The Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, is a religious order within the Catholic Church. It was founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola and since then has played an influential role in the Counter-Reformation and in the evangelization of peoples around the world.
In this approximately 9,000 word article, we will examine the history, beliefs, and practices of the Jesuits and try to understand who they are and what they stand for. Some key topics that will be covered include:
- The early history and founding of the Jesuits by Ignatius of Loyola
- The Jesuit Constitutions and the Jesuit way of life
- The Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius and Jesuit spirituality
- The missionary work and global reach of the Jesuits
- The Jesuit approach to education
- Controversies surrounding the Jesuits throughout history
- The Jesuit role in the Counter-Reformation and defense of the Catholic Church
- Jesuit beliefs, theology, and intellectual tradition
- The suppression and restoration of the Jesuit order
- The modern day Jesuits and the state of the order
Early History and Founding by Ignatius of Loyola
The Society of Jesus was founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish knight and priest. Ignatius was born in 1491 in the Basque region of northern Spain. He underwent a profound religious conversion while recovering from a battle wound in 1521, leading him to devote his life entirely to God. After several years of prayer, ascetism, and theological study, Ignatius gathered around him a group of six like-minded companions in 1534. Together they took vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, committing themselves to going wherever the Pope should send them for the salvation of souls.
In 1539, Ignatius and his companions traveled to Rome and placed themselves at the disposal of the Pope. The following year, Pope Paul III approved the foundation of the Society of Jesus as a religious order. The members were called Jesuits, an allusion to Jesus’ name. The defining spirit of the infant Society of Jesus can be seen in the opening lines of the founding document, the Formula of the Institute: “Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society…and to belong to Him alone and to the Roman Church, His vicar on earth, must, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind…” The Jesuits were to be a highly disciplined religious order, expressly devoted to the Pope and to the propagation of the Catholic faith.
The Society of Jesus was part of the Counter-Reformation, the Catholic response to the spread of Protestantism across Europe in the 16th century. While other religious orders like the Franciscans, Dominicans and Carmelites pre-dated the Reformation, the Jesuits were the first order to be founded specifically to serve the Counter-Reformation. From the very beginning, they were dedicated to restoring and strengthening Catholicism in the face of the Protestant threat.
The Jesuit Constitutions and Way of Life
The distinctive way of life and mission of the Jesuits was laid out in the Constitutions, written by Ignatius of Loyola between 1547-1551. The Constitutions emphasized flexibility and mobility in the work of the Jesuits. In contrast to the stability and communal nature of other religious orders focused on monastic life, the Jesuits were to be highly mobile, going wherever the needs of the Church were greatest.
At the same time, Ignatius promoted extreme loyalty to the Pope, whom Jesuits were bound to serve without question. Jesuits were not allowed to seek higher office or ecclesiastical honors within the Church. Humility, obedience and religious zeal were to define the Jesuit ethos.
The Constitutions also placed a strong emphasis on adequate training and spiritual formation of the Jesuits. After an initial probationary period, Jesuit formation consisted of several years of study in both spiritual and secular topics, followed by further periods of teaching and pastoral work under supervision before final vows. This ensured the high intellectual and spiritual caliber of the fully professed Jesuits.
Once accepted into the order, Jesuits were to be mobile and ready to serve wherever needed. They did not generally live in monastic communities or have churches attached to them. Jesuit houses were designated as residences from which the priests could be sent out on mission. Poverty was also stressed – the Jesuits were not allowed to seek funding through dowries, relying solely on donations for their sustenance.
The Spiritual Exercises and Jesuit Spirituality
At the core of Jesuit life and formation are the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. This short handbook consists of a carefully planned series of meditations, prayers, mental exercises and examinations of conscience to be carried out over 28-30 days under the direction of a spiritual guide. The Exercises aim to attune participants to the life of Christ and conform their wills to what pleases God most.
The content of the Exercises reflects Ignatius’ own spiritual experiences. He proposes a discipline of self-examination and reflection to open oneself up to the workings of the Holy Spirit. The participant goes through stages of repentance for sin, meditation on the events of Christ’s life, visualization of gospel scenes, and contemplation of God’s love. The goal is to grow in dedication to the service of Christ through an experience of personal love and closeness with him.
