In Praise of the (Former) Society of Jesus

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Not so long ago, giants roamed the earth. They were called Jesuits. Of course, our Holy Church has produced giants for millennia, and not only Jesuits. Forged in the fires of grace and sculpted by the divine artistry of the Holy Spirit, they have adorned the Church, as gleaming jewels in her crown.  These giants changed the course of history, civilizations, and, most critically, men’s hearts. 

But of these Catholic giants, few stand out as dramatically as the Society of Jesus. Even a jaded world is compelled to credit this supernatural force of giants with astonishing accomplishments. The sheer power of their spiritual and intellectual might confounds the imagination. Their grandeur is singular, causing wonderment in the eyes of most men.

All this startling triumph lies at the feet of one diminutive Basque soldier, Ignatius of Loyola. After a young life of vain derring-do, a battle injury sustained in 1521 confined him to a hospital where his preferred tales of love and chivalry were absent, leaving him with only a volume of the lives of the saints. 

With some reluctance, he took up the book; and with the suddenness of a thunderclap, the Holy Spirit invaded his heart. He saw his past exploits of heroism as quite vain and sterile. A new kind of valor struck him, a valor for the cause of Christ and His Holy Church. His noble Spanish blood found a new purpose, a new call to arms, a wholly different passion, and a heroism beneath the banner of Christ the King. This is the soldiering that made his heart soar, and he would delay no longer.

Aware that he required a whole new orientation, he made his way to a solitary redoubt called Mt. Manresa wearing only a sackrobe. In the moving words of the historian Henri Daniel-Rops, “Christ laid in wait.” After ten months of grueling fasting and intense prayer, he knew what God was calling him to do. With the haste charged with high purpose, he then bathed, trimmed his nails, cut his hair, found suitable clothes, and marched forward.  

Christ had revealed to him that he was to continue his role as soldier—but now in a divine army, vanquishing the Savior’s enemies and ransoming souls for Him. Part of this revelation was that he must employ everything the earth offered for this mission, as long as it was not sinful. Here he made his own what would be the motto of his new corps of soldiers, and of every Catholic, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. 

With this as his banner, he ultimately recognized that his new elite army would have to be the forward phalanx in defense of the Faith. For that noble aspiration the highest level of sanctification would be necessary. That could only be achieved with the highest level of a knowledge of the Faith. Daniel-Rops states, “Ignatius understood that the fiery passion for God had to be tempered by study and hard work.” With this conviction, he traveled to Paris and received the doctorate in 1534.

A dramatic turning point was reached August 15th, 1534. St. Ignatius, with four companions, among whom were Francis Xavier, Francis Borgia, and Peter Faber, ascended Montmarte in Paris and made an act of consecration to the Mother of God. Only five years later, Pope Paul III established the Society of Jesus as a religious order with the bull Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae. Clearly, its very title trumpets the genius of the new order: they were to be the militant regiments of the Church. 

The opening lines of their Founding Document tell the story:

This Society was founded for whomever desires to serve as a soldier of God, to strive especially for the defense and propagation of the Faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.

And what feats of valor would adorn their ranks. Such prodigies could only have appeared because of Ignatius. The secret of their supernatural success was the saint’s Spiritual Exercises, a never ceasing torrent that would produce breathtaking results both in the men who joined Ignatius’ ranks as well as in every part of the world where their feet would take them.  

The Spiritual Exercises set down two markers: (1) sanctification (2) in the service of Mother Church. The blueprint of sanctification would follow the ancient traditions of the Church. Each member would travel the Purgative-Illuminative and Unitive way. First, an awareness and conquest of their sins; second, a heroic cultivation of the virtues in imitation of the Life of Christ; finally, a union with Christ Crucified, so intimate that “nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me” (Galatians 2:20). 

His masterpiece was not named the Exercises for the sake of poetic flourish. Ignatius intended for his men to know that sanctification was not flights of treacly self-absorption but the rigors of conquest: the conquest of the self. Relentless stripping is demanded, tearing away at all the layers of self-regard that pride so sedulously constructs. Individualism dies so that individuality can flourish. Sanctification does not bury the self that God has been pleased to create but only the self-love which has distorted the man (cf. gratia fecit naturam). 

Ignatius knew that unless self-love was expelled, the Holy Spirit could not fashion His masterpiece. Only then can His supernatural thunder resound throughout the world. Indeed, it did, with every member of the Society of Jesus. They made their appearance in the Church like a rolling tidal wave, a seemingly endless series of triumph after triumph.  

