, Alfred Hitchcock, Moliere, Bob Newhart and Denzel Washington have in common? They were all educated at institutions of learning associated with the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), a Roman Catholic order of priests and brothers distinguished by their missionary work and their contributions in the intellectual field as scientists and teachers.

This group of priests, the largest order within the Catholic Church, has been marked through the centuries by their intellectual prowess and missionary zeal. They also continue to be sought out as rigorous educators. The Jesuits, the "foot-soldiers of Christ", have stood out in the past for their obedience to the Pope. As staunch defenders and propagators of Catholicism, the Jesuits were the driving force in stemming the tide of Protestantism in Europe during the 16th and 17th centuries, particularly in southern Germany and Austria. In their varied roles as confessors to monarchs, educators, scientists and missionaries, the Jesuits have been a highly influential and, at times, feared and controversial force throughout the centuries.

The founder and driving force of the Society of Jesus was Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), a Basque-born nobleman and soldier who underwent a spiritual conversion after being wounded in battle. Reading the life of Christ and the saints while recuperating spurred Loyola to discern his calling, which was to serve God completely. This calling was reinforced by Loyola's reading of The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis, which urged the reader to live like Christ.

At the age of 33, Loyola began studying for the priesthood. Since he didn't know Latin, which was necessary for entrance into a university, Loyola took lessons in the language with pupils much younger than himself. While at university, Loyola's talk of prayer, spirituality and the Gospels caught the Inquisition's suspicions. Loyola was imprisoned, but eventually cleared, by the Inquisition. Loyola arrived at the University of Paris for more studies and while there he came to spiritually influence Francis Xavier, Peter

Faber and four others to join him, in 1534, to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience to the Pope. The group originally wanted to convert Muslims but, when the Turkish wars prevented them from traveling, the men went to Rome instead.

In 1540, Pope Paul III formally approved the new order, which in Latin is the Societas Jesu (Society of Jesus). Loyola was elected as the first Superior General (or head) of the Jesuits, a term first coined in the 1500s by the order's Protestant detractors but embraced by the Society. The Superior General also took on a derogatory term, the "Black Pope", owing partly to the black robes worn by the Jesuits and partly to the power thought exercised by the Society within the Church.

It was understandable why the Jesuits were thought to have been a power to reckon with. Their rapid growth, zeal and caliber of the members marked them as a formidable group from their beginnings. Loyola's emphasis on quality recruits did not deter young men from clamoring to join the order. Within two decades after its founding, the Jesuits consisted of 1,000 members. By the mid-1700s, membership had grown to more than 22,500. This astounding growth can be traced in part to Loyola's vision. Unlike other established orders, such as the Benedictines and Franciscans, the Jesuits eschewed the more contemplative monastic life. Jesuits did not retreat from the world but instead immersed themselves in it, working and living among the people. Always at the Pope's disposal, Jesuits were infused with a strong sense of mobility, flexibility, adventure and urgency. The priests' ability to compromise and adjust proved useful in their missions, especially overseas. Jesuits, however, were to be uncompromising when it came to sin and evil. On orders of the Pope, Jesuits obeyed and immediately went where they were told to go. This was in keeping with what Loyola had decreed: That "to help souls", it was necessary to travel "through the various regions of the world... to preach".

Of the Society's purpose, Loyola wrote that, "it was especially instituted for the defense and propagation of the Faith, and the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine." The philosophy and the mission of the Jesuits has thus centered upon strengthening and extending Catholicism. This made them natural soldiers for the faith in such spiritual battles as the Counter-Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries. Propagating the faith in faraway lands also became a key mission so that, early on, Jesuits labored among the peoples of Asia and the Americas, introducing Catholicism to places that had not been exposed to Christianity.

As a mobile order, the Jesuits did not stay confined to Europe. In keeping with their motto, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam ("For the greater glory of God"), it did not take long for the order to send its first missionaries abroad. In the 1540s, Francis Xavier traveled to southern India, other parts of southern Asia and Japan. He died in 1552, off mainland China, having succeeded, over 10 grueling years, in converting tens of thousands to Christianity. Considered among the greatest Church missionaries, Francis Xavier secured a foothold for Christianity in Asia and was followed in his missionary calling by numerous Jesuit fathers in the coming centuries.

In 1583, Matteo Ricci began his mission to China. For nearly 30 years, he spread the Gospel there and also brought with him Western knowledge in the sciences and math. Ricci dressed like a Chinese scholar and adopted local customs, pioneering acculturation techniques used by succeeding Jesuits in their foreign missions.

