Ignatius of Loyola and the expansion of the Jesuit Order

The Jesuit Order this year celebrates 200 years since it was restored by Pope Pius VII after its suppression 41 years earlier. This is the first in a series of four articles in which Fr Robert Soler, SJ, reviews the Jesuits’ history from 1521 to 1757.

Ignatius of Loyola and the expansion of the Jesuit Order

Probably born in 1491, Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, was born in the castle of the Loyola family in the Basque Country in Spain. Trained as a courtier, he felt strongly drawn to a military career. Until the age of 30 he led a disorderly life.

In a military conflict between the French and the Spaniards at Pamplona in 1521, Ignatius was struck by a cannonball. After two painful operations, he was left with a slight limp.

During his convalescence in Loyola, his mind would often wander, thinking of the great things he would do to impress a lady he greatly admired. However, while reading about the life of Christ and a book on the lives of the saints, he would feel spurred to do great things for God.

He noticed that when his mind followed the former train of thought, he was pleased but afterwards felt dry and empty. When he thought of holy enterprises, by contrast, he felt peace and joy both at the time and afterwards. God was leading him in the way of discernment, something that was to become specific of Jesuit spirituality as a way to find and do God’s will.

In the castle of Loyola, Ignatius gave himself totally to God, starting on a life-pilgrimage in total trust. In 1522, he spent a few months in prayer and penance at Manresa, a town not far from Barcelona. There the Lord God put Ignatius through the deep, life-changing experience of prayer that he later consigned to his classic book, Spiritual Exercises. He was to guide innumerable people in the experience reflected in that book, and many Jesuits go on doing so to this day.

In 1523, Ignatius joined other pilgrims on a visit to the Holy Land. Visiting the places where the Incarnate Son of God had lived consolidated Ignatius’ deep love for Jesus. Back in Spain, he wished to ‘aid souls’, namely by helping people spiritually through sharing what he had learnt at Manresa. But he also decided to study, doing this for about three years, with scant academic results. Realising that serious study of languages, philosophy and theology would in the end enable him to help people better, he went to one of the very best universities, that of Paris between 1527 and 1534. Ignatius begged to cover expenses.

In Paris, Ignatius befriended a number of other students and gave them the Exercises. Six became his companions. They included two saints, Francis Xavier and Pierre Favre. In 1534, they took a vow in the small chapel of St Denys in Montmartre that upon finishing their studies, they would meet in Venice to go together on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. If within a year no ship would travel to the Holy Land, they bound themselves to go to Rome and offer themselves to the Pope, for him to assign them where to go.

On the way, Ignatius had a vision at La Storta, close to Rome, of the Father ‘placing him with the Son’, who was carrying the cross. Jesus said ‘I want you to serve us’, ‘us’ meaning the Trinitarian God. The Father promised that they would find favour in Rome, which Ignatius interpreted as meaning that they would face serious difficulties.

The 10 companions decided in 1539 to seek papal approval as a new-style religious order. This order would be bound by a vow of special obedience to the Holy Father and its end would be not only to seek the members’ growth in sanctity “but with that same grace to labour strenuously in giving aid toward the salvation and perfection of the souls of their fellow human beings” (General Examen [3]). Therefore, of its very nature, this new form of religious life was to be apostolic.

There was strong initial resistance, especially to the companions’ insistent request that the society bear the name of Jesus and do without certain elements associated with religious orders, such as wearing a specific dress or reciting liturgical prayers daily together. Ignatius promised that the companions would offer 3,000 Masses to obtain the Pope’s approval.

Pope Paul III formally approved the Society of Jesus on September 27, 1540. The papal decree specified that the companions should elect the superior general. Ignatius was chosen as superior and led the society between 1541 and his death in 1556.

The papal decree also established that, keeping strictly to tenets expressly approved by the Supreme Pontiff, the superior general was to write the society’s constitutions. In 1551, Ignatius submitted a well-pondered text to his companions for consultation. Some of the suggestions made were adopted. Ignatius, however, wanted to continue to learn from lived experience to see if further changes were necessary. The final draft of the Jesuit Constitutions was still on Ignatius’s desk when he died. The constitutions were finally approved in 1558 by an assembly, called a general congregation, that elected his successor.

Past biographies have highlighted the military aspect of Ignatius’ character and his ability for strategic apostolic planning. Traces of these elements undoubtedly exist. More recent writings, however, based on research of Ignatius’s writings, including his (untitled) autobiography, his Spiritual Journal and his over 6,800 extant letters, show that Ignatius was, above all, a mystic burning with the fire of divine love, a priestly apostle and a spiritual director. This explains why early iconography often represented Ignatius in his priestly vestments.

The early Jesuits were involved mainly in aiding souls through spiritual ministries, like giving the Exercises, preaching the Word of God and celebrating the sacraments of the eucharist and penance. Alongside this, however, they were also active in social ministries, like visiting and serving the sick in hospitals and working for the reconciliation of those estranged. In Rome in 1543, Ignatius himself helped set up the Santa Marta hostel for women who had abandoned a life of prostitution.

