A Short (sort of!) History of the Jesuits

The Society of Jesus is a Roman Catholic organization of men (about half of them priests) vowed to poverty, celibacy, and obedience. Technically, they are neither monks (like the Benedictines) nor friars (like the Franciscans and the Dominicans), but clerks regular (clergy or scholars living in accordance with a Rule of Life). Their stated purpose is the salvation and perfection (i.e. the justification and sanctification) of each individual Jesuit and, ultimately, every human being.

They were chartered by the Pope in 1540, and at first the charter restricted them to a maximum of 60 members (this restriction was lifter after 4 years). In subsequent years their membership was

    1556        938
    1565      3,500
    1626     15,544
    1710     19,998
    1749     22,589
     ---     ------
    1814        600
    1850      4,600
    1900     15,073
    1932    ~23,000
    1964     35,968

(As described below, the order was disbanded in 1773 and re-organized in 1814. The last detailed census of the order before 1773 is that of 1749.)

Jesuits differ in several respects from most other orders. The order is highly centralized in its government, with most policy decisions coming down from the top. Its members wear no distinctive dress, but simply dress like the local priests. There is no corresponding Second Order for women, or Third Order for associates following a modified form of the rule. Jesuits recite the daily prayers individually rather than in community.

They also differ from most other orders in having a long period of training before full membership. After a two-year novitiate, a member (at least a high school graduate to begin with) enters a house of study for 5 years, followed by a "few" years (say 2) of teaching experience, and then 5 more years (longer for some scholars), for a total of at least 12 before becoming a fully professed Jesuit of the Four Vows (poverty, celibacy, obedience, and the fourth vow of personal loyalty to the Pope). Only the fully professed may vote in a congregation of Jesuits, but otherwise they have no special privileges. The order is divided into provinces, which elect delegates to the general convention, which elects the superior general, who serves for life.

The Jesuit order (Society of Jesus) has often been compared to an army, and it was notable for its insistence on strict, absolute obedience to the orders of a superior. One might have expected that only shuffling, vacant-eyed zombies would enlist. On the contrary, it has attracted to its ranks many recruits of outstanding ability and intelligence.

They were begun by a group of Spanish Christians, at a time when the reconquest of Spain from the moslems was but recently accomplished, and persons with Moorish or Jewish ancestry were under suspicion. It is accordingly much to their credit that the Jesuits were firmly opposed (particularly under Ignatius and his first three successors as Superior General of the Jesuits) to ecclesiastical anti-Semitism and to the Inquisition's persecution of suspected Jews. When Ignatius was accused of having partly Jewish ancestry, he replied, "If only I did! What could be more glorious than to be of the same blood as the Apostles, the Blessed Virgin, and our Lord Himself?" Regrettably, they were often active in the punishment of suspected witches. But not all of them were. Some of them championed the cause of the suspects. The Jesuit Friedrich Speem denounced the witch-hunts in his Cautio Criminalis, writing: "Torture fills our Germany with witches and unheard-of wickedness, and not only Germany but any nation that attempts it.... If all of us have not confessed ourselves witches, that is only because we have not all been tortured."

Jesuit Missions in Non-christian Countries
The original intent of the Jesuits was to form a mission to the moslems of Jerusalem, and missionary work among non-Christians has always been a high priority of the order. In 1749 more than one seventh of all Jesuits were missionaries--more than one fifth of all Jesuit priests.

Within months after the order was founded, Ignatius sent his ablest associate, Francis Xavier, to preach in the Far East, and his work there bore considerable fruit. He and those who followed preached in Persia, Tibet, Ceylon, Burma, the Malay Peninsula, Thailand, Indochina, and the East Indian Islands, but chiefly in India, China, and Japan.