All Jesuits go through the Spiritual Exercises when entering the novitiate and again at the end of their training. Laypeople are also welcome to make the Exercises at Jesuit retreat houses. The Exercises form the basis of an Ignatian approach to spirituality that emphasizes discernment, detachment from distractions, and active service motivated by love of God.
This spirituality has been very influential in the Catholic Church. Other Ignatian practices that Jesuits follow include the daily examen, a review of consciousness to detect God’s presence throughout the day, and ‘indifference,’ the attitude of being open and obedient to God’s desires rather than our own. Jesuit retreat centers and parishes often spread Ignatian spiritual practices to the wider Catholic world.
Jesuit Missionary Work and Global Reach
From the beginning, the Jesuits were extremely active in foreign missionary work. Even before the order was officially established, Ignatius sent Francisco Xavier as a missionary to the Far East in 1541. Xavier evangelized in India, Southeast Asia, Japan, and died just miles from the Chinese mainland, hoping to bring the gospel to China.
The Jesuits were the spearhead of the Catholic Reformation, carrying Catholicism to new lands discovered by Portuguese and Spanish explorers across the world. Jesuit figures like Matteo Ricci introduced Christianity to China in the late 16th century. Missionaries were active throughout South America, India, Japan and Africa.
By the mid-18th century just before their suppression, the Jesuits had become the largest missionary order in the Church with almost 15,000 members.
The global missions required great flexibility – Jesuits studied local languages and customs to translate Christianity in culturally adapted ways. Their mobility and adaptability proved to be great assets. As a result, by the 17th and 18th centuries, the Jesuits had become the leading Catholic order throughout the world both quantitatively and qualitatively, providing the Church with numerous scholars and explorers.
Today, while the number of Jesuits has declined, the worldwide missionary spirit continues. Jesuits operate high schools, universities, parishes and retreat houses across the globe. In the Catholic Church, they retain a reputation for learned, pragmatic religious service.
From the 1540s onward, the Jesuits became deeply involved in education. Wherever they went on mission, they quickly established schools and colleges to educate both future Jesuits and the elites of society. The first Jesuit school was founded in Sicily in 1548. By the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, 35 Jesuit colleges had been established.
The Jesuit approach to education was set out in the Ratio Studiorum (“Plan of Studies”) document, developed in the late 16th century. It promoted a broad liberal arts curriculum of logic, rhetoric, ethics, mathematics, theology, and ancient languages. Education was free and open to students across social strata. Jesuit schools acquired a reputation for academic excellence and were frequented by the sons of the aristocracy across Catholic Europe.
In their schools, the Jesuits aimed to create loyal and cultured Catholics. There was a strong emphasis on logic and argumentation to equip students to defend the faith. Theater and the arts were also encouraged to cultivate refinement. The global network of Jesuit schools expanded to over 800 schools and universities by the 1700s, making the Jesuits pioneers in Catholic education.
Today, over two dozen Jesuit universities exist in the United States alone, including Georgetown, Boston College, Marquette, Fordham, and Loyola University, forming one of the world’s most extensive educational networks. Jesuit education remains committed to forming students morally, spiritually and intellectually.
Controversies and Suppression of the Jesuits
Despite their rapid growth and success, the Jesuits were mired in controversy in the late 18th century due to their political involvements across Europe and their perceived laxity in morality. Eager to check the power of Catholic monarchs and promote missions abroad, they were often accused of undermining traditional authorities. Jesuit confessors were charged with loose moralprobity.
Their shifty reputation culminated in a campaign against the Society spearheaded by the Bourbon courts who saw the Jesuits as dangerous rivals. Bowing to political pressure, Pope Clement XIV issued the bull Dominus ac Redemptor in 1773 ordering the suppression of the Jesuits worldwide. Over 20,000 Jesuits were dismissed and the order abolished except in non-Catholic Russia.
However, in 1814, Pope Pius VII reversed the suppression and allowed the Jesuits to reconstitute themselves. The order experienced a quick rebirth – by 1853 the number of Jesuits again stood at over 5,000 and they could be found operating schools and missions on every continent.
While controversies have continued to follow them, the Jesuits have survived suppression and adversity to remain the largest order of priests in the Catholic Church today. They are regarded as one of the more intellectual orders as well as the most loyal to papal authority. Their suppression and restoration remains a unique chapter in the history of Catholic religious orders.