The society grew considerably during Ignatius’ lifetime. Although it was founded, above all, to help people pastorally, it appeared on the European scene at the time of the Protestant reform. The Pope understandably missioned some of these well-formed religious to represent the Catholic viewpoint. St Pierre Favre, for instance, was sent to Germany.

Favre consciously avoid­ed theological controversy, realising that the problem was not doctrinal but a breakdown in Catholic life. Through his ability in giving the Spiritual Exercises, his charm and his charism for conversation on spiritual subjects, he contributed greatly towards the regeneration of the Catholic Church in Germany. Likewise St Peter Canisius was sent to Germany during Ignatius’s lifetime, working zealously there for 54 years, helping consolidate the faith through his catechism.

Ignatius’s first companions were also asked to serve the Pope in official roles. In 1545, for instance, Diego Laynez and Salmeron were assigned to the Council of Trent as papal theologians, their erudition at plenary sessions helping elucidate several points of doctrine at that important council.

A very significant development was the request from various quarters that the Jesuits should set up schools. Originally, Ignatius and the first companions had envisaged the Society of Jesus as a group of men vowed to poverty and totally available to be sent by the Pope on mission even at a moment’s notice. This demanded mobility. Running a school, by contrast, demanded funds and stability in a given place by the educators: it seemed to be in conflict with the original inspiration.

Several Jesuits saw the possibilities inherent in the educational apostolate. Claude Jay, one of the first companions, wrote to Ignatius that the society could do nothing more precious for religiously ravaged Germany than to set up colleges to form and teach young people. In the end, Ignatius came round to seeing the value of the educational apostolate.

At Gandia, Spain, courses for young Jesuits were opened to lay students with Ignatius’s consent in 1546. But it was in 1548 in Messina, Sicily, that the first school exclusively for lay students opened. Ignatius missioned 10 carefully chosen Jesuits for this project.

In order for Jesuit education to be accessible to all students, whatever their social extraction, Ignatius would demand that a Jesuit college be funded by the local authorities asking for a school to be set up, so that there would be no fees for students.

Ignatius had hoped to found a college even in Malta. Bishop Dominic Cubelles asked Ignatius to open a college here, and promised funds for the school. Ignatius backed the idea. A handwritten letter of Ignatius to Cubelles still exists. In 1554, Nicolas Bobadilla, one of the first companions, was designated to take charge of the project. Ignatius hoped for Jesuit vocations from Malta. He had been informed that the Maltese spoke Arabic, and thought they would make excellent missionaries in North Africa among Muslims. However, the idea of a college in Malta did not materialise in Ignatius’s lifetime.

The foreign missions too were launched during the life of Ignatius. Although Jesuit expansion in Europe was impressive, it was even more extraordinary in the three other known continents in the 15 short years of Ignatius’s time as superior general. In spite of the difficulties of sea travel, by the time Ignatius died, Jesuit missionaries were in India, Japan, Brazil, and Congo.

Unquestionably, the most well-known figure in this domain was another of Ignatius’s first companions, Francis Xavier. He travelled in various parts of Asia – India, Indonesia, the Moluccas and Japan. In Japan, he learnt the rudiments of the language and suffered many rebuffs, until he finally obtained permission from the daimyo of Yamaguchi to preach the faith. He made a few hundred converts, planting the seed of Christianity in Japan.

Xavier’s great dream was to enter the culturally advanced empire of China, and he, in fact, managed to reach the island of San Chian, merely two miles from that vast country. Providence disposed, however, that he would die before entering China, aged only 46.

At the time of Ignatius’s death in 1556, the Society of Jesus already had a thousand members and many missions, colleges and houses.

There followed a period of two centuries (1556-1757) in which the Jesuit Order flourished impressively.

Spiritual ministry continued to be given importance. Hundreds of Jesuits spent their lives running inner city churches, giving so-called missions among the people and evangelising rural areas: they include St Bernardino Realino, who died in 1616, Paolo Segneri in Italy, and St François Regis, who died in 1640 in France. Fr Vincent Huby founded several retreat houses.

Sodalities of the Blessed Virgin Mary imbued with Ignatian spirituality were also set up. A city could have several sodalities, each for a particular craft or group, such as artisans, students, workers and various professions.

Where the Jesuits ran colleges, even though excellence in studies was sought, the spiritual formation and well-being of the students was given primary importance; furthermore, one or two Jesuit fathers did not teach in the school but were detailed to do spiritual and pastoral ministry in the area surrounding the school.

Both in Europe and in mission territories, the educational apostolate, however, grew exponentially in the 200 years after Ignatius’s death, and therefore caught the eye. By 1600, just 45 years after the death of the founder, the society was running 245 schools, by 1615 already 372. No single field of the apostolate claimed the energies of the society as the running of schools.

