The Society of Jesus: Who are the Jesuits?
The Society of Jesus is a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church Pope Francis is the first member of the Society of Jesus to be elected pontiff. So who are the Jesuits ?
According to the all-male Society, there are 20,000 Jesuits working in more than 100 countries, with 200 members in the UK in parishes, schools, colleges and spirituality centres.
Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Around three-quarters of Jesuits are priests, but there are also 2,000 Jesuit brothers (men who take vows but are not ordained) and almost 4,000 ‘scholastics’ (men studying for the priesthood).
There is some speculation that the Pope may have chosen the name Francis after one of the order’s founding fathers, St Francis Xavier.
Their motto is Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam – For the greater glory of God.
The society was founded as an answer to the Reformation by a Spanish knight, Ignatius Loyola, in 1539. It secured papal approval in 1540.
An incredibly influential order, members of the society were heavily involved in European politics from the offset. Jesuits were implicated in plots to overthrow Elizabeth I. They were also associated with the Gunpowder plot to destroy Parliament, after James I made the order illegal. During this time all Catholics in Britain were told they must recant their catholicism or face death.
The term Jesuit was first applied to the society as a reproach and was never employed by its founder, though members and friends of the society later accepted the name.
Today Jesuits continue to be one of the most influential groups in the Roman Catholic church.
Becoming a Jesuit
The Jesuits only accept men who have been Catholics for three years or more.
Trainee members of the Jesuits can be either scholastics, who become ordained priests after their studies, or brothers, who serve the group in a variety of other ways.
The stages of training, or “formation”:
Novitiate – two years
Candidate takes his first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience
“First studies” of philosophy and theology – two years or more
Regency, time spent in the wider community – two or three years
Theology studies – four years
Further advanced studies – often three to five years
Tertianship, further study of the Jesuits – seven/nine months or two years
Candidate takes final vows and becomes a Jesuit priest or brother
Their alleged influence over monarchs and leading figures led to envy and the suppression of the society during the late 18th Century, however they were re-established in 1814.
The society has a strong educational focus. During the 16th and 17th Centuries the Jesuits grew rapidly, founding missionaries, schools, colleges, and seminaries around Europe.
By the 17th Century there were more than 500 Jesuit schools established across Europe. The Jesuits standardised curriculum and teaching methods became the basis of many education systems today.
The Jesuits were great patrons of art, using murals and theatres to convey their message to as a wide an audience as possible.
The Spanish Inquisition
The Jesuits are famous for their role in the Spanish Inquisition, though contrary to popular opinion the Jesuit order did not begin the inquisition which was set up in 1480. 60 years before the Papal bull formalised the creation of the Society of Jesus.
The Spanish Inquisition was originally overseen by members of the Dominican order, though members of the Jesuit brotherhood were involved at a later date.
Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was not formally disbanded until 1834, though its influence had significantly dwindled prior to that date.
The Inquisition was famous for its use of torture to illicit confessions from accused ‘heretics’. It was believed that confessions extracted after torture must be true, an idea that was later dispelled.
The Jesuits continue to serve the Church and wider community in a wide range of ministries, most notably in Catholic parishes and in education – from preparatory level, through secondary schools to university colleges.
They place great emphasis on retreats and spiritual direction based on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius.
The Jesuit Refugee Service, set up by Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ in 1980, works with poor and disadvantaged communities in more than 50 countries.
Jesuits continue to work in the fields of art and science, in particular at the Vatican Observatory.