Role in the Counter-Reformation
The founding and early growth of the Jesuits coincided with the Catholic Counter-Reformation against Protestantism in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although they were not founded explicitly and solely for the Counter-Reformation, the Jesuits quickly became a leading force of Catholic renewal in response to the spread of Protestantism.
Due to their mobility, zeal, and loyalty to the Pope, Jesuits were used to preach, catechize, and educate across areas at risk of conversion to Protestantism. Their schools became training grounds for the next generation of Catholic leaders. They spearheaded the Catholic Reformation drive to reform clergy and parishes and stop the tide of conversions.
Jesuits like Peter Canisius preached tirelessly in Germany, Poland, Bohemia and Switzerland where Protestant influences were strong, winning back many converts to Rome. In France, a largely Catholic nation, Jesuits still worked to purify popular piety and reform the clergy. Francis Xavier’s missions to Asia were also part of the effort to gain new Catholic converts abroad.
The intellectual work of the Jesuits also contributed to the Counter-Reformation in significant ways. Preachers and theologians like Francisco Suarez provided convincing justifications of Catholic doctrine in response to Protestant objections. Biblical scholarship even in Protestant countries was transformed by Jesuit scholars.
The Jesuits were so closely associated with the Counter-Reformation that the suppression of the order in 1773 was seen as a major blow to the Catholic cause. The restoration in 1814 thus marked another victory for the Counter-Reformation in its long aftermath.
Jesuit Theology and Beliefs
As an orthodox Catholic religious order, the Jesuits are committed to upholding all official Catholic teachings and doctrines. However, they have made major theological contributions of their own over the centuries and have some distinctive emphases.
One of the most prominent Jesuit theologians was 16th century figure Robert Bellarmine. He vigorously attacked Protestant doctrines and helped clarify points of Catholic teaching concerning the saints, the sacraments, and justification. Bellarmine insisted that justification was achieved through devotion and good works, not faith alone.
Jesuits such as Francisco Suarez also contributed significantly to natural theology, such as the proofs for God’s existence, earning the Jesuits a reputation as one of the most intellectual Catholic orders. Jesuit Mariology remained very strong and supported with theological sophistication the Catholic doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception and bodily assumption.
Politically, Jesuits supported monarchical absolutism as a protection for the Church against the loss of lands and influence. They developed a theology of tyrannicide that approved the murder of anti-Christian or heretical rulers.
In terms of Christian living, Jesuit spirituality focused on the discernment of spirits to identify God’s will amid many inner motivations. Active service, coupled with spiritual disciplines like meditation and examination of conscience, was seen as crucial.
Overall, the Jesuits strongly reinforced Catholic orthodoxy in the face of Protestant dissent and added their own substantial contributions to theology.
The Jesuits today number around 15,000 members worldwide. While their numbers are diminished, especially in Europe and North America, they retain a significant presence relative to other religious orders. Jesuits remain active across a broad spectrum of apostolates.
Jesuits can be found doing advanced research in the natural sciences, physics, and astronomy – for instance at the Vatican Observatory. Education is still a significant emphasis – 28 Jesuit colleges and universities exist in the United States alone. They are joined by over fifty high schools.
Jesuits continue their historical commitment to missionary work, although now focused mostly in developing nations such as Africa, Latin America, and India rather than Europe. Social justice has become a priority for many Jesuits. They can often be found addressing problems like poverty, deprived urban areas, violence, and inadequate education.
In the United States, the Jesuits also take relatively progressive stances on contentious cultural issues within the Catholic Church, like homosexuality and abortion. This has caused conflicts with more orthodox factions in the Church.
Since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, the Jesuits have shifted away from the staunch conservatism of their past. Numbers have declined, but the Jesuits remain committed to serving the “frontier” of the Church wherever that may be.
In this extensive article, we have examined the nearly 500 year history of the Society of Jesus – populary known as the Jesuits – from its origins in the 16th century down to the modern era. The Jesuits have made an enormous contribution to the Catholic church through their missionary work, education, theology and defense of orthodoxy.
Founded by Ignatius of Loyola to serve the Pope, the Jesuits quickly spread across the world as a new kind of religious order – mobile, adaptable, learned and zealous. Despite opposition, they became a leading force of Catholic revival during the Reformation.
While their numbers have diminished, the Jesuits continue to serve Christ through a broad variety of apostolates across the globe. Their eventful history and unswerving commitment to the Church marks them out as one of the most influential Catholic religious orders.