The China Mission began in the 1580's, against obstacles in that the Chinese regarded theirs as the highest of all cultures and were convinced that outsiders had nothing to offer them in goods or ideas. Hence neither traders or teachers were welcome. The Jesuits sent some of their best scientists, astronomers like Matteo Ricci, to the Chinese court, where their skill at clock-building and their scientific and techinical knowledge won them respect and a hearing. In their missionary work, they took what has been called an "accommodationist" approach. They dressed like Chinese mandarins. They used Chinese rather than Latin in the liturgy. They retained Chinese terminology, using the Chinese word for "Heaven" to refer to God. They honored Confucius as a sage, a worthy teacher on ethical questions. Most controversial of all, they permitted converts, at least on a temporary basis, to continue ancient and beloved customs honoring their ancestors. But members of other religious orders, notably the Franciscans, moved either by inter-order rivalry or by honest concern, denounced these concessions as watering down the faith to the danger of the souls of the converts, and appealed to Rome, which in 1742 decided against the Jesuits.

In Japan, the Jesuit mission prospered at first, as the Jesuits took care to present their case diplomatically. (For,example they avoided the use of crucifixes, which the Japanese had a strong aversion to. This did not mean that they failed to preach about the death and resurrection of our Lord.) In came the Franciscans, brandishing their crucifixes and in other ways treading on local sensibilities, and in came some crude political interference by the Portuguese government, and in 1651 the whole mission effort collapsed in a welter of government persecution and suppression. Jesuit martyrs totalled 111. (In fairness to the Franciscans, they had their martyrs, too.) For the next two centuries Japan was closed to Christian missions, and Japanese Christians were secret and few.

The Jesuits were active in the missionizing of the Hispanic territories in the Americas, particularly in Brazil and in Paraguay. In the Jesuit province of Paraguay (which included what is now the country of Paraguay plus portions of the surrounding countries), they set up, with the approval of the government, what were called Reducciones ("reductions"), which were villages of Christian Indians, under the spiritual, social, economic, and political direction of the missioners. The intention was benevolent, and totally paternalistic. The Jesuits succeeded in protecting their charges from exploitation by the European settlers; they took no money or goods from them, saw to it that no one robbed them or enslaved them, and devoted themselves to the Indians' physical and spiritual welfare. However, they treated them like children, made all their significant decisions for them, and although they instructed them diligently in the Christian faith, they never considered encouraging or permitting them to seek the priesthood. As a result, when a change of government policy expelled the Jesuits from Paraguay, the local society simply collapsed. The missionaries were self-sacrificing parents who would do anything for their children except let them grow up.

The mission in non-Spanish America fared somewhat differently. The most famous work of the Jesuits there was a mission to the Huron Indians of eastern Canada and adjacent territories. The Hurons and the Iroquois were hereditary enemies, and several Jesuits, identified by the Iroquois as friends of the Hurons, were martyred.

Jesuits and Education
It had not been the original intention of the Jesuits to become involved in schools, but popes, bishops, and laymen alike told them that schools were needed, and Ignatius accepted the argument. By 1556 three fourths of Jesuits not in training were engaged in running schools. Some were schools for the Jesuits themselves, and many of their other pupils were children of the poor or the middle class. (Tuition was free.) However, they made a special effort to enroll the children of kings, nobles, and others in power, those who would set the policies and the tone of the society. (This was not a new idea. Centuries earlier, missionaries to heathen tribes had learned that if you convert the chief, the others will tend to follow his lead.)

One of their most effective ways of spreading ideas and impressing them on the minds of listeners was through drama. Both the New Catholic Encyclopedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica have separate articles under the heading of "Jesuit drama".

To quote from Paul Johnson's History of Christianity,

What in fact they did was to provide an educational service on Demand. If a Catholic prince or prince-bishop wanted an orthodox school, college or univeristy established and conducted efficiently, he applied to the Jesuits; he supplied the funds and buildings, they the trained personnel and techniques. They were, in effect, rather like a modern multi-national company selling expert services. And they brought to the business of international schooling a uniformity, discipline, and organization that was quite new.

Unless otherwise indicated, this biographical sketch was written by James E. Kiefer and any comments about its content should be directed to him. The Biographical Sketches home page has more information.