In the Prologue of The Jesuits: A History, the author, a recognized authority of Modern European History, advises the reader: “This is a historical book,” written with “nothing to defend or attack.” It is a book of “historical processes, not religious truths.” He amplifies this premise in relatively small type on nearly 900 pages, inviting the reader to appreciate why the Jesuits have been the objects of both admiration and animosity, and to appreciate how, from the earliest members up to Pope Francis, Jesuits have adapted themselves to fit into the border lines of history. Any reader desirous to pick up on further amplification of the author’s assertions has about 2,500 endnotes and more than 70 pages of works cited to aid him in his endeavors.
However scholarly this magnum opus is, it can be read and enjoyed by anyone interested in the topic. The translation from the German original, published in 2016, is exceptionally gratifying, freckled even in places with American-English slang expressions. Then too, the organization of such amount of factual information is one more reason for the book’s attractive appeal.
Doctor Markus Friedrich begins his crafted presentation with a slight sketch of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556), the founder of the Society of Jesus and the hegemonic model of its members and its future apostolic works. After giving a nod to his acknowledged sanctity and somewhat quixotic personality, the author briefly describes the spiritual conversations he had with some younger students (he was then in his 30s) at the University of Paris. He extracted the content of these exchanges from notes about his own spiritual, psychological experiences.
In 1534, he and six of these students climbed up to near-by Montmartre, the Mount of Martyrs – a paradigmatic setting – where they pronounced the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience in no particular organization. Four years later, they settled in Rome, placing themselves at the disposal of the pope, and in 1540, Pope Paul III recognized and approved their group as the Society of Jesus. At that date there were ten members. In 1556, the year of Ignatius’ death, the number was one thousand, and in 1750, the beginning of the Suppression, there were 22,589 Jesuits throughout the world.
The author gives a concentrated description of the essence of the Society in his treatment of the Ignatius’ two works: The Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions. They are the epitome and distillation of the Ignatian spirit, the mold in which Jesuits have been formed, even prior to the official birth of the Society. The first is a booklet containing Ignatius’s organized jottings, described above, that were eventually put into print. The second, the charter of the Society, containing more than 800 paragraphs, was not completed until 1552, four years before his death.
An aspirant to the Society in 1540 would learn through the Exercises that he should be “indifferent” to whatever assignment he would be given because “the whole world is his home”. He should learn to be “active in contemplation” and to “seek God in all things”, while constantly striving for the “magis” (the more, the greater), that is, constantly raising the bar in his effort to achieve his own spiritual development and to “help the souls” of his neighbors in their search to find God, the primary purpose of the Society. Its motto, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, AMDG (In all things: “For the greater glory of God”), succinctly captures these principles.
One might view the history of the Society as a triptych — the reviewer’s suggestion. The first panel would highlight what the author terms the First Society, that is, from its beginning in 1540, to its suppression in 1773. The next panel would deal with happenings during the course of the Second Society, from its revival in 1814 to 1945, and the end panel would depict the main features of the Third Society, that is, from the end of World War II to the present time.
Professor Friedrich gives a quick summary of activities of the first companions that seem prophetic of the future Society: in 1541, Ignatius’ roommate at the University of Paris, St. Francis Xavier, opened the Society to a global reach; Diego Lainez and Alfonso Salmeron were noted theologians who participated at all of the sessions of the Council of Trent (1545-63); another roommate, St. Peter Favre, “with simplicity and honesty” just walked around Europe greeting pleasantly all he encountered; Nicholas Bobadilla often clashed with Ignatius, as did another Paris companion, Simon Rodriguez, whom Ignatius finally removed as provincial of Portugal. During its long history Jesuits would walk in the steps of these men: missionaries in foreign lands; theologians, teachers, men of influence in ecclesiastical, political and social fields. The Society would have many enemies, but none more devastating than those from within its ranks.
Friedrich also demonstrates how, from the beginning, the Jesuits had a less centralized, bureaucratic and complex structure than the older religious orders. This factor gave them greater leverage to accommodate to political, cultural, individual and economic changes of the fast-developing world, enabling them to “help souls” in divergent ways.
Soon after arriving in Rome, Ignatius became convinced the magis way to “help a greater number of souls” was through higher education. The author’s description of the development of Jesuits colleges and the accompanying Ratio studiorum (study plan) is engrossing. In 1556, the year of Ignatius’ death, there were 50 colleges in Europe, and in 1574 there were 163, and in 1710 there were 612 Jesuit colleges world-wide, one of the largest networks in history, a major force in the creation of European civilization that has never been adequately evaluated.
Jesuits committed to “help the souls” of students in the colleges had to be teachers and fund raisers, providers of knowledge, food and lodging for their tuition-room-and-board-free charges. Where could they find better could funds – lands, endowments, cash – than among the ruling class? Result: more than a few Jesuits became spiritual advisers to the local ruler, who was not averse to seeking consul from his spiritual father on political matters and the appointment of bishops and abbots. This policy had repressions. Louis XIV of France, once sought and found support from his Jesuit confessor in a grievance with the pope and Jesuit general.