Of their monumental accomplishments, their presence in Elizabeth’s sixteenth-century England was the most stunning. Wasting no time, Fr. William Allen, as the newly appointed rector, established a seminary in Douai, France, for the education and formation of Jesuit priests bound for care of persecuted Catholics in England. As these Jesuit heroes crossed the English Channel, they knew they would be facing ghoulish torture and certain death. Yet they sailed, with the eagerness of lovers soon to meet their beloved.  

By 1594, 450 Jesuit priests were dispatched to England. Countless numbers were executed, Edmund Campion among the most famous. On his deathbed, Fr. Allen lamented that he should die in his bed while, “by his persuasion so many had borne imprisonments, persecutions and martyrdom in England.” As Joseph Pearce notes, “His own unworthiness to die a martyr’s death was seen by him as being what his sins deserved.” 

While the Jesuits could not end the march of Protestantism in England, they did rout it in Poland, Lithuania, and Southern Germany.

Upon St. Ignatius’ death in 1556, his Society had founded 74 colleges on three continents. His famous Ratio Studiorum (Latin, Greek, classical literature, poetry and philosophy, science, the arts, vernacular languages, and rhetoric) became the educational template for the transformation of boys into colossal men of learning and stalwart Catholicism. By 1600, the apostolic works of the Society exploded:

  • Francis Xavier was baptizing thousands in India.
  • Jesuits reached Latin America with missions in Peru, Columbia, and Bolivia.
  • By 1603, 345 Jesuits were working in Mexico.
  • By 1716 Jesuits were baptizing in Tibet, gaining an exceptional mastery of the Tibetan language and culture, producing long and detailed accounts of the country and its religion as well as treatises in Tibetan that attempted to refute key Buddhist ideas and establish the truth of Christianity.

Each religious Order has produced similar results. But the Society of Jesus seems to tower over them all, with their accomplishments staggering the imagination. Indeed, all Catholics should be chanting the praises of this Order. An Order whose accomplishments stupefy both Catholic and non-Catholic alike.

Then something happened.  

Around 1964, a kind of apocalypse devastated the Society, dividing it into a before and after, like B.C. and A.D. Led by the Superior General, Fr. Pedro Arrupe, the Society decided that the past four hundred years were somewhat of an embarrassment. They needed to refashion their purposes to make it more congenial to a secular world. They decided to trade their sublime supernatural purpose for au courant programs that would win kudos from a revolutionary Knowledge Class. They leapt upon the careening juggernaut of Marxism and made it the raison d’être of their sprawling educational network. To make it palatable they called it “social justice.”

The result? Their seminaries became gulags of reprogramming. And their universities became factories of anti-Catholic fury. Where once their prodigious intellectual gifts produced Catholic titans, now they created shills for a debased culture. They reached new lows by applying Modernist hermeneutics to Catholic doctrine, rendering the depositum fidei a rotting carcass. 

Shamelessly, they proselytized a strange religion bearing little resemblance to historic Christianity. How else can one explain the deeply disturbing words of the newest Superior General, Fr. Arturo Sosa Abascal. When recently asked about Christ’s teaching regarding the indissolubility of marriage, he replied: 

Human reality is much more nuanced and never black and white…. At the time no one had a recorder to take down His words… Over the last century in the Church there has been a great blossoming of studies that seek to understand exactly what Jesus meant to say…which attests that the word is relative. 

Even a second grader could see that this has Modernism written all over it. And Modernism is arsenic to the Faith.

Then there is the outgoing president of Fordham University, Fr. Joseph McShane. In a recent piece in The Wall Street Journal, he made this gaseous remark: “There is still a real demand for a university that includes a reverence for the divine.” That is porous enough to include, well, anything.  

But he truly reveals the new Society of Jesus in this: “Colleges and universities are well-placed to promote a culture of encounter rather than a culture of pronouncements.” Translation, please. Actually, no translation necessary. You know what he means. Today, one ironclad rule alone governs the new Society: the proscription of any doctrinal, moral, ascetical, or liturgical tradition that existed before 1970. 

All of this confirms the ancient Roman adage: corruptio optimi pessima (the corruption of the best is the worst of all). Tragically, the Society of Jesus has become the lackey of the zeitgeist. God’s Marines have become God’s embarrassment.

Only God knows what will come of this once powerful Order. Their numbers are in dramatic free fall and their provinces shrink with each passing day.

Know this. There are still exemplary, faithful Jesuits. They know who they are. Some of you may know them.  

With their heroism, perhaps the Society will make St. Ignatius smile from Heaven someday. It will take a Herculean effort.  

Who knows? God’s Marines may still return.

By

Fr. John A. Perricone, Ph.D., is an adjunct professor of philosophy at Iona College in New Rochelle, New York. His articles have appeared in St. John’s Law Review, The Latin Mass, New Oxford Review and The Journal of Catholic Legal Studies. He can be reached at [email protected]

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