Sunday 9 March 2008

Why The Jesuits?

Why The Jesuits?

Why the Jesuits? When I began preparing for this essay, I had some questions in mind. Why the Jesuits?, was of course the first and foremost, but also. Why are they always drawn to controversy, why do people either hate or love them? Whatever the response, Jesuits always induce strong reactions in people. When I started the research for this paper, I intended to compare and contrast the Jesuits through the eyes of Douglas Letson, and Michael W. Higgins and their book The Jesuit Mystique, and Malachi Martin's book, The Jesuits: The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church. But in talking with Michael Higgins and in starting to read the latter, I agree with Michaels assessment of Martin, namely: "He's Nuts". He is an ex-Jesuit who is bitter and filled with anger.

When I started research I had the question in mind, Why the Jesuits? Unfortunately I have not come to an answer to that question. My reading and research has led to many more que
stions, questions that I now have more quidance to be parsued due to, Jesuit authors, biography's and additional books I discovered. I have however, come to see 3 important forces at work in the Society. First their history as individuals and as a community, and their view of community. Through that their self understanding and view of their role in society at large, especially their often being on the forefront and leading edge of change, change in attitudes, practices, and views. Secondly the centrality of "The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius", both to self and communal understanding and service. And finally their service of humanity, especially in the area of social justice, which has been of importance to the Jesuits since their earliest beginnings. Yet before I get into that I want to look at some personal experiences about the Jesuits.

I was born and raised Irish-Catholic: my family attended church ever Sunday until
I was about 10 years old. I was an altar boy, and loved church. I was studying to become a Catholic priest after highschool. My spiritual Director was Jim McGilvry, once when we were at a retirement dinner for a priest, Jim was cracking jokes about Jesuits. Another priest said, "Jim you have nothing nice to say about the Jesuits do you?", Jim replied "That's not true, last week when I went by their house, I saw 4 fresh graves." This profoundly disturbed me and was a contributing factor in my leaving the Catholic Church. My next experience with a Jesuit was when I moved to Guelph, Ontario. I met with the Chaplain at University of Guelph, Father Phil Nazer, and found him to be a kind gentle, man. Even though I no longer considered myself a Catholic, he met with me regularly, and we worked through the "Spiritual Exercises" together. This man was the closest I have ever seen someone to my personal ideal of Christ Jesus. Even after my acceptance at Renison College to study to become an Anglican Minister, he meet with me, prayed for me and supported me. This love in action also profoundly affected me.

Setting aside my perception, how has the Society of Jesus, seen themselves? Through what lenses do they look at the world, and at each other? Higgins defines them this way "The Jesuit mystique is by design an invitation to engage the society in an ongoing dialogue concerning the practical human imperative demanded by the written word." There has always been this practical aspect to the Jesuits. Christopher Hollis SJ writes this about the earliest Jesuits; "Who is there, that would not admire the extraordinary spectacle of this union of seven men animated by a noble purpose who turn towards heaven and under the roof of a chapel lay down their worldly
wishes and hopes and consecrated themselves to the happiness of their fellow men? They offer themselves as a sacrifice to the work of Charity that shall give them no property nor power nor pleasure; they renounce the present for the future, looking forward only to a hereafter in heaven, and content with no happiness on earth beyond what a pure conscience can bestow." It is true, what those seven men set out to do, was revolutionary, they were willing to give up all, to follow Jesus and Him crucified. They knew their path would be one of crosses and burdens, and yet they chose to shoulder the load and follow, in a hard and perilous fashion. They knew that in order to follow Jesus, their first concern must not be for self, but for others. Serving others through tangable actions, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, all of the works of mercy. "For ultimately, the society is the lived expression of the people who embody it's charism in their service of others- their "care of souls," as Ignatius called it." But in order to really serve others, they had to become forerunners of much that was to become accepted in the Church and society at large.They were forerunners in the area of educated clergy, "but the Jesuits emphasis on an educated clergy was a significant departure in it's day, a departure that was later to be embraced by the Council of Trent(1545-63)" They also pursued wisdom, this was a command of the man they were, and are emulating: "Behold, I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves. But beware of men; for they will deliver you up to their Courts" Michael Higgins puts it this way, "The Jesuit has always understood the art of worldly wisdom: his practical cunning is both and admired and denounced. It has always been part of the Jesuit mystique."

But this self definition and self understanding has under gone many changes in their history. Having been censured once and expelled from just about every European country at one time or another they have had to be wise and flexible. "In the twentieth century, however, they began to reassert their ancient self-understanding as men for others and as apostolic innovators."7 But central to this self understanding is the "Spiritual Exercises", that is what we will look at next.

The exercises are the central defining characteristic of the Jesuits, but they are different for each and every person. They begin with self evaluation, "and the exhortations with which the Spiritual Exercises begin concerning the unambiguous necessity for personal choice, personal enlightenment, and personal discernment." These exercises lead one to look into self, and then through self to others.

They call for meditation, but meditation that is not an end in itself, meditation that is the beginning of action. "Which argues that God is already doing it, that our first job is to be at God's side helping to realize the divine intention with every thing we have by way of tools, intelligence, and human spirit."

Central to this is the belief that God is actively involved in his creation, that he is interested in what is happening and is working to bring about his will in it. "Finding God in every event, in all things, requires the operating conviction that God is wilfully inserted into human history, that this vital, energetic engaging God is not indifferent to struggling humanity. The God of Ignatius, the God who can be found in all things." The exercises also call for challenge, as well as discernment. It is a call to imitate the life of Christ and his saints. These "Exercises", lead one to choose between two standards, that of Christ or that of Satan. These exercises, and the whole of Jesuit history is full of serving others, of social justice.

