The last two centuries have seen the papacy and the Jesuits relating in different modes and, period by period, with different levels of affection.
The present pope says that the name Francis came to him in a flash of inspiration and the rest is history. Francis of Assisi may be one of his inspirations, but it is a curious irony that 240 years after the Suppression of the Jesuits and, as the year marking the 200th anniversary of its restoration begins on Aug 7, a Jesuit is the Bishop of Rome.
Names, ironies and paradoxes aside, Papa Bergoglio has introduced a sea change to the Church – from the preoccupation over the last three decades with its identity to something that was the founding inspiration of the Jesuits: mission.
The last two centuries have seen the papacy and the Jesuits relating in different modes and, period by period, with different levels of affection from both sides.
The act of suppressing the Jesuits was conducted with brutal efficiency. On July 21, 1773, the Papal Bull was issued and the Papal Guard arrived at Jesuit headquarters in Rome and arrested the Superior General, Lorenzo Ricci, taking him to Castel San Angelo, the Papal prison, where he remained locked up without trial, conviction or sentencing till his death in 1775.
The Jesuits didn’t do themselves any favors in the decades leading up to the Suppression. The arrogance born of that central Jesuit vice, vanity, created many enemies among the closely linked royal houses of Europe who conspired to have them driven out of many countries and then suppressed by the pope.
The remaining 23,000 Jesuits were disbanded in most of Europe and in their missions throughout the world, not to appear again until 1814. From then on and throughout the 19th century, their being “the pope’s men” set the mood of the Jesuits. But this was a particularly embattled period for the papacy and the Jesuits became experts in defensiveness.
Uprisings, new ideas, the industrial revolution, intellectual breakthroughs, liberalism and democracy along with an accelerating advance in scientific knowledge all terrified the popes of the 19th century. They went on the attack against “modernity” in all its moods and tenses, culminating in 1870 with the declaration of the pope as the universal and infallible spiritual leader of the Church.
The Jesuits then and after were among the pope’s staunchest allies. But not all of them. In the late 19th and then the first half of the 20th centuries, a number of Jesuits felt the heavy hand of Rome as the impact of new approaches to understanding the scientific world, the spread of democracy, the interpretation of scripture and the history of doctrinal development had their unavoidable impact. The papacy vainly sought to prevent a Catholic embrace of such changes by conducting a campaign against “modernism” and introducing a spy network to report to Rome any suspected converts to a world the Vatican couldn’t control.
The Jesuits weren’t the only targets, of course, with the Dominicans, especially those engaged in biblical studies, receiving special attention from the Vatican’s energetic overseers of orthodoxy.
As with all historical processes, there were ups and downs: moments of vindication (for example in contributions to Pius XI’s opposition to fascism and communism in the 1930s and to developments in biblical scholarship when, at last, the papacy recognized in 1943 that a historically informed approach to scripture was the only way out of the cul de sac of fundamentalism); and moments of repression such as occurred especially to French Jesuits such as Pierre Theilard de Chardin and Henri de Lubac in the 1940s and ‘50s.
But tension between the pope and the Jesuits reached a significant flashpoint in 1981 when Pope John Paul II intervened directly, proroguing the Jesuit Constitutions and method of governance to impose a papal delegate to run the order. This was in response to complaints by bishops, especially in Latin America, as well as Jesuits in Spain and in the order’s Roman university, the Gregorian. Those complaining believed the Jesuits had lost direction under the leadership of Pedro Arrupe, whose stroke in August 1981 gave the pope a chance to act.
The matter was resolved peacefully if not amicably. The Jesuits were on notice of potential papal censure from then on.
Outside Rome and especially away from Europe, the vast majority of the Jesuits did what they do best – not preoccupied with ecclesiastical and theological politics but the humdrum of missionary service. But now, the Jesuits of the 21st century, best known in the past for both their schools and their missionary exploits in unusual and challenging circumstances, face the dilemma posed by their success.
Now the Jesuits, just over half the size the order was 50 years ago, have an age profile in many parts of Europe, North America and Australia that means they are beyond resuscitation and without the personnel to run the school systems or supply missionaries for new destinations that they once did.
What does the future hold? In the literal sense, only God knows. Today, a quarter of the Jesuits in the world are Indians and half the Jesuits in training are in the subcontinent. In Asia, there are growing provinces – Korea, Vietnam and Indonesia for example.
But for much of the world where the Jesuits once thrived, there are still enduring commitments to educational institutions. These, in many instances, have achieved what they were founded for and lack the cutting edge challenges to attract new members. For Europe, Australia and the North America, they paralyze missionary enterprise.
The Jesuits in many parts of the world will just disappear. But, as St Ignatius often said, the real founder of the Jesuits was Jesus Christ and they would only survive as long as He willed it and they had the courage and faith to respond to His calling.
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