Society of Jesus

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Seal of the Society of Jesus

The Society of Jesus (Societas Iesu/Jesu (S.J.) in Latin) is a Christian religious order of the Roman Catholic Church in direct service to the Pope. Its members, known as Jesuits since the Protestant Reformation, have been called "Footsoldiers of the Pope" in part because the Society's founder, Saint Ignatius of Loyola, was a Basque nobleman and soldier before his conversion. Today, Jesuits number over 20,000 and comprise the largest religious order in the Catholic Church. Jesuit priests and brothers are engaged in ministries in 112 nations on six continents. Their work is focused on education and intellectual contributions, primarily at colleges and universities, as well as missionary work and ministry in human rights and social justice.

The Society of Jesus is consecrated under the patronage of Madonna Della Strada, a title of the Blessed Virgin Mary meaning Our Lady of the Way. The Way was what early Christians called their community in Jerusalem and surrounding Israel. The Society is led by Peter Hans Kolvenbach, Superior General, based in the Church of the Gesu in Rome.



Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus
Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus

On August 15, 1534, Ignatius (born Iñigo López de Loyola) and six other students (Francis Xavier, a fellow Basque, Alfonso Salmeron, James Lainez, and Nicholas Bobadilla, Spaniards, Peter Faber from France and Simon Rodrigues, a Portuguese) met in Montmartre outside Paris, probably near the modern Chapel of St Denys, Rue Antoinette, and binding themselves by a vow of poverty and chastity, founded the Society of Jesus – to "enter upon hospital and missionary work in Jerusalem, or to go without questioning wherever the pope might direct".

In 1537 they travelled to Italy to seek papal approval for their order. Pope Paul III gave them a commendation, and permitted them to be ordained priests. They were ordained at Venice by the bishop of Arbe (June 24). They devoted themselves to preaching and charitable work in Italy, as the renewed war between the emperor, Venice, the pope and the Ottoman Empire rendered any journey to Jerusalem inadvisable.

With Faber and Lainez, Ignatius made his way to Rome in October 1538, to have the pope approve the constitution of the new order. A congregation of cardinals reported favorably upon the constitution presented, and Paul III confirmed the order through the bull Regimini militantis (September 27, 1540), but limited the number of its members to sixty. This limitation was removed through the bull Injunctum nobis (March 14, 1543). Ignatius was chosen as the first superior-general. He sent his companions as missionaries around Europe to create schools, colleges, and seminaries.

Ignatius wrote the Jesuit Constitutions, adopted in 1554, which created a monarchical organization and stressed absolute self-abnegation and obedience to Pope and superiors (perinde ac cadaver, "[well-disciplined] like a corpse" as Ignatius put it). His main principle became the unofficial Jesuit motto: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam ("for the greater glory of God"). This phrase is designed to reflect the idea that any work that is not evil can be meritorious for the spiritual life if it is performed with this intention, even things considered normally indifferent.

The Society of Jesus is classified among institutes as a mendicant order of clerks regular, that is, a body of priests organized for apostolic work, following a religious rule, and relying on alms, or donations, for support.

The name "Jesuit"

The term "Jesuit" (of fifteenth-century origin, meaning one who used too frequently or appropriated the name of Jesus), was first applied to the Society in reproach (1544-52), and was never employed by its founder, though members and friends of the Society in time accepted the name in its positive meaning.

Early works

The Jesuits were founded just before the Counter-Reformation, a movement whose purpose was to reform the Roman Catholic Church from within and to counter the Protestant Reformers, whose teachings were spreading throughout Catholic Europe. As part of their service to the Roman Church, the Jesuits encouraged people to continue their obedience both to scripture and also Roman Catholic doctrine. Ignatius himself used hyperbole when he wrote the following sentence:

"I will believe that the white that I see is black if the hierarchical Church so defines it."

But his hyperbole relativizes propositional claims defined by the hierarchical Church. For him, the important things in life are not propositional definitions, but the spiritual movements within oneself.

Ignatius and the early Jesuits did recognize, though, that the hierarchical Church was in dire need of reform, and some of their greatest struggles were against the corruption, venality, and spiritual lassitude within the Roman Catholic Church. As a result, in spite of their loyalty, Ignatius and his successors often tangled with the pope and the Roman Catholic Curia. Over the 450 years since its founding, the Society has both been called the papal "elite troops" and been forced into suppression.

St. Ignatius and the Jesuits who followed him believed that the reform of the Church had to begin with the conversion of an individual’s heart. One of the main tools the Jesuits have used to bring about this conversion has been the Ignatian retreat, called the Spiritual Exercises. During a four-week period of silence, individuals undergo a series of directed meditations on the life of Christ. During this period, they meet regularly with a spiritual director, who helps them understand whatever call or message God has offered in their meditations. The retreat follows a Purgative-Illuminative-Unitive pattern in the tradition of the mysticism of John Cassian and the Desert Fathers. Ignatius' innovation was to make this style of contemplative mysticism available to all people in active life, and to use it as a means of rebuilding the spiritual life of the Church.

