Just as an Augustinian friar was protesting the sale of indulgences and setting off a firestorm against the papacy in the northern reaches of Charles the Fifth’s European domain, in his southern realm, a Spanish knight’s religious conversion would give rise to a brotherhood of the pope’s most stalwart hosts.
For half a millennium, the religious order that springs to mind in response to Joseph Stalin’s question “How many divisions has the pope?” is the Jesuits. Their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), emerged as a religious leader during efforts to reverse the Protestant Reformation, and his devotion to the Catholic Church branded this group known for its absolute obedience to the pope.
Like Martin Luther, young Íñigo López de Loyola was not the kind anyone would call a saint. He loved medieval epics such as El Cid and the Song of Roland—the kind of thing contemporary novelist Miguel de Cervantes would mock in Don Quixote. Predictably, he joined the army at 17. Biographers describe him as “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status.” He is said to have challenged a Moor to a duel when the Muslim denied the divinity of Christ.
Diplomatic and a skilled leader, he was made a Gentilhombre, or officer at the service of the court. In defense of the Crown’s interests he fought in many battles, until in 1521, at the age of 30, a cannonball wounded his right leg and fractured his left. He returned to his father’s castle for medical care, including several surgeries (without anesthesia!), and ended up with one leg shorter than the other. He limped for the rest of his life.
During his long convalescence, he read the Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony, which changed his life. The result of 40 years of study, the work offers commentary on the Gospels and extracts from the many Church Fathers. Ludolph invites the reader to enter into the scene of the Gospel story and visualize the people and objects in a kind of prayer known as simple contemplation, the basis for Ignatius’ later spiritual teaching. He proceeded to read lives of saints and was particularly taken with Francis of Assisi and the idea of joining the Franciscans in the conversion of non-Christians in the Holy Land.
Once recovered, he visited the Benedictine monastery Santa Maria de Montserrat where, after a night in prayer, he placed his sword and dagger before a statue of the Virgin, forswearing his military life. He traveled on foot to the town of Manresa, Catalonia, where he worked with the Hospitaler monks in exchange for lodging. While praying in a nearby cave he experienced a series of visions. Then he set off on pilgrimage to the Holy Land, but after a few weeks the Franciscans sent him home.
He went to the university in Madrid and was drawn to a group of women known as alumbrados or Illuminati (Enlightened Ones) who linked their zeal and spirituality to the Franciscan reforms and often experienced religious ecstasy. Their antics while in ecstasy caught the eye of the Inquisition, and Ignatius’ street corner preaching without a degree in theology got him arrested, but he was quickly released.
The next stop was the University of Paris, where he roomed with Peter Faber, a young man from Savoy, and Francis Xavier, a Basque nobleman. Both would loom large in the next and final enterprise, the Society of Jesus. Along with Ignatius they were the first members, Faber the first ordained. They called themselves the Company of Jesus, a name drawn from the military but also from the notion of discipleship as “companions” of Jesus and Amigos en El Señor (Friends in the Lord). They took vows of poverty and chastity and a third vow to go to the Holy Land when their studies were finished.
In 1534, Faber, now a priest, received the religious vows of Ignatius and five companions, and they all went to live in Montmartre until Loyola graduated with his master’s degree. Still set on preaching in the Holy Land, in 1537 the group got as far as Venice before war with the Turks blocked their way. Thwarted, Faber and Loyola set out for Rome to offer their services to the pope. They were all well-connected nobles, but the procedure still took time, and in 1544, by papal bull, the order was approved, with the Latin name Societas Jesu, to serve the pope as missionaries.
That year the term “Jesuit” was first used, but with reproach and scorn; it was a 15th century pejorative for people who constantly wove the name of Jesus into their speech; friends of the order took the sting out of the term when they began to use it in a positive way, although it was never used by Ignatius. Loyola became the superior general.
In 1548 he published the Spiritual Exercises, his major work, a manual for a retreat originally intended to last 30 days. It draws from his spiritual reading during convalescence from his war wounds and meditations at Manresa. It is a handbook for a priest directing or leading a retreat, to help people discover God’s will for them and summon the energy and courage to follow it. The guide covers four weeks of meditations: the first on sin and its consequences, the second on Christ’s life on earth, the third on his passion, the fourth on his risen life. It has instructions on how to pray, avoid undue self-reproach and choose a vocation in life without being swayed by love of self or of the world.
Ignatius originally thought of the exercises as a once or maybe twice in a lifetime experience, but eventually they came to be part of a yearly month-long retreat for all Jesuits and a modified version over many months for laypeople who cannot get away for 30 days. I took part in the shorter Ignatian retreat every year of high school and several times in my life.
Loyola rounded out his order with its constitutions and the motto Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (“For the greater glory of God”), often written AMDG. The phrase is meant to convey the idea that any work that is not evil, even something trivial, can be spiritually worthy if undertaken with the intention to give glory to God. The full Ignatian phrase is Ad majorem Dei gloriam inque hominum salutem or “for the greater glory of God and the salvation of humanity.”
By the end of the 16th century, in the name of AMDG, Jesuits had covered the entire globe.
Francis Xavier, one of Loyola’s original companions, reached Goa, in Portuguese India, in 1541, and devoted himself to a decade of evangelization in southern India and then China.
One of my favorite anecdotes tells of his encounter with an ancient Jewish community in China, established shortly after the Babylonian captivity, about five centuries before Christ. These Jews had mistakenly traveled east instead of west and eventually stopped looking for the Promised Land when they reached China. Impressed with Francis’ knowledge of the Torah they asked him to be their rabbi; he politely declined, explaining that he followed a new prophet, Yeshua. He continued his travels and died in China.
Another early mission gained the Jesuits the feudal fiefdom of Nagasaki in 1580, a privilege withdrawn seven years later because they were seen as too influential. In 1594 they founded the first Roman-style academic institution in the East, St. Paul Jesuit College in Macao.
The 1986 film “The Mission” tells the story of one Jesuit effort about a century later, when their work became controversial for their advocacy and defense of native Americans—a story for another time.
From the beginning the Jesuits made their presence felt in the New World. For example, in what is today Brazil, Jesuit priests Manuel da Nóbrega and José de Anchieta founded São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, respectively, and were influential in peacemaking, religious conversion and education of Indian nations.
In Europe, the Jesuits became the pope’s shock troops against Protestantism in the late 16th century, under English Queen Elizabeth I, who persecuted Catholics and executed many Jesuits by drawing and quartering. That, too, is a story for later.