History of the Society of Jesus - Part I

A narrative account of the History of the Society of Jesus by Anton Azzopardi S.J.

Part I
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V 

Part I - Ignatius & Co.

Paul Borg and Joseph Attard were old friends, and were fond of rambling in the countryside far away from their town. They moved from countrypath to another in the silent yet vibrant atmosphere of early Spring. The former, a big, fair, good-humoured man of twenty-four, was a school teacher by profession; the latter, a sharp-faced, sensitive-looking young man of seventeen, quite tall and rather slim, with black hair and tanned complexion, was a Sixth Form student at one of the renowned schools in town. They were both members of the Catholic Action Club, and it was there that they first met and became friends. It was not surprising that on that particular ramble that morning Paul was doing most of the talking, and Joseph was listening, showing keen interest and curiosity.     

“By the way!” began Paul, “It was only the other day that I met the Jesuit Fr John, and had a most pleasant conversation with him. Indeed, we discussed a most interesting topic.”

“Like what?” blurted out Joseph.

“Unbelievable!” replied Paul, “You’d never guess! It was about the Society of Jesus, that is, the Jesuits. I asked Fr John to give me some idea of his Order, and indeed he did very cleverly.”

“Naturally!” interrupted the young man, “peacocks love to flaunt their own colourful plumes!”

“No! no! It wasn’t that! Fr John showed me both sides of the coin, but I must say I was deeply impressed by what he said about this Society of Jesus, its nature and its work.”

“So what? What did he say?” sneered Joseph half sarcastically.

Paul chuckled, and his face brightened. He hesitated how to commence, but then slowly began: “Fr John told me that the Society of Jesus comprised a group of men, priests and religious, who place themselves directly under the Pope for the propagation and defence of the Church. This was the idea of their founder St Ignatius of Loyola who even in those turbulent times of the sixteenth century, times of religious upheaval, realized that the Church needed to be better equipped not only to respond to the attacks of the so called Reformers but also to upraise the standard of Christian living amongst many, even among priests and religious.”

“Yes! Yes!” shot out Joseph, “I have heard of St Ignatius! I know that he had been a man of the world, and that subsequently he became a saint. Did Fr John speak about him?”

“I bet he did!” rejoined Paul with a self-satisfied smirk on his face, “Ignatius of Loyola lived in Spain in the sixteenth century, an age of chivalry and romance. He was a Spanish courtier, much addicted to the ways and sordid pleasures of the world, full of ambition for honours and loyal service to his monarch. He was also a soldier and campaigner, and it was while defending the citadel of Pamplona against the French that he fell, his right leg shattered by a shell. Immediately after that, the Spanish garrison surrendered. However, the French treated the wounded prisoner with delicate courtesy, so much so that they allowed him to be carried in a litter to Loyola. There the doctors operated on him, a surgery which was for him an agonizing experience, a “butchery” as he referred to it in later years. 

“During his convalescence he requested some books on chivalry to while away the time. There were no such books in Loyola castle, so he was given instead the Life of Christ by Rudolph of Saxony and a popular mediaeval lives of saints, the Golden Legend by Jacopo de Verazze.  While reading these books a procession of new thoughts began to cross his mind. He perceived in the lives of the saints a nobility far more wondrous than that of the earthly princes, and he felt himself drawn to dedicate himself fully to Christ. He now wanted to honour and serve the new monarch Christ the King, and emulate the saints, Christ’s holy knights, in their heroic endeavour. 

“At the monastery of Montserrat and the cave of Manresa where he stayed for about a year, he gave free rein to his resolve to reject the worldliness of his past life, and live a new life of prayer and penance. He kept notes of his spiritual journey towards God, and from these notes eventually emerged the book of the Spiritual Exercises, which later on laid the basis of the spirituality for Jesuits.”  

“But surely,” objected Joseph, “there must have been some other facet in the life of this Ignatius that attracted others to become his companions. He could not do that either at Monserrat or at Manresa. And, wasn’t there also a time when he wanted to go as a pilgrim to the Holy Land ? How did this come about?”

“You are perfectly right!” replied Paul, “After Manresa, Ignatius went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but the Franciscan Superior decisively vetoed his staying there because of the political trouble between the Turks and the Christians. So Ignatius had to return to Venice and eventually to Spain.

“However, now that the life of a pilgrim was over, he had to find some other orientation for his future. Since the days at Manresa he had felt an insistent urge to help other souls achieve their divine purpose, and  so he decided to study for the priesthood. Thus he started on the long and laborious trek of study at Barcellona, Alcalá and Salamanca. He also began to preach to the people at large, but the points of doctrine he preached on and the beggary life he was leading caused him harassment, imprisonment and even threat of excommunication by the Inquisition. However, at Salamanca he was thoroughly investigated and found orthodox in doctrine and unblemished in life. Nevertheless, Ignatius resolved to quit Spain and pursue his studies in Paris.”    