Jesuit priests first came to the present-day United States in 1566 in Florida. In Mexico and the southwestern US, Eusebio Kino made his mark when he discovered an overland route to California. Another Jesuit explorer, Jacques Marquette, is especially well-known, as he, along with Louis Jolliet, discovered and mapped the Mississippi River in 1673. In the span of more than 70 years, starting in the 1680s, the Jesuits established 18 missions in Lower California.

Other Jesuits, such as Isaac Jogues and Jean Brebeuf, strove to bring Christianity to the natives of the Americas, including New France in the 17th century. Known as the "Black Robes" because of their clerical garb, the Jesuits in French North America worked among the Huron and Iroquois.

In South America, the Jesuits founded missions in present-day Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Uruguay and Paraguay. The priests created towns (reducciones) where Christianized tribes took to learning. These reducciones grew, eventually becoming educational, artistic and economic centers for over a century. This success, along with Jesuit attempts at protecting the natives from colonial slavery, drew the ire of some in Spain and Portugal, prompting attacks on the missions and the expulsion of the Jesuits from South America in 1767.

The mid-18th century saw a concerted effort to curb the power of the Society of Jesus. In an era of anti-clericalism during the Enlightenment, attacks on the Jesuits were especially widespread. In 1773, bowing to political pressure, Pope Clement XIV dissolved the Society. In the Russian territories, however (specifically Poland), the Society survived, enjoying the protection of Catherine the Great.

The suppression of such a prominent group did not last. By 1814, demand for their return was such that Pope Pius VII reinstated the Society. Years of growth followed, including the establishment of many more institutions of learning for which the Jesuits were much esteemed.

One of the Society's strongest missions has been in education. Though not originally a main objective at the order's founding, Loyola and the Jesuits came to view education as a means towards a purposeful life and as a way of helping save souls by preventing the spread of heresy.

Through disciplined learning of the whole person, intellectually and spiritually, it is believed that a Jesuit-educated individual can develop to one's fullest potential. A Jesuit student has been molded so that the pursuit of excellence becomes a life-long quest. This also meant that once these students came into leadership positions, most would continue to strive for excellence among others and within themselves. The Jesuits' education system was first codified in the 16th century in a work known as the Ratio Studiorum which pointed out the importance of the intellectual formation of those being taught but also emphasized character formation and the training of the will.

The Jesuits' reputation as topnotch educators is well-founded. The extent of the Society's dedication and confidence in their methods can be seen in the old Jesuit saying: "Give me a child until he is seven, and I will show you the man." Emphasis on the humanities along with helping students find God leads the Jesuit-educated individual to strive for excellence and also to be concerned about others. The reputation of Jesuit education led to the rapid growth of their schools. Within a century after the order's founding, 300 Jesuit colleges were established in Europe and by the time the Society was dissolved in 1773, there were 875 Jesuit institutes worldwide.

In the US, Jesuits established institutes of higher learning, beginning in 1789 with the founding of Georgetown University, followed by 21 more colleges in the next century. Among the most well-known US universities with a Jesuit connection are Boston College, Fordham, Gonzaga, Loyola and Marquette.

The training of a Jesuit comprises a long and rigorous process, often lasting more than a dozen years. The beginning (the novitiate) involves two years of spiritual training, followed by vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. The next dozen years are spent as a scholastic, studying and teaching, known as regency. He then becomes ordained and may take a vow of obedience to the pope, ending with another year of spiritual development (tertianship). Upon becoming a Jesuit, the initials S.J. follow the priest's name, distinguishing him as a member of the Society of Jesus.

Essential in the formation and growth of a Jesuit priest is a demanding exercise in self-reflection developed by Loyola called the Spiritual Exercises. This exercise is essential because Jesuits live and work in the outside world. Monastic discipline, therefore, became internalized. The Exercises help achieve this objective within the span of four weeks. Week one centers on mortal sin, weeks two and three on seeking the task God calls of the priest. Week four delves into the acceptance of the vocation. In addition to the Exercises, Jesuits are required to spend one hour daily in private meditation. Work and prayer together help to encourage and enforce piety. The Jesuits, who are to find God in all things, are thus "contemplatives in action". They are also taught to seek better ways of solving problems, to be purposefully driven and embrace greater goals.

