The Jesuits, or the turbulent history of a Catholic congregation


A man of war repented after a serious injury during a siege in 1521, Ignace de Loyola left to study in Paris. In 1534, he founded there - with the Navarre François-Xavier and the Savoyard Pierre Favre - an order, with a band of students who wanted to work for a greater glory of God in a world torn by clashes between Catholics and Reformed.

The nascent Order gives himself an apostolic goal and missionary. They take the name of the Company of Jesus and obey a rule. This priority induces an intellectual investment and the search for renewed methods of apostolate. Intellectual weapon of Roman Catholicism, the Pope immediately mobilizes the Jesuits as theologians of service to the Council of Trent.

In 1548, the Ignatius exercises promote the judgment of interiority by means of a dialogue with a master of wisdom to conceive his way of being a Christian in his century. These “techniques of the self” are the basis of Jesuit discernment, hence their active role in spiritual direction.

advertising butterfly, Manrèse (Clamart), 1951.
Jesuit Archives of the Province of French-speaking Western Europe, Vanves., Provided by the author

In France, since the middle of the XIXe century, the choice to offer retreats varied in their duration, and therefore adapted to the modern world, effective publicity and the support of the hierarchy, promotes Clamart as a major place for the spiritual accompaniment of Catholics.

The forms of the apostolate grow over time. At the turn of the 1960s, Aimé Duval used the guitar to sing the Love of God in large theaters and sell thousands of records.

From the founding of Vatican Radio in 1931, the Jesuits deliver the Christian message in multiple languages.

In 1934, Friedrich Muckermann warned, “This is a crucial moment for the Church. Human rights are in danger. », The Jesuit is called to order, he cannot speak against the Pope's policy. Some succumb to the attraction of Vichy and the bad guilt of 1940, including the authorities of the Company. Others provide the intellectual weapons of Christian resistance and question the primacy of obedience over Gospel values ​​by example. by Yves de Montcheuil, shot in Vercors.

The Notebooks of Christian Witness by Pierre Chaillet are printed illegally and without the agreement of his ecclesial tutelage, which is forbidden to any cleric, from the fall of 1941. In Vatican II, Augustin Bea, Karl Rahner, John Courtnay Murray and Henri de Lubac illustrate this renewed role of influence and reference for the Company. The American Murray is an essential protagonist of the 1965 text on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae, which promotes tolerance, the recognition of a right to belief in all spiritual expressions and a dialogue with atheists.

According to Ignatius, the Jesuit had to be a man of great human and theological culture in order to be an apostle. The quest for science is not an end but a means subservient to a religious objective. Jesuits are illustrated in the development of dictionaries - or how to convince without mastering the language, in the context of missions abroad - and in the sciences: the mathematician, Christopher Clavius ​​in the XVIe century, the polygraph and universal spirit Athanasius Kircher and the astronomer Matteo Ricci in the XVIIe century, the paleontologist Teilhard de Chardin in the XXe century.

In the years 1960-1970, Jesuits like Michel de Certeau took part in the most innovative trends in the human sciences, semiology, psychoanalysis, history and sociology. It is about rethinking theology and exegesis, the conditions of faith and the contributions of tradition in an increasingly secularized world. If they participate in this development, they fail to Catholicize these “new” disciplines: these new approaches indeed underline the weight of structures even in language, reveal the system of signs which is imposed on everyone sometimes even unconsciously, at the moment when in the Church and the Society a Christian humanism is developing.

Teaching was quickly added to missionary and intellectual activity. In the XVIIIe century, Europe, India and Central and South America have about 600 establishments which are the providence of parents in search of solid studies and spiritual orthodoxy. Attention to pedagogy sanctifies knowledge and places great emphasis on modern science, which reinforces their success. Theater and religious music are played there, books for young people are published there who must Christianize while moralizing and moralizing while evangelizing. The Society of Jesus is associated with the training of elites for a long time.

