In 1540 Pope Paul III gave his imprimatur to a new religious order founded by Ignacio de Loyola, a Spanish nobleman from the Basque country. A soldier by profession, Ignacio experienced a religious epiphany while convalescing from a battle wound. Trading his armour for a cassock, he established a religious order dedicated to an active apostolic life in the secular world.
He provoked immediate hostility by naming the order the Society of Jesus and calling his followers Jesuits instead of Ignatians (after the model of the followers of St Augustine, St Dominic and St Francis). To sceptics, the Society’s motto, “Ad majorem Dei gloriam” (“To the greater glory of God”), was troubling: were the fathers seeking greater glory for God, or for their own pride and ambition? Wanting to achieve more is the definition of ambition. What should we think, then, of the words beneath a globe on the title page of the order’s centennial celebratory volume? “Unus non sufficit orbis“One world is not enough. By the time that volume was released, the Jesuits had indeed promoted and increased God’s glory (or theirs) in every part of the world. From the original six companions of Ignatius, the Society had expanded to approximately 16,000 members by 1650. It had established residences and colleges in every Catholic and many Protestant countries of Europe; Jesuit missionaries also evangelized in the Americas, Africa and Asia. In 1749 membership peaked at 22,000.
The spectacular nature of the Society’s rise was matched only by that of its fall. Failing to keep up with philosophical and scientific advances in the century of Enlightenment, it found itself out of tune with critics in the Catholic church, who accused the Jesuits of moral laxity, theological flexibility, political conspiracies, social pretensions and general duplicity. In 1759 the order was suppressed in Portugal, and similar measures followed in Bourbon Spain and France. Many Jesuits languished in prisons; others went into exile. Throughout his pontificate, Clement XIII resisted political pressure to dissolve the Society, but his successor had no such compunction. In 1773 Clement XIV issued a papal bull suppressing it. But that was not the end of the story. A remnant in Russian exile upheld Jesuit identity, and the Society was restored in 1814. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, it evolved from an ultramontane defender of papal authority and the old sociopolitical order to an organization that sometimes challenged ecclesiastical and political authorities after 1960. Today, the first Jesuit and non-European pope, Francis, is head of the Catholic church.
We learn all this and much more from Markus Friedrich’s The Jesuits: A history, a distinguished work by deep scholarship, clear exposition and comprehensive coverage. The challenge of writing “a history of the Jesuits is that it essentially has to be a world history in a nutshell”, Friedrichs writes. Nonetheless, he succeeds in giving the reader a smooth narrative covering nearly five centuries of Jesuit history in just over 800 pages. After a succinct prologue on Ignatius, Friedrich analyzes the inner life and structure of the Society. We gain an overview of its geographical expansion, its early patrons, the social profile of its recruits and the stations, stages and careers of Jesuits. Friedrich then addresses the core spirituality of the order, focusing on the Spiritual Exercises, a guide to meditation on Christ’s Passion that distilled Ignatius’s experiences of finding a middle way between mysticism and asceticism. Finding a middle way is also characteristic of the rules and constitution of the Society, which balance obedience and individual initiative.
Having established the common identity of the Jesuits, Friedrich describes their engagement with different aspects of early modern Catholicism. Covering often neglected in studies devoted to Jesuit history, he analyzes the Society’s relationship with the ecclesiastical hierarchy and other religious orders, its position regarding different streams of Catholic spiritualities, and the Jesuits’ unique within modern Catholicism. Their attention to individual circumstances and their optimism view of human nature pitted them against another strong current in seventeenth-century Catholicism—a rigorist view of salvation based on a pessimistic view of human nature, deeply rooted in the theology of St Augustine.
Building on extensive recent scholarship on Jesuit missions, Friedrich paints an overall picture of the order’s evangelization by region and country before picking Canada, Paraguay and China for in-depth analysis. The book closes with the story of the Society’s decline, suppression and restoration. Richly illustrated, lucidly written and excellently translated from the German by John Noël Dillon, The Jesuits is the best single-authored book on the subject I have seen so far.
