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Society of Jesus

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The Society of Jesus (Latin: Societas Iesu), commonly known as the Jesuits, is a Roman Catholic religious order numbering over 20,000 men. It was founded in 1534 by a group of University of Paris graduate students led by Iñigo López de Loyola (Ignatius of Loyola). Based in Rome, it continues today to minister to both Catholics and non-Catholics in more than 100 nations.



On August 15, 1534, Ignatius and six other students (Francis Xavier, 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 Maiorem 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 heaven if it is performed with this intention, even things considered normally indifferent.

Early works

The Jesuits were founded just before the Counter-Reformation, a movement whose purpose was to reform the Roman 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 doctrine, Ignatius himself taking an extreme position when he wrote:

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

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 Church. As a result, though the Jesuits were loyal sons of the pope, Ignatius and his successors often tangled with him and the Roman Curia. Throughout their history, the Jesuits have had the reputation for serving as papal "elite troops". One should regard such statements with caution, however. History demonstrates that the Jesuits have been at loggerheads with the pope as often as they have been in his good graces. Indeed, the pope even once ordered their total suppression, as will be described below.

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 people in active life, and to use it as a means of rebuilding the spiritual life of the Church.

The Jesuits also founded many schools, which, because of their advanced teaching methods and high moral tone, attracted the sons of the élite. The Jesuits were among the first to incorporate the Classical teachings of Renaissance humanism into the Scholastic structure of Catholic thought. In addition to teaching the faith, Jesuit schools were distinguished in their teaching of Latin, Greek, Classical Literature, Poetry, and Philosophy. Furthermore, Jesuit schools encouraged the study of vernacular literature and rhetoric, and thereby became important centers for the training of lawyers and other public officials. The Jesuit schools thus played an important part in winning back to Catholicism a number of European countries which had for a time been predominately Protestant, notably Poland. Even today, Jesuit schools in over one hundred nations continue to provide a high-quality education.

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 (which the Lutherans so despised). 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.


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 Portugese 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 and Tupi-Guarani (a language group of South American aborigenes).

Period of troubles

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.

After the Society was revived by Rome in the early 19th century, its members were generally supportive of Papal authority within the Church, and were intimately associated with the Ultramontanist movement and the declaration of Papal Infallibility in 1870.

Jesuits today

The Society of Jesus is very active in missionary work and in education, operating in various countries spread across the world. Among them are Philippines, India and the United States (over 50 high schools and colleges in the United States alone).

Some Jesuits in Latin America and the United States have taken leftist views of Catholicism, being involved in liberation theology, which the Vatican has been reluctant to embrace. Whether taking such political positions is acceptable for Jesuits has been the theme of many debates within the Catholic Church.


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 around an objective truth. 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 justified in the name of the "greater good". They have been accused of murdering Popes, presidents, causing wars, and toppling governments. There is also a claim 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

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.

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 colleges and universities include (in alphabetical order):

The Jesuits have also founded and maintain a number of high schools or secondary schools, many of which formed by splitting off of or in association with Jesuit colleges or universities. In the United States, these are organized into the Jesuit Secondary Education Association [1]. These schools include (in alphabetical order):

Ruins of St Paul's Cathedral, Macau
Ruins of St Paul's Cathedral, Macau

Jesuit buildings

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

See also

External links

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