As teachers, Jesuits followed the Ratio studiorum of 1599, an academic plan of studies based on the curriculum of the University of Paris and expanded by the Jesuit ideal. It was not limited to academics. The author gives coverage to Marian Congregations, whose rules plotted out the way for future lay men to grow in Jesuit spirituality. Theatre arts had an important formative roll in the formation of students. Jesuits became specialists in painting, architecture, rhetoric, philosophy and theology, and they integrated new discoveries in astronomy, botany, mechanics and electricity into the curriculum.
Dissemination of information was another feature Jesuits saw was an open door to the magis. Ignatius urged his men to write frequent letters to inform a wide audience of their work in places where they had been assigned to “help souls”. Information tracts was the Society’s “way of proceeding”. Description of native peoples, the fauna and flora of foreign places along with missionary challenges became popular reading material throughout Europe. Result: more vocations to the Society; greater funding for the missions, advancement of scientific knowledge and challenges for trading and colonizing. Some Jesuits became pioneers of scientific studies during the long Enlightenment Age. St. Robert Bellarmine was an advocate of Galileo as well as advocate of restricted power of secular and religious rulers. Also, the connections between Jesuits in various parts of the world encouraged a type of supply and demand economy.
One of Ignatius’ companions, Diego Lainez, is considered “the first military chaplain”. He traveled with the Spanish army in battles against the Muslims in North Africa, and Jeronimo Nadal accompanied the Spanish army from Sicily to North Africa in 1551. Jesuits were chaplains at the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 and in 1588, there were twenty-three Jesuit chaplains aboard ships of the Armada, fifteen of whom lost their lives. Richelieu ordered that six Jesuit were to be assigned to every large French army. They also became traveling catechists, noted preachers, and dispensers of the sacraments to the large body of asserted, but not convinced, Catholics throughout so-called Catholic Europe.
With all of this success how did the term “jesuitical” come to mean casuistic, clever, but of unsounding reasoning? The author devotes pages to this question about the Jesuits’ system of assessing guilt in moral matters to individual cases (causus). Casuistry was embedded in the ratio as early as 1559, and credited for the rise of confessions throughout western Europe. It was an important item during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in confrontations with rigorists, Jansenists, opposers of the Chinese Rites, and movements that combined religious and political issues together. The solution? Elimination of the Society, an event that occurred in 1773 when Pope Benedict XIII suppressed it throughout the world.
If the first Society came into the world like the proverbial lion, the second Society, like an iconic lamb, entered where political, cultural, religious, and social realities were being developed that were far different from those which the First Society had to face. The “new” Jesuits had no historical knowledge how to respond to budding cells that would sprout into modernism, socialism, fascism and communism. In some European countries Jesuits experienced more expulsions, after-shocks that caused their missions outside Europe to expand concomitantly. The generals in Rome stressed the importance making the Exercises more available. The Ratio studiorum was recalibrated to adapt to the times, while the principles of Thomism were re-enforced.
The author recounts an event that witnesses better than words to the culture that eventually enveloped the Second Society. An important, well-respected Jesuit, who directed General Franco in making the Spiritual Exercises after the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), joined the Communist party in 1943.
The reason was that prior ways of bringing Christ to others were ineffective in dealing with the “neo-pagans”, the urbanized proletariat throughout Europe that had been victimized by capitalism and urbanization. Social injustice hampered the divine plan of divine justice. Such was a partial setting in 1962 for the beginning of Vatican II and of the Third Society of Jesus. The 1960s was the period when the sexual revolution shifted into high gear and interpretations of celibacy and obedience collided among the rank and file Jesuits, adding to tensions that resulted from the transformation of community life.
Pedro Arrupe was elected general of the Society in 1965. His mandate was to reform the Third Society in the light of the aggiornamento; to adapt it to modern times, modern problems. This meant to re-discover the “authentic” Ignatius. High schools were made less “bourgeois”; colleges operated with greater autonomy, eventually becoming no different from secular institutions; the tenants of “liberation theology”, popular in Latin America, and the “preferential option for the poor”, for whom there was to be “total immersion”, became the Jesuit translations of aggiornamento or “inculturation”.
Arrupe was a very enthusiastic, approachable superior and he attempted painstakingly to guide the Society by trial and error into the modern age, but there was a movement among some Jesuits to remove him by force from office. His legacy is seen today as the basis of the order’s success, particularly in the third world. In 1980, Pope John Paul II was considering replacing him with a personal delegate. In the following year, a stroke both saved him from dishonor while enabling the pope to place the Society, for the first time in history, under papal supervision. Arrupe died in 1991, but his spirit invigorates the Third Society to the present day.
On reaching the end of Friedrich’s history of the Society of Jesus, one might be expected to have similar reaction as one standing in a museum studying the ossified relics of a dinosaur. According to the author this would be wrong. Despite plummeting membership and vocations to the Society in first world countries, the Society thrives in India and Africa and, in the author’s final words, it “can still be a major player in the twenty-first century.”
The Jesuits: A History
By Markus Friedrich
Translated by John Noël Dillon
Princeton University Press, 2022
Hardcover, 872 pages
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