The Jesuits’ contributions to the late Renaissance were significant in their roles both as a missionary order and as the first religious order to operate colleges and universities as a principal and distinct ministry. By the time of Ignatius' death in 1556, the Jesuits were already operating a network of 74 colleges on three continents. A precursor to liberal education, the Jesuit plan of studies incorporated the Classical teachings of Renaissance humanism into the Scholastic structure of Catholic thought. In addition to teaching faith, the Ratio Studiorum emphasized the study of Latin, Greek, classical literature, poetry, and philosophy as well as non-European languages, sciences and the arts. Furthermore, Jesuit schools encouraged the study of vernacular literature and rhetoric, and thereby became important centers for the training of lawyers and public officials. The Jesuit schools played an important part in winning back to Catholicism a number of European countries which had for a time been predominantly Protestant, notably Poland. Today, Jesuit colleges and universities are located in over one hundred nations around the world.

Following the Roman Catholic tradition that God can be encountered through created things and especially art, they encouraged the use of ceremony and decoration in Catholic ritual and devotion. Perhaps as a result of this appreciation for art, coupled with their spiritual practice of "finding God in all things", many early Jesuits distinguished themselves in the visual and performing arts as well as in music.

The Jesuits were able to obtain significant influence in the Early Modern Period because Jesuit priests often acted as confessors to the Kings of the time. They were an important force in the Counter-Reformation and in the Catholic missions, in part because their relatively loose structure (without the requirements of living in community, saying the divine office together, etc.) allowed them to be flexible to meet the needs of the people at the time.


Ruins of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana in Paraguay, one of the many Jesuit missions established in South America during the 17th and 18th centuries
Ruins of La Santisima Trinidad de Parana in Paraguay, one of the many Jesuit missions established in South America during the 17th and 18th centuries

Early missions in Japan resulted in the government granting the Jesuits the feudal fiefdom of Nagasaki in 1580. This was removed in 1587, however, due to fears over their growing influence.

Francis Xavier arrived in Goa, in Western India in 1541 to consider evangelical service in the Indies. He passed away after a decade of evangelism in Southern India. Under Portuguese royal patronage, the order thrived in Goa and until 1759 successfully expanded its activities to education and healthcare. On 17 December 1760, Marquis of Pombal, Secretary of State in Portugal expelled the Jesuits from India.

Two Jesuit missionaries, Gruber and D'Orville, reached Lhasa in Tibet in 1661.

Jesuit missions in Latin America were very controversial in Europe, especially in Spain and Portugal, where they were seen as interfering with the proper colonial enterprises of the royal governments. The Jesuits were often the only force standing between the Indians and slavery. Together throughout South America but especially in present-day Brazil and Paraguay they formed Christian-Indian city-states, called reductions (Spanish Reducciones). These were societies set up according to an idealized theocratic model. It is partly because the Jesuits protected the Indians whom certain Spanish and Portuguese colonizers wanted to enslave that the Society of Jesus was suppressed.

Jesuit priests such as Manoel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta founded several towns in Brazil in the 16th century, including São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, and were very influential in the pacification, religious conversion and education of Indian nations

Jesuit mission in China brought about the Chinese Rites controversy in the early 18th century.

Jesuit scholars working in these foreign missions to the "heathens" were very important in understanding their unknown languages and strived for producing Latinicized grammars and dictionaries, the first organized efforts at linguistics. This was done, for instance, for Japanese (see Nippo jisho also known as Vocabvlario da Lingoa de Iapam, a Japanese-Portuguese dictionary written 1603) and Tupi-Guarani (a language group of South American aborigines).

Suppression and Restoration

Boston College was among the first universities to open after the Restoration of the Jesuits in North America. Today it is the flagship of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and home to the world's largest Jesuit community
Boston College was among the first universities to open after the Restoration of the Jesuits in North America. Today it is the flagship of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities and home to the world's largest Jesuit community

See article Suppression of the Jesuits

The Suppression of the Jesuits in Portugal, France, the Two Sicilies, Parma and the Spanish Empire by 1767 was troubling to the Society's defender, Pope Clement XIII. Following a decree signed by Pope Clement XIV in July 1773, the Jesuits were suppressed in all countries (other than Russia, where the Russian Orthodox government refused to recognize papal authority). Because millions of Catholics (including many Jesuits) lived in the Polish western provinces of the Russian Empire, the Society was able to maintain its legal existence and carry on its work all through the period of suppression.

The period following the Restoration of the Jesuits in 1814 was marked by tremendous growth, as evidenced by the large number of Jesuit colleges and universities established in the 19th century. In the United States, 22 of the Society's 28 universities were founded or taken over by the Jesuits during this time. Some claim that the experience of suppression served to heighten orthodoxy among the Jesuits upon restoration. While this claim is debatable, Jesuits were generally supportive of Papal authority within the Church, and some members were associated with the Ultramontanist movement and the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1870.

The 20th century witnessed both aspects of growth and decline. Following a trend within the Catholic priesthood at large, Jesuit numbers peaked in the 1950s and have declined steadily since. Meanwhile the number of Jesuit institutions has grown considerably, due in large part to a later 20th century focus on establishing of Jesuit secondary schools in inner-city areas. Among the notable Jesuits of the 20th century, John Courtney Murray, SJ, was called one of the "architects of the Second Vatican Council" and drafted what eventually became the council's endorsement of religious freedom,Dignitatis Humanae Personae.