In the book we meet Jesuit confessors, preachers, theologians and missionaries; We see how they managed colonial estates, ministered to (and owned) slaves, and served as chaplains, preachers, professors and astronomers. What we do not find is a typical Jesuit. Lay brothers and the professional, the fathers who swore four vows and belonged to the highest rank of the hierarchical society, were widely separated by education, authority and function. But even rank is not always a predictor of significance: some lower-ranked Jesuits with the grade of coadjutores spirituales were in fact famous artists – for example, Andrea Pozzo, who produced the internal artwork for Sant’Ignazio church in Rome and wrote a theoretical work on perspectives, and Giuseppe Castiglione, the most prominent western painter in the court of the Manchu Qing emperors.
“What makes a Jesuit a Jesuit?”, one may well ask. I have come to this conclusion: they were clerks of the Catholic church with a special relationship to writing, and were distinguished by their ambition. The Jesuit archive in Rome is second only to the Vatican archive in the richness of its collection. It was created by Juan Polanco, Ignatius’s secretary after the founding of the order, to organize the mounting paper piles necessitated by this centrally governed and yet geographically widely dispersed new religious order. To unite the individual Jesuits in their apostolic actions, letters and annual and triennial reports were specified as necessary for communication in the Constitutions of the Society. Many a Jesuit provincial bemoaned the endless paperwork: multiple copies of each report had to be made to ensure their safe delivery, especially from outside Europe. An administrative and spiritual genre sui generis, Jesuit letters combine facts and rhetoric. The annual reports usually start with listing the number of fathers in a province or college, followed by obituaries of recently retired members and descriptions of unusual, in addition to the standard stories of edification. In the colleges these examples of edification included practising the Spiritual Exercises and general confessions, and activities of the students organized in sodalities dedicated to the Virgin Mary; in overseas missions they narrate stories of martyrdom, hardship or exemplary devotion.
While annual reports and missionary letters were meant to be read within the Society and sometimes by the larger public, another category of documents had restricted access. These dealt with the admission, training and evaluation of individual Jesuits. To select appropriate individuals for an active apostolate, Ignatius and his successors designed meticulous admission criteria and an elaborate training and vetting process, leaving detailed administrative traces. In the Roman archives of the Society are deposited lists of admitted novices, individually recorded on the day of their entry with their material possessions, down to their shirts and shoes. There are letters written by Jesuits aspiring to go to overseas missions: some professed a desire for martyrdom, some represented themselves as indifferent to their ultimate assignment (a quality demanded by Ignatius as a sign of obedience), while others could not hide their fervour for saving souls in exotic lands.
These intimate writings are analysed with great care by Camilla Russell, who describes Jesuit lives with verve and empathy in Being a Jesuit in Renaissance Italy. She follows these lives into India and China, two missionary fields in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries where Italian fathers played prominent roles. At home Jesuits preached, confessed and taught; not a few left the Society (a surprisingly high attrition rate). Among those who left, some were expelled for serious offences; others left amicably, exchanging the active and often hectic apostolate Jesuit mission for the more contemplative life of other religious orders; Still others were dismissed for health reasons, or resigned in order to support kinfolk in the secular world. Russell also considers the origins and nature of different genres of Jesuit documents, giving the reader a sense of the archive. In her succinct expression, the Society “was conceived of as a body, made up of the members themselves, which were movable parts of a whole. Jesuit documentary production serviced this body and kept it united”.
An Italian banker once explained to me how he became interested in Jesuit history. As the director of a Swiss bank in Japan, he supervised a multinational staff with diverse cultural traditions. Studying the Jesuits helped him to maximize individual talents for a common organizational purpose. As the first multinational, multi-ethnic and polylingual international corporation, the Society of Jesus was a harbinger of modernity.
Ronnie Po-chia Hsia is Edwin Erle Sparks Professor of History at Pennsylvania State University and author of A Jesuit in the Forbidden City: Matteo Ricci, 1552–16102010
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