Social justice has been a part of the Society since it's very beginning, In the words of Ignatius of Loyola, "that there should be no poor who have to go about begging but that they should all receive the help they need." Like in many other area's the Jesuits were leaders in this area, and also in the Liberation theology that has sprung from it. Before Vatican II, social justice was on the rise. Higgins and Letson see this paradigm shift in the church as a whole as a rebirth of the Society, "Even before the Council, there had been inklings of an openness to more traditionally Jesuit concerns for Social Justice, but John XXIII's vision of the modern church clearly provided for the rebirth of the society." Times were changing, and again the Jesuits were at the forefront and the extreme of where things were going. "Justice was in: theologians wrote about it: missionaries preached it: activists died for it. The Society of Jesus embraced the cause of justice with a passion both inspiring and disconcerting."

Shortly after the Vatican Council II, the congregation of Jesus had it's 32 General Congregational meeting. Pedro Arrupe was the Superior at that time, and prophetically he saw that to align themselves with the cause of Social Justice, would cost them and cost them dearly. In His own words: "Is our General Congregation ready to enter upon the more severe way of the cross, which surely will mean for us a lack of understanding on the part of civil and ecclesiastical authorities and of our best friends?" His words were to prove more true then he could ever imagine. With in a few short years Jesuit blood would be spilt in more then one country. It would be spilt because the Jesuits chose to side with the poor, the disadvantaged, to speak out again injustice and systems that would keep the status quo. "The Jesuits once again, were to be found on the frontier and not safely ensconced in the citadel. They were called to lead."

And lead they do, wherever they go, what ever field they are working in. They believe that "contemplation in action involves both action and contemplation."16 The Jesuits are full of contradictions, they are full of mystery, and they always cause us to react. Whether they challenge us, or revolt us, they always cause us to react to them. "What is there about the Society of Jesus that is clearly sustaining it's diminished numbers through the ravages of an increasingly secular society laying waste to scores of smaller, less resilient congregations of men and women?" I don't have any answer to these questions I only have more questions but that is part of the quest that each of us are on. Finding the right questions that lead us to contemplation and through contemplation to action. But I believe that part of the answer to 'Why the Jesuits?', comes from Letson and Higgins, "but also the humility to act in total obedience to legitimate authority. Humility, obedience, exceptional learning: a rare combination of human characteristics." The Jesuits are a rare combination, of people and ideals. May they always be there to be challenging us.

End Notes

  1. The Jesuit Mystique, p. xii
  2. The Jesuits: A History, p. 15
  3. The Jesuit Mystique, p.72
  4. The Jesuit Mystique, p.26
  5. Matthew 10:16, NASB
  6. The Jesuit Mystique, p. 33
  7. The Jesuit Mystique, p.58
  8. The Jesuit Mystique, p.23
  9. Grail, March 1992 p.27
  10. The Jesuit Mystique, p.75
  11. Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola, p. 44
  12. The Jesuit Mystique, p.60
  13. The Jesuit Mystique, p.106
  14. Justice with faith Today: Sellected Letters and Addresses, p.205
  15. The Jesuit Mystique, p.112
  16. The Jesuit Mystique, p.66
  17. The Jesuit Mystique, p.xi
  18. 18. The Jesuit Mystique, p.21


Letson, Douglas and Higgins Michael,
The Jesuit Mystique
Toronto, MacMillian Canada, 1995

Hollis, Christopher SJ,
The Jesuits: A History
NewYork, Barns and Noble, 1968

New American Standard Bible
Toronto, Gideons, 1973

Costello, Jack SJ,
"Ignatian Spirituality: Finding God in all Things.", Grail: An ecumenical Journal
Ottawa, March 1992 p. 27

Ed. William J. Young SJ
Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola,
"Letter to the Townspeople of Azpeitia"
Chicago, Loyola University Pres, 1959

Arrupe, pedro SJ,
Justice with Faith Today: Selected Letters and Addresses.
St Louis, Institute of jesuit Sources, 1980

(First written for RS100H Catholicism Winter 1999.)

Books by Michael W. Higgins:
Genius Born of Anguish: The Life & Legacy of Henri Nouwen
The Unquiet Monk: Thomas Merton's Questing Faith
Heretic Blood: The Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton
Thomas Merton: Faithful Visionary
Jean Vanier: Logician of the Heart
Faith and Literature Matters
Power And Peril: The Catholic Church At The Crossroads
Stalking the Holy: The Pursuit of Saint Making
My Father's Business: A Biography Of His Eminence G. Emmett Cardinal Carter

Books with Douglas R. Letson:
Soundings: Conversations about Catholicism
The Jesuit Mystique

Contributed to:
Commonweal on Contemporary Theologians
Introducing John Moriarty In His Own Words
Vatican II: A Universal Call to Holiness
Impressively Free: Henri Nouwen as Model for a Reformed Priesthood (with Kevin Burns)
Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical Abuse Scandal (with Peter Kavanagh)


Related Posts:
Waterloo Loses A Good Man
Michael W. Higgins
Faith in the Media Conference 2006


dwight said...

I would request permission to list this blog on my site? (building as a religious Humanism forum)


SRMcEvoy said...

Yes Dwight you may.