Jesuits today

Three Jesuit deacons are ordained to the priesthood at the Loyola University Chicago Madonna Della Strada Chapel in Chicago, Illinois.
Three Jesuit deacons are ordained to the priesthood at the Loyola University Chicago Madonna Della Strada Chapel in Chicago, Illinois.
They prostrate before the altar, symbolic of their submission to Christ's sacrifice, an act central to the Catholic ordination rite for all priests.
They prostrate before the altar, symbolic of their submission to Christ's sacrifice, an act central to the Catholic ordination rite for all priests.

The Jesuits today represent the largest religious order in the Catholic Church, with over 20,000 members serving in 112 nations on six continents. The current Superior General of the Jesuits is Peter Hans Kolvenbach. The Society is characterized by its ministries in the fields of missionary work, human rights, social justice and, most notably, higher education. It operates colleges and universities in various countries around the world and is particularly active in the Philippines and India. In the United States alone, it maintains over 50 colleges, universities and high schools. A typical conception of the mission of a Jesuit school will often contain such concepts as proposing Christ as the model of human life, the pursuit of excellence in teaching and learning and life-long spiritual and intellectual growth.[1] In Latin America, Jesuits have had significant influence in the development of liberation theology, a movement which has been highly controversial in the Catholic theological community, condemned by Pope John Paul II on several fundamental aspects.

Under Superior General Pedro Arrupe, social justice and the preferential option for the poor emerged as dominant themes of the work of the Jesuits. Nearly a decade after the assassination of Bishop Oscar Romero, on November 16, 1989, six Jesuit priests; Ignacio Ellacuria, Segundo Montes, Ignacio Martin-Baro, Joaquin Lopez y Lopez, Juan Ramon Moreno, and Amado Lopez; their housekeeper, Elba Ramos, and her daughter, Celia Marisela Ramos, were murdered by the Salvadoran military on the campus of the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador. Due to their unwavering defense of the poor, they had been labeled as subversives by the Salvadorian government. The assassinations galvanized the Society's peace and justice movements, including annual protests at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, where the assassins were trained under US government sponsorship.

In 2002, Boston College president William P. Leahy, SJ, initiated the Church in the 21st Century program as a means of moving the Church "from crisis to renewal." The initiative has provided the Society with a platform for examining issues brought about by the worldwide Roman Catholic Church sex abuse scandal, including the priesthood, celibacy, sexuality, women's roles, and the role of the laity.

In April 2005, Thomas J. Reese, SJ, editor of the American Jesuit weekly magazine America, resigned at the request of the Society. The move was widely published in the media as the result of pressure from the Vatican, following years of criticism by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith on articles touching subjects such as HIV/AIDS, religious pluralism, homosexuality and the right of life for the unborn. Reese is currently on a year-long sabbatical at Santa Clara University.


The Jesuits have frequently been described by Catholic and Protestant enemies as engaged in various conspiracies. They have also been accused of using casuistry to obtain justifications for the unjustifiable. In several languages, "Jesuit" or "Jesuitical" therefore acquired a secondary meaning of "devious." The Jesuits have also been targeted by many anti-Catholics like Jack Chick, Avro Manhattan, and Alberto Rivera. Among other things they point to the text of an extreme oath allegedly taken by advanced members of the order, which essentially justifies any action including infiltration of other faiths as legitimate in the name of the "greater good". The Jesuits have been accused of murdering Popes and presidents, causing wars, and toppling governments. There is also a claim common among many anti-Catholics that the Jesuit Superior General rules the Vatican behind the scenes. The order itself, Catholics, and most non-Catholics generally regard these claims as untrue.

Famous Jesuits

Walter Ong
Walter Ong

Among many distinguished early Jesuits was St. Francis Xavier, a missionary to Asia who converted more people to Catholicism than anyone in Catholic history before him.

Other famous Jesuits include:

See also: the Canadian Martyrs and Jesuit China missions
^  Note: Under guidelines released by Pope John Paul II, Catholic clergy are expected not to serve in positions of civil authority

Jesuit institutions

Main article: List of Jesuit institutions

Jesuits have founded and/or managed a number of institutions, notably universities, which have produced many well-known alumni.

The most prominent of these universities are in the United States where they are organized as the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities. In Latin America they are organized in the Asociación de Universidades Confiadas a la Compañía de Jesús en América Latina (Association of Universities Entrusted to the Jesuits in Latin America).

Jesuit buildings

Ruins of St Paul's Cathedral, Macau, one of many cathedrals built by the Jesuits in Asia during the 16th and 17th centuries
Ruins of St Paul's Cathedral, Macau, one of many cathedrals built by the Jesuits in Asia during the 16th and 17th centuries

Many buildings and ruins give witness to the order's construction activity world-wide. Among these are:

See also

External links

Church of the Gesu, motherchurch of the Society of Jesus in Rome
Church of the Gesu, motherchurch of the Society of Jesus in Rome

Jesuit Documents



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