Who are the Jesuits ? | The conversation

Venezuelan priest Arturo Sosa Abascal, second from right, receives congratulations after being chosen as the new Superior General of the Jesuits in 2016.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images News via Getty Images

By Dorian Llywelyn from USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences

For centuries, Jesuits have worn many hats: missionaries, educators and preachers; writers and scientists; priests with the poor and confessors of the royal courts of Europe.

I am a scholar of Catholicism and a priest who belongs to the Society of Jesus (more commonly known as the Jesuits) – often considered one of the most influential religious orders in the Catholic Church.

But the Jesuits are also among the most controversial groups in the Church: they have sometimes clashed with Catholic groups with different views or ecclesiastical authorities, and they have also been accused of colluding in politics. For example, fearing that the order would interfere in American politics, Founding Father John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson in 1816 that the order deserved “eternal perdition on earth and in hell.”

So who are the Jesuits? And what makes them distinctive?

soldier in saint

In 1521, the Basque nobleman Iñigo López – known to history as Saint Ignatius of Loyola – was seriously wounded in battle against the French in Pamplona, ​​Spain. Intense prayer during months of painful recovery brought about a personal transformation that would lead him to found the Society of Jesus in 1534.

Ignatius compiled his spiritual insights into a prayer manual called the “Spiritual Exercises.” This book was intended to help people “seek and find the will of God” and to guide them through a month-long silent retreat.

A painting shows a man posing in armour.
Saint Ignatius, the Basque nobleman who would become the founder of the Jesuits.

Photo by Christopher Fine Art/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

While studying at the University of Paris, Ignatius assembled a small group of like-minded men whom he guided through the “Spiritual Exercises”. They became the first Jesuits, soon electing Ignatius as their leader, the first Superior General. At the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, there were approximately 1,000 Jesuits spread across Europe, India and Brazil.

One mission, many ways

Catholic religious orders generally require their members to take three lifelong vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. The additional Jesuit “fourth vow” is a commitment to be available to be sent to work where the needs of the church and the world are most pressing. Often this means undertaking ministries in remote corners of the globe or in emerging fields of study.

The desire to “seek God and find God’s will in all things” is also embedded in the order. This belief has historically drawn Jesuits to many different fields of study, including math and science, and sent them to distant places. Jesuit explorers mapped the Amazon River and discovered the source of the Blue Nile. Sixteen asteroids and some 34 lunar craters are named after Jesuit astronomers.

At a time when public education was scarce, they responded to this need and built a network of schools across Europe, Latin America and Asia. Their schools developed an innovative curriculum that integrated rhetoric, classics, arts, and sciences.

Education continues to be one of the main focuses of the order, with nearly 200 universities founded by Jesuits and hundreds of other high schools and educational projects around the world.

Lightning Rods for Controversy

The work of the Jesuits has sometimes plunged them into controversy and criticism.

Among the best known is the debate on “Chinese rites” in the 17th century. Convinced that Christianity would spread faster if it adapted to local cultures, Jesuit missionaries in China incorporated elements of Confucian ancestor veneration into Catholic rituals. This move was violently opposed by Franciscan and Dominican missionaries, and Pope Clement XI banned the strategy in 1704.

The close association of the Jesuits with the royal courts and the papacy made the order influential, but also vulnerable to opposition. Starting with the territories of the Portuguese Empire, the Jesuits were gradually expelled from all the territories of the Bourbons – regions that today are part of Spain, Italy and France and their former empires – and the Habsburg lands of Central Europe. Bowing to political pressure, the Vatican officially abolished the Jesuits, and they had no official existence from 1773 to 1814.

Adapt to change, embrace justice

In 1965 Father Pedro Arrupe, a Basque who had spent much of his life in Japan, was elected the 28th Superior General of the Jesuits. At the time, the Catholic Church was implementing the teachings of the Second Vatican Council, adapting many practices to be more relevant in a changing world marked by decolonization, Cold War politics and the displacement of the Catholic population to the southern hemisphere.

Under Arrupe’s leadership, the Jesuits officially declared that a commitment to justice was essential to the work of their order. This development led many Jesuits to adopt progressive positions in religion and politics. Latin American Jesuits, for example, embraced aspects of liberation theology, which emphasized caring for the poor and oppressed: providing for people not just spiritually, but materially. Today, in the minds of many, the Jesuits continue to be associated with more progressive and liberal views.

Dusk is falling as protesters hold up posters with black and white sketches of men's faces.
Banners depicting six Jesuit priests massacred in El Salvador in 1989 are displayed at a 2008 memorial to mark the anniversary of their deaths.

AP Photo/Edgar Romero

Like those of other Catholic orders, Jesuit priests around the world have been accused of sexual abuse. A recent church report in Spain, for example, identified 96 attackers, most of whom had already died.

Meanwhile, more historical research is emerging on the Jesuits’ involvement in slavery. In 2021, the order pledged US$100 million for descendants of people enslaved by Georgetown University in the 19th century and for racial justice initiatives.

Pope Francis and the future of the Jesuits

The prospect of a Jesuit pope was once considered unlikely, given the tensions at times between other church leaders and the order. Consequently, the 2013 election of Jesuit Jorge Bergoglio as Pope Francis surprised many, and his pontificate continued in that vein.

Pope Francis has been alternately hailed as a modernizer welcoming LGBT Catholics and criticized for his insufficient responsiveness to the clerical sex abuse crisis.

Vatican watchers note some characteristic Ignatian overtones in Pope Francis’ priorities, language and management style, including greater attention to the poor. He emphasized the need to consider all sides of an argument when making church decisions and showed a pragmatic willingness to consider new approaches.

Two boys in a crowd hold a fan with a picture of Pope Francis.
Two boys await the arrival of Pope Francis in Cartagena, Colombia in 2017. Francis visited in honor of Saint Peter Claver, a 17th-century Jesuit who cared for enslaved Africans who arrived at the port.

AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan

Future Jesuit priorities will continue to evolve as the order adapts to new circumstances. But it is the “Spiritual Exercises” that remain central to the identity and mission of today’s 17,000 Jesuits.The conversation

This article is republished by The Conversation, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to unleashing expert knowledge for the public good.


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