It comes as no surprise that an order that has sought to bring out the best in individuals would produce numerous holy men. The Society of Jesus has, in its long history, produced 41 saints and 285 blesseds (a step before canonization as a saint). The best- known saints are Loyola and Francis Xavier. Some, like Saints Charles Borromeo and Robert Bellarmine came from noble families. Of the many martyred saints, there are St. Edmund Campion, executed in the reign of Elizabeth I of England; St. John de Brebeuf, patron saint of Canada; and St. Paul Miki, a Japanese native crucified in Japan. St. Aloysius Gonzaga, an Italian noble, tended plague victims and is a patron saint of youth. St. Peter Claver was a Spanish priest who ministered to slaves. Among the recent saints declared by the Catholic Church is St. Alberto Hurtado (1901-52), a Chilean who worked with the poor and young, and canonized by Pope Benedict XVI in 2005. One of St. Alberto Hurtado's sayings encapsulates the Jesuits' strong belief in earthly service to God and the Roman Catholic doctrine of eternal life: "Life has been given to man so that he may cooperate with God in order to carry out his plan, death is only a completion of that collaboration, a return of all our powers to the Creator's hands."

In 1551, Loyola founded in Rome, the Collegio Romano (the Pontifical Gregorian University), which became the premier Jesuit seminary. The most talented recruits to the order were sent there to be molded into distinguished men. The Jesuit scholar Christopher Clavius (1538-1612) taught at the Collegio Romano for 46 years. Clavius, a brilliant astronomer and mathematician, was esteemed by his contemporaries, such as Galileo Galilei. The Gregorian calendar, proclaimed by Pope Gregory XII in 1582 and still used today, was implemented thanks to Clavius' calculations.

Not surprisingly, the Jesuit order attracted men of high caliber in the scientific field. Besides introducing Western science in India and China, the Jesuit scholars in the sciences have contributed substantially in the fields of seismology and astronomy. In honor of their importance in the sciences, some 35 craters on the moon have been named after Jesuit mathematicians and scientists.

Famous scientists, such as Johannes Kepler, Christiaan Huygens and Sir Isaac Newton, also owe much to their Jesuit colleagues and supporters. It is, however, as eminent scientists that the Jesuits distinguish themselves in this field. The body of work through the centuries produced by them is numerous and significant. They were among the first to detect Saturn's rings and the bands on the surface of Jupiter. They also wrote discourses on optics. Barometers, microscopes, pendulum clocks and pantographs all were developed thanks in part to Jesuits. Jesuit scientists include Francesco Maria Grimaldi, who discovered the diffraction of light; Roger Joseph Boscovich, father of the atomic theory; and Athanasius Kircher (1601-80). Kircher is outstanding for the quality and breadth of his works which encompassed medicine, geology, sinology and chemistry. Kircher's range of knowledge was so wide and so deep that he has been likened to Leonardo da Vinci.

More than 2,000 institutions in the world have a Jesuit connection, including over 350 high schools and more than 180 post-secondary institutions. Present in some 113 countries, Jesuits educate more than 200,000 students. In January 2006, the number of Jesuits worldwide consisted of some 19,564 people, with priests accounting for 13,735; brothers at 1,865; novices at 897 and scholastics totaled 3,067.

A number of Jesuits have been criticized in recent decades for their overt liberalism, with some having been chastised by Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI. In 2006, Benedict XVI addressed a large gathering of Jesuits and reminded them "to thank... the Lord... for having granted to your Company the gift of men of extraordinary sanctity and of exceptional apostolic zeal such as St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Francis Xavier and Blessed Peter Faber. They are, for you, the Fathers and Founders: It's right, therefore, that in this centenary year, you recall with gratitude and look to them to lead you and make secure your spiritual path and that of your apostolic activity."

The Society of Jesus has again become publicly associated closely to the popes. Most recently, the long-standing connection between the popes and the Jesuits have come to the fore with the appointment in 2006 of a new spokesman for Pope Benedict. The Vatican's new face to the world is a Jesuit priest, Father Federico Lombardi, S.J., who has served as the Vatican Radio's director general.

It is difficult to predict what the future holds for the Jesuits in an increasingly secular world, but if their past is anything to go by, this order is likely to survive for some time. They are also likely to remain deeply engaged with society, as this order of priests with a long and illustrious history continues to labor to bring humanity and God closer together.

Julia Gelardi. The Society of Jesus. History Magazine. October/November 2007.


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Throughout The Ages | Ancient Origins Of Religious Practices | Religious Beliefs | Humanity's First Cathedral On A Hill | Certain Times Came To Be Held As Sacred | For 500 Years, The Largest Church In Christendom | Something You Didn't Expect | The Jesuits, Foot-soldiers Of Christ | Church Leaders Associated Spiritualism With Witchcraft | Modern Spiritualism Came To Be Infested With Fraud | Spiritualists Claim An Ancient Lineage | Spirituality Encompasses A Diverse Range Of Beliefs And Practices | A System Of Faith? | An Unlikely Medium | Spiritualism Grew Into A Lusty, Vigorous Child | Villages Of The American Spiritualist Movement
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