Sunday, April 23, 2017
The Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits or the Company of Jesus, became the first religious order to span the globe. These highly skilled men, who observed the evangelical counsels of poverty and chastity, as well as obedience to superiors in the faith, came to be viewed by the powerful as so threatening that their order was disbanded for slightly over a quarter century.
The Jesuits were persecuted in England by several monarchs, starting with Henry VIII, and were banished from Japan, Protestant German principalities and Orthodox Russia—mostly as part of anti-Catholic measures that indirectly affected the order. It was a different story when the Jesuits were the pope’s advance men of evangelization in territories acquired by Catholic countries and their monarchs.
The original Jesuits were remarkable men whose order, which includes among its members Pope Francis and is still today regarded as the clergy’s intellectual elite, found novel ways to make the gospel understandable to non-European social cultures. In French North America, for example, Jesuits told the Iroquois that Jesus had been born in a longhouse; in Spanish Paraguay, they developed Guaraní dictionaries, which led to the first writings in that indigenous language.
The 1986 British film The Mission, starring Robert De Niro, is set in 1740. It dramatizes the conflict the Jesuits encountered in Spanish and Portuguese colonies. De Niro’s Father Gabriel character is based on the life of a Paraguayan saint, Roque González de Santa Cruz, S.J., and is loosely adapted from the book The Lost Cities of Paraguay by C.J. McNaspy, S.J., a consultant on the film.
The incident portrayed in the film occurred when Spain was competing for land and labor with the Portuguese, who were harsher toward natives and coveted both the land and the people supervised by the Jesuits. The Treaty of Madrid sought to end warring with Portuguese bandeirante slavers by ceding Spanish Jesuit settlements to Portugal. The cinematic Father Gabriel takes up arms in protest. In reality, the warriors were Indians, who loathed the Portuguese slavers. Although they trained the Indians to use weapons, the Jesuits obeyed their government and withdrew.
Also distinct from the film, what Americans call “Missions,” located in what Chicano historian Rodolfo Acuña called “occupied America,” are the remains of Franciscan colonial establishments known as congregaciones (gatherings), which aimed to make the natives docile in order to use them as laborers. The Jesuits set up entirely different kinds of settlements, known as reducciones, or “Indian reductions,” which cleverly turned on its head the colonial policy of subduing the natives.
In French North America, the Jesuits had tried to convert Eskimos, Micmacs, Algonquins and Hurons, initially to little effect. Their success with the Iroquois had an unintended consequence. This fierce warrior tribe took the gospel of peace to heart, abandoned war and was mercilessly decimated by neighbors who hated them. In the 1740s, the British conquered Quebec and Catholicism became illegal. Clergy and missionaries left what would become Canada, most fleeing with many of their French-speaking parishioners to the Louisiana territories.
In South America, Jesuits first went into the jungles of Brazil and later to colonial Paraguay, Peru and Mexico, where they excelled at negotiating special deals with colonial governors that kept the new landowners and the government away from the natives. Apart from conversion, the dwellers in these communities were not required to adopt European languages, values or lifestyles.
The typical Jesuit reduction was a compound that grouped a church, priests’ quarters, commissary, stables, armory, workshops, hospital, storehouses and housing for the natives around a central square. Each family had a separate apartment connected by a roofed walkway. Buildings designed by the likes of Rev. Martin Schmid, S.J., a Swiss architect, composer and instrument maker, were sometimes stone but more often adobe or cane, with homemade furniture and religious pictures—often made by the natives themselves. Populations varied from 2,000 to 7,000.
A typical day started with children’s hymns followed by Mass and breakfast, after which the workers went to their tasks. At noon each group assembled for the Angelus, after which came dinner and a siesta; work then resumed until evening. After supper came the rosary and sleep. On rainy days they worked indoors. Festivals with contests, fireworks, concerts and dances entertained the community.
The settlements had a main farm, where they raised cattle and grew crops, including yerba mate for a brewed drink, mate (or Jesuit tea). Each family also had its own garden. Jesuits introduced European arts and trades. They trained natives in a broad range of occupations, from boatbuilding to carpentry, garment making, silversmithing and more. The reductions initially produced manuscripts copied by hand, but later built printing presses. Goods produced were sold in large cities and proceeds were divided between a community fund and the workers and their dependents.
These idyllic communities’ success was their undoing. Historian Virginia Carreño in her work Estancias y Estancieros del Río de la Plata underscores how “at the outset of the 18th century, with the worse perils of colonization overcome, the Jesuits, with Indians who made up at most about a quarter of the population, were advanced by at least a century compared with the Spaniards and that was humiliating.”
She notes that huge herds of cattle raised under Jesuit supervision fed several colonial cities, including all of Asunción, today capital of Paraguay. A colonist who wanted to build called on a Jesuit architect; one who wanted the best education for his son turned to a Jesuit school in Chuquisaca or Córdoba. “When the need arose for a musician, an astronomer, a botanist, an agronomist, people went to a member of the Society, were he Italian, Hungarian or German, a doctor in theology or simply a religious superior,” Carreño writes.
Attacks came from three quarters.
In 1750, Portugal quarreled with the Jesuits over an exchange of territory with Spain in which a Portuguese settlement in what is today Uruguay was exchanged for the Jesuits’ seven reductions in Paraguay. The Jesuits were expelled.
The Jesuit superior in French Martinique managed the settlements’ business so well that he was able to leverage their production for loans to speed development of the colony. But when war broke out between England and France, ships carrying goods worth millions were captured; in the 1760s creditors in Paris courts won orders forcing the Society to pay or relinquish the settlements. The order lacked the funds and withdrew.
In the European dependencies of Naples and Parma, Jesuits were accused in 1767 of producing pamphlets that incited the people to riot against Spanish rule. Hundreds of Jesuits were marched like convicts to the coast, where they were deported to the Papal States.
Following the expulsion of Jesuits in European countries and their overseas territories, Pope Clement XIV issued a papal bull in 1773, declaring that “the Company of Jesus ... shall be, and is, for ever extinguished and suppressed.” It was not until 1814, when all the absolute monarchs who hated the Jesuits were no longer in power, that Pope Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus in Catholic Europe and the Society decided at its first General Congregation thereafter to keep its original organization.