The Jesuits embody the journey and the martyr. François Xavier translates the Creed, the Ten Commandments and the Pater Noster into Tamil. From China to Paraguay, the margins of Catholicism attracted the Company with success (the Indies) or by failing (Japan). The partisans of an adaptation to local customs and customs confront the defenders of a fully Orthodox Christianity, until the refusal in 1704 of rites specific to each country by the Vatican.

In 1978, a "Letter on inculturation" of General Pedro Arrupe promotes adaptation to the sensitivity of the host culture. In Indonesia, traditional dances are introduced during the offertory and even buffalo sacrifices during large ceremonies. While still in the XIXe century, the Company sells slaves in the United States (Rachel L. Swarns, "Catholic Order Pledges $ 100 Million to Atone for Slave Labor and Sales", New York Times, March 15, 2021), at XXe century, attention to local populations, initially aimed at conversion, is reinterpreted as a rejection of colonial exploitation.

In 1952, the play by Fritz Hochwälder, On earth as it is in heaven, addresses the rifts of conscience during the abolition of the missions in Paraguay of the XVIIIe century: “God wants this world to change. And we, the Jesuits of Paraguay, have changed it. […] As long as I have the strength to breathe, to cry out and to fight - you will find me on the side of the poor, the weak, the oppressed! », Says one of the Fathers.

A movie, Mission, by Roland Joffé, whose music (“On earth as in heaven”) is by Ennio Morricone, embodies this new look at Jesuit missions, and won the Palme d'Or in 1986.

Grievances and fantasies

A vast catalog of grievances and fantasies associated with the Jesuits mixes duplicity, obsession with power, secret domination, businessism, and absolute obedience to a foreign power. The Jesuit is seen as deceitful.

Funny stories reflect the image that sticks to her skin:

“A Jesuit asks for directions to get to the cathedral. The passer-by replies: Oh! I don't believe you can do it. It's straight ahead. "

What makes the glory of the Company also makes its black legend. Their wish "in the manner of a corpse", which expresses their perfect obedience to the Pope, plays a large part in this.

If in funny stories, the Benedictine is always learned, the Trappist digs his grave, the Jesuit is cunning: “In the time of the Three Kings, the convents sent a representative to the baby Jesus. The Benedictine exclaims: - Lord, here is the incense of our knowledge. The Dominican: - Lord, here is the gold of our word. And the Franciscan: - Lord, here is the myrrh of our poverty. Meanwhile, the Jesuit whispered in Joseph's ear: - Entrust the little one to us. We will do something with it ”.

In literature too, the Jesuit is harmful in Voltaire (1759), monopolist in Eugène Sue (1844-1845) and Wilkie Collins (1881), conspirator in Umberto Eco (2011). In his Magical mountain (1924), Thomas Mann pits the defender of reason and progress, the Freemason Settembrini, against the mystical Jesuit Naphta in vain agitations in the face of lurking death.

Le enlightened despotism and the Enlightenment contest the role of the Company. In 1759, Portugal and its colonies drove them out. In 1763, Louis XV outlawed them. In 1767, Spain expelled them. In 1773, the Papacy suppressed them. A unique event, a religious order is destroyed by the very authority which had founded it. The deep social and cultural roots of the Jesuits allowed it to be reconstituted after 1814. In 1957, the Company had 34 Jesuits. Almost a quarter is American. The Company no longer projects itself from Europe to the world, this real internationalization materializes in the election of the Argentinian Francis, the first Jesuit pope in history in 000.

It took more than a wound to give birth to a religious order. But it embodies the weight of the century in a spiritual and intellectual apostolate project which has since been confronted with the vagaries of history.

For further :

Étienne Fouilloux and Frédéric Gugelot (dir.), "French Jesuits and human sciences (1960s)", Lyon, Christians and societies, 2014.

Frederic Gugelot, "A Jesuit retreat house, Manrèse in Clamart", in Pierre Antoine Fabre, Patrick Goujon and Martín M. Morales (eds.), The Company of Jesus of the Old Regimes in the Contemporary World (XVIIIe-XXe centuries), Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, French School of Rome, 2020, p.607-622.

Frederic Gugelot, Professor of Contemporary History, University of Reims Champagne-Ardenne (URCA)

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

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