Poor Joseph was dumbfounded. He would have jutted in a word or two, but he felt so small and his mind went blank.

Paul rattled on, “In the seven years at the University of Paris Ignatius  qualified in arts, philosophy and theology, and was ready for the priesthood, but did not want to be ordained before spending a full year in prayer and spiritual preparation. All along his student years, however, he gave at intervals the Spiritual Exercises to a number of his fellow students such as Pierre Favre from Savoy, Francis Xavier from Navarre, Simão Rodriguez from Portugal, Diego Laynez from Castille, Alonso Salmeron from Toledo and Nicolás Bobadilla from Castille. Later, under the direction of Pierre Favre there were Claude Jay from Savoy, Paschase Broët from Picardy and Jean Codure from Seyne. These young men between the ages 18 and 24, felt the attraction of Ignatius’ magnetic spirit and decided to ally themselves with him in the service of Christ.”

“Isn’t that amazing!” muttered Joseph to Paul, “How could you possibly retain in mind all those names and details? I wouldn’t have remembered half of them for the life of me! But, go on; you almost mesmerize me!”  
Paul resumed, “To make more secure the bond of unity among themselves, the group of those young men who wanted to ally themselves to Ignatius, decided to stay and work together, and indeed  resolved to pronounce three vows: poverty, chastity and a journey to Jerusalem. If this last should prove impossible to carry out they would go to Rome and place themselves at the disposal of the Pope.  

“They left Paris and arrived in Venice. Their desire to go to the Holy Land met frustration at every turn. In the meantime they spread out among the hospitals of the city and to the amazement of the Venetians tended the sick, scrubbed floors, and buried the dead. Ignatius sent his companions to Rome to seek the Pope’s blessing and permission for some of them to be ordained, he himself remaining in Venice, for in Rome some cardinals were against him and against the formation of a new Order. But  Pope Paul III was so impressed by their theology that he not only granted their requests but also gave them permission to preach and assigned some of them to lecture on theology and Holy Scripture.   

“Back in Venice, the companions decided to disperse and go and preach in different towns of northern Italy, while Ignatius, Favre and Laynez went to Rome. However, before they separated they decided to identify themselves as the Compaňía de Jesús, Society of Jesus. 

“On their way to Rome, Ignatius, Favre and Laynez briefly stopped at a chapel called La Storta. Here Ignatius received one of the mystic graces as he beheld God the Father, and close to him Christ with his cross, both looking on him with love. He heard the Son say, ‘My desire is that you be my servant,’ and the Father ‘I shall be propitious to you in Rome’.

“In Rome, they preached, gave the Spiritual Exercises and tended the sick and the poor. But they also had to fight, with a dogged tenacity, a campaign of slander against them.”

At this point, Paul stared fixedly at Joseph and with an apologetic demeanor tactfully fished out a piece of paper from his pocket, saying, “Joseph, I must confess I do not possess a good memory for dates, so when Fr John was telling me all this I jotted down a few dates and  names.” He continued saying:

“In November 1538 in Rome the companions placed themselves entirely at the disposal of the Pope and laid it down that they were ready to go anywhere, to any part of the world. The Pope gladly accepted this magnanimous offer.

“In order to preserve their unity in spite of their dispersal on mission assignments, the companions sought to take another vow, that of obedience to the one chosen by them as leader. Ignatius also wrote the first draft of the Constitutions of their Society to be presented for approval by the Pope. 

“On 27th September 1540, Pope Paul gave formal approbation by the Bull Regimini militantis Ecclesiae. Ignatius was unanimously voted General. On April 22, 1541, he and his companions in Rome went to St Paul Outside-the-Walls and pronounced their solemn vows as members of the Society of Jesus. In 1550 Pope Julius III solemnly confirmed the Society in the Bull Exposcit debitum. Very soon the members of the Order became known as Jesuits, at first in a pejorative sense, then more generally as an expression of esteem.”

“Ignatius died in 1556. By then, the Jesuits had already been engaged in numerous facets of the Church’s life: writing, preaching and teaching in schools, giving retreats, foreign missions even to the newly-discovered lands, diplomatic missions, the reform of religious communities and so on and on.  Ignatius was canonised by Pope Gregory XV in 1622.”  

Paul stopped short, having nothing more to say.  Joseph fell into a dumb silence and could only be heard to murmur with a faint drawl “Ah, well!” The two friends trudged their way home, and Joseph, as if in a trance with serried eyebrows, kept pondering on his friend’s words.

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