More important than the growing number of schools was the creation of the Jesuit educational system. Under superior generals Mercurian and Aquaviva, feedback concerning pedagogical methods used, a process of consultation and then experimentation of a draft plan led in 1599 to the approval of the Ratio Studiorum, the plan of studies of a Jesuit school.

The Ratio Studiorum integrated the basic insights of Ignatius in Part IV of the Jesuit Constitutions, and the accumulated wisdom of half a century of running schools. It specified the spirituality and philosophy of Jesuit education, while also providing directives for administrators and teachers of the different subjects and classes.

The network of Jesuit schools also extended to Malta. Pope Clement VIII had asked Bishop Gargallo and Grand Master Jean l’Evesque de la Cassiere to set up a college. The Collegium Melitense was accordingly founded in Valletta in 1592, and is the forerunner of the University of Malta. Classes started in a house in Valletta which served as a temporary residence for the Jesuits. By 1597, the school and community had moved into the building that today houses the University’s Valletta campus.

The Collegium Melitense served with distinction in the educational domain until 1768. But the Jesuits were also active in the pastoral field, such as providing catechism to children, spiritual help to the knights, sermons in rural areas, running Marian sodalities for knights, students and workers and evangelising Turkish slaves.

In their missionary approach, especially in India and China, the Jesuits sought what is known as ‘inculturation’ of the gospel message, that is, the expression of the Catholic faith in terms appropriate to the culture in which evangelisation takes place.

Italian Jesuit Alessandro Valignano, who arrived in Goa in 1574 to oversee the society’s apostolic labours in Asia, had gradually formulated surprisingly far-sighted general principles for the missionaries. They included respect and sympathy for the intellectual and spiritual values present within a culture, the most perfect command possible of the language, the promotion of the apostolate of writing and of conversation, seeking to influence the educated classes on whom good government depended, being familiar with science, which is also a useful element in introducing the faith, and giving primacy to supernatural virtue.

The principle of adaptation was put into practice by missionaries like Roberto de Nobili in India after 1606 and especially by Matteo Ricci in China after 1583. Ricci showed a deep respect for Chinese culture and mastered the language. His collection of mathematical instruments, prisms, clocks and paintings addressed the educated classes: his grasp of the natural sciences served as a way into presenting Catholic thought.

Both in India and in China, there was strong opposition from other missionaries who could not quite transcend their Western way of thinking. Two groups of men, sincere and dedicated, clashed in their fundamental approach: one group believed accommodation opened the door to evangelisation, the other group considered such adaptation an unacceptable betrayal. Those against courageous adaptation prevailed. Evidently, one nowadays wonders whether and to what extent the Church in Asia today would be stronger if there had been more openness to the inculturation of the gospel message.

Creative missionary solutions of a different sort were tried out in South America, where Jesuit missionaries sought out the nomad Indios to bring the faith to them. They discerned that stable communities were needed. The best known and most interesting such religious and social venture was that of the reducciònes (reductions) set up in the territory covering areas now in Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. These were towns of a few thousand inhabitants each, built around a central square, with homes, a church, a school, workshops where skills were taught, farms, pasture land, and orchards. There were 57 reducciònes by 1767, with nearly 114,000 Indios.

The society had many members who shed their blood to give witness to their faith and personal love for Jesus. Martyred Jesuit saints in missionary lands include Paul Miki in Japan, Joao de Brito in India, Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf in North America. Other Jesuits died as martyrs in Europe, including Edmund Campion and his English Jesuit confrères, and István Pongrácz and Melchior Grodziecki in Kosice (then in Hungary, now in Slovakia).

Jesuit Brothers form an integral and vital part of all the society’s work. From the early years of the society’s existence, generous men asked to live in community as fully-fledged Jesuit religious, without feeling called to the priesthood. They were prepared to serve in the enterprises of the society, including through manual work.

Some lived very saintly lives, such as St Alphonsus Rodrigues, the porter of the College of Palma de Maiorca. Four, including English Brother Nicholas Owen, died as martyrs and are canonised. Others lived hidden lives, expressing their love for Christ through concrete service, often doing simple repetitive manual jobs. Others were active in mission territories, for example in the Reducciònes. Still others distinguished themselves through their art: suffice it to mention Brother Andrea Pozzo, whose magnificent paintings in St Ignatius church in Rome are considered his masterpiece.

Baroque architecture and art are closely associated with the society. The church of the Gesù in central Rome erected for the Jesuits by Cardinal Alessandro Farnese from 1568 onwards, is considered the prototype of baroque religious architecture. In 1658, the society commissioned Lorenzo Bernini to work on Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, one of the most splendid baroque churches in Rome. The Baroque Jesuit architectural style spread to other areas, for instance Bavaria, Austria, and Belgium.

From 1600 to 1750, Jesuits enjoyed great prestige in the Church, and in European society and were very active and innovative in the foreign missions. By the middle of the 18th century, however, dark clouds hovered.




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