Since their foundation in 1540, the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits, have had a transformative impact on religion, society and culture across the globe. But the history of this remarkable religious order has been clouded by myth and intrigue.
Here are 10 facts about the Jesuits:
1. Ignatius Loyola was an unlikely religious leader
Nobody would have predicted that Iñigo de Loyola would end his days living in Rome under self-imposed vows of poverty and chastity. From his birth in 1491, the nobleman looked destined for a life of chivalry, fighting and fun. Loyola’s fate transformed when a bomb shattered his leg at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521.
Convalescing at his family castle, Loyola had little entertainment beyond books on Jesus and the saints. When he reflected on his old life of derring-do and brawling, Loyola now became ill-at-ease. When he considered living like the saints, he felt a deep sense of calm. Sure that God was telling him to take up a religious life, Loyola travelled to the Holy Land.
2. The first Jesuits were university room mates
Loyola’s first followers were fellow students at the University of Paris. Though he had reached the Holy Land in 1523, Loyola’s plans to settle there were scuppered when Franciscan missionaries sent him away. Loyola studied in Spain, where he ended up in front of the inquisition after giving out religious advice and preaching to women who fell into states of ecstasy.
By 1528, Loyola was studying in Paris, where he shared rooms with Pierre Favre and Francisco Xavier. The two young men also shared his strong compulsion to live a religious life. Soon there would be 10 in their brotherhood or Society of Jesus.
3. The Jesuits never intended to go to Rome or to serve the popes
The Jesuits have become famous for their strong links to Rome, the home of the popes and their own headquarters. However, the first Jesuits had their eyes on Jerusalem when they set out from Paris. It was only when the men found they could not catch a boat to the Holy Land from Venice that they decided to head for Rome to seek direct orders from Pope Paul III.
The Jesuits impressed members of the papal court like Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, who helped the order to win official approval in 1540. The Jesuits are known for their unique vow of obedience to the papacy. In reality, this vow only relates to the pope’s orders concerning missions, which can also be given by the head, or Superior General, of the Society.
4. The Jesuits’ religious rule was radical
Although the Jesuits took on similar work to older religious orders like the Franciscans, they lived in a radically different way. Traditionally, religious orders framed their day around praying together at set hours. The Jesuits abandoned this structure, devoting themselves whole-heartedly to activities like preaching and hearing confessions. They did not wear religious habits or undergo fasting and other penances which might impede their work.
The strategy was controversial but had remarkable results. In Corsica, Emanuele Gomez claimed to hear 150 confessions in a single week, staying up until two or three in the morning and seldom pausing to eat during the day.
5. The Jesuits were a global order from the first years
Although many think of the Jesuits as an order founded to fight the Protestant Reformation, their core mission was broader: to help souls wherever necessary. This took some Jesuits to the German Lands where many had rejected Catholicism. It took others across oceans and continents.
By 1542, Loyola’s former room mate Francisco Xavier was in southern India converting pearl fishers and translating Catholic prayers into Tamil. In 1601, Jesuit Matteo Ricci would enter the Forbidden City of Beijing. He was the first ever European to do so.
6. The Jesuits were accidental educators
By the 17th century the Jesuits had hundreds of schools. Today they run renowned educational institutions across the globe. But the first Jesuits never considered themselves as the ‘schoolmasters of the world’; it was necessity that pushed them into education. With missionaries like José de Ancieta learning Tupi in Brazil and others carefully refuting Protestant ideas, it was clear that Jesuit missionaries had to be highly educated.
What’s more, many complained to Loyola about the ignorance of priests they met on their travels. In Sicily, Jerónimo Domenech said that the clergy had to be seen to be believed. When the Society needed money to teach Jesuits and other future priests, wealthy patrons stepped up. In return, the Jesuits agreed to teach lay children as well, providing a Christian and classical education to boys and girls of all denominations.
7. The Jesuits were coveted confessors
The Society soon became known for its erudition. Especially when learned Jesuits like Athanasius Kircher took up endeavours such as astronomy, drama and linguistics. Along with their energy and piety, these pursuits made the Jesuits popular amongst the nobility and royalty, from the Kingdom of France to Mughal India. Many powerful figures sought Jesuit confessors, giving members of the Society the opportunity to urge leaders to make Christian decisions.
This influence made the Jesuits suspect to those who thought that they had become too influential. It also caused ructions within the order. When Edmond Auger became confessor to King Henri III of France, his confreres wrote to Rome complaining about his ambitions. To them, Auger seemed to care more about advancing himself at court than sticking to his religious vows.
8. The Jesuits have long inspired conspiracy and intrigue
Suspicion troubled the order from its very beginnings. Loyola himself was investigated by the Spanish and Roman Inquisitions. Some saw the prayers and self-examinations in his Spiritual Exercises as potentially dangerous mysticism.
In countries that had rejected Catholic authority, like England, Jesuits were seen as dangerous traitors who were more loyal to the pope than the monarch. Some Jesuits lost their lives when they were caught up in Catholic subterfuge, like Henry Garnet who was hung, drawn and quartered after being implicated in the Gunpowder Plot.
During the Chinese Rites Controversy in the 17th and 18th centuries, even the pope became suspicious of the Jesuits’ methods. When Dominicans reported on the Jesuits for allowing Chinese converts to practice old non-Catholic traditions, Rome would take the Dominicans’ side.
9. The Jesuits were suppressed in 1773
By the 18th century, suspicion and resentment of the Society became increasingly serious. They were caricatured as deceptive and conniving tricksters who sought nothing less than world domination. As some nation states began to centralise their systems of government, the idea of an influential, international order that answered to Rome became intolerable.
The Society was soon kicked out of Portugal, France and Spain. In 1773, Pope Clement XIV caved in and suppressed the Jesuits, making the Society of some 22,000 members illegal in many countries until the early 19th century.
10. Pope Francis is the first ever Jesuit pope
Traditionally, Jesuits were not supposed to be ambitious. Loyola decried ambition as the ‘origin of all evil’ in religious orders. Over the years talented members of the Society were singled out for promotion by the pope.
Some Jesuits got special dispensation to become archbishops and cardinals. In the past, the Jesuits’ enemies dubbed them the black popes: a shady influence on the pontiff and other powerful figures.
Today, such conspiracy theorists would be horrified. The current pope, Francis I, is a Jesuit: the first ever member of the Society on the papal throne.
Jessica Dalton is a historian of the religious and political history of Europe, particularly the Catholic Church in the early modern period. She has written articles and a book on the Jesuits, the Roman Inquisition and the papacy.