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Ignatius Loyola and the Society of Jesus (Jesuits)

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This week we’ve been looking at various features of the Protestant Reformation. I’m quite certain that as October of 2017 approaches, marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 theses, we will hear and read even more. But we should not overlook some of the more significant efforts at reform found in the Roman Catholic Church. One of the more lasting movements that emerged was the formation of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits, under the leadership of Ignatius Loyola. Continue reading . . . 

This week we’ve been looking at various features of the Protestant Reformation. I’m quite certain that as October of 2017 approaches, marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of his 95 theses, we will hear and read even more. But we should not overlook some of the more significant efforts at reform found in the Roman Catholic Church. One of the more lasting movements that emerged was the formation of the Society of Jesus or the Jesuits, under the leadership of Ignatius Loyola.

Don Inigo de Onez y Loyola, i.e., Ignatius (1491-1556), was the youngest in a family of thirteen children who spent his early years seeking fame and fortune in the military. He “grew up a courtier and caballero, captive to the romantic ideals of medieval chivalry” (Ozment, 410).

Both his legs were severely injured in a battle against the French in 1521, whereupon he spent much time in a hospital enduring excruciating pain and ultimately unsuccessful therapy. During long periods on his bed he studied and meditated on religious literature that focused on the life of Christ and famous saints in history.

In March, 1522, he made a pilgrimage to a shrine hear Barcelona. There he entered a cave at Manresa where he spent the next ten months in solitude. He underwent a profound spiritual experience that led him to devote himself to the church and the pope. After a brief trip to the Holy Land he devoted 12 years to study and eventually settled at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he, with nine other men (among whom was Francis Xavier), founded what would become the Society of Jesus (1534). They vowed poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. The organization was recognized and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 and Ignatius was elected its first general on April 7, 1541. He held that office until he died on July 31, 1556.

The Society's major functions included education, suppression of dissident elements, and foreign missions. In 1548 Ignatius published his Spiritual Exercises, “the Counter Reformation's manual of self-discipline for clergy and laity” (Ozment, 412). The focus of the treatise were special disciplines or exercises designed to induce certain feelings or states of mind. Ozment explains:

“Ignatius learned through his struggle with physical pain how to control mental anguish; mastery over basic physical reactions gave him insight into more complex psychological responses. The Spiritual Exercises built most perceptively on the interconnectedness of emotion, belief, and behavior. What justification by faith had attempted to accomplish for the anguished Protestant saint, Ignatius' disciplined exercises tried to do for the troubled Catholic saint. The routines it prescribed overcame old habits and prepared individuals for new states of mind and morality by playing directly on their basic emotions of fear and love. Particular sins, for example, were eliminated by attacking each with all five senses and the mind's power of imagination at regular daily intervals” (412).

The course of study extended over four weeks during which the student lived in absolute solitude, as fully cut off from sight and sound of the outside world as possible. Visualization and use of the imagination to see and feel spiritual realities was at the heart of the program. According to Lindsay (History of the Reformation), the outstanding feature of the Exercises is

“the minute knowledge they display of the bodily conditions and accompaniments of states of spiritual ecstasy, and the continuous, not to say unscrupulous, use they make of physical means to create spiritual abandon. They master the soul by manipulating the body” (II:541).

Stephen Ozment finds in the contrasts between Ignatius and Martin Luther a helpful illustration of the difference between Catholicism and Protestantism:

"In the persons of their founders the antithetical character of original Protestant and Counter Reformation piety is strikingly revealed. Whereas Luther had despaired of calculated efforts at self-reform and salvation, concluding that neither sublimation nor repression, no matter how diligently practiced, could ever bring peace of mind, Ignatius carefully examined himself and discovered a self-control like that of the first man, who could sin or not sin at will. Here was a new type of religious self-confidence that ran counter not only to the Reformation, but to much traditional spirituality as well” (412).

Devotion, discipline and strict obedience to the higher authority of the pope were the hallmark of the Jesuits. Each member vowed

“to abandon his own will, to consider ourselves bound by special vow to the present pope and his successors to go, without complain, to any country whither they may send us, whether to the Turk or other infidels, in India or elsewhere, to any heretics or schismatics, as well as to the faithful, being subject only to the will of the pope and the general of the order.”

The Jesuit devotion to hierarchical order and authority, particularly their blind obedience to the pope, is nowhere better seen than in the famous thirteenth rule in the Spiritual Exercises:

“If we wish to be sure that we are right in all things, we should always be ready to accept this principle: I will believe that the white that I see is black, if the hierarchical church so defines.”

Such was the dedication and vision that inspired the Jesuits and made them “fully a match for Lutherans and Calvinists during the confessional wars that engulfed Europe between 1560 and 1648. With the assistance of determined rulers, an estimated one-third of earlier losses to Protestants within the empire, especially in Hapsburg Austria and Bavaria and major Rhenish episcopacies, was recovered by century's end” (Ozment, 416).

The Jesuits reached a peak of over 36,000 members in 1964. In the unrest following Vatican II, membership fell to less than 25,000 in 1988. Their numbers continue to decline. As of January 2015, there were 16,740. The Jesuits received renewed attention when in 2013 one of their number, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, became the first Jesuit Pope (Pope Francis).

4 Comments

As a former Jesuit who has made the 30-day silent retreat in which the four weeks of the Spiritual Exercises are given, I can assure you that they are not nearly as sinister as Ozmet makes them out to be. But I made the exercises in 1990 in California, not in 1540's Spain, and so certainly some things have changed.

Missing from this piece is how much the Jesuits themselves have evolved since the time of Ignatius. It's not simply that their numbers are declining (they are--and most of those 16,000 are well over the hill, in skilled nursing facilities); rather they in many ways represent the liberal (and often dissident) wing of the Catholic Church.

The typical Jesuit today is not nearly as loyal to the papacy and the official teachings of Rome as the Jesuits of old. If Ignatius were alive today, he probably wouldn't recognize half of them, most of whom could care less about "the defense and propagation of the [Roman Catholic] faith" (from the 1550 formula of the Institute).

In any event, I certainly do not see in the Spiritual Exercises anything more than a method (subject to human imperfect) for using the power of one's imagination for contemplating much of what we read in the four Gospels. I also believe the Exercises, at least in their modern incarnation, are extremely Christ-centered, as most of of the contemplations are of the person and work of Christ himself.

I also find it amusing how sinister the Jesuits continue to be within the imaginations of those who have no personal knowledge of the Society of Jesus. Don't get me wrong--there's plenty of reason not to trust the Jesuits (for many of the same reasons we wouldn't want to trust any organization with a liberal social/moral agenda, especially in the area of sexuality).

But this idea of the pope's special forces in black robes needs to die. That hasn't described most Jesuits for generations, now. If you want to know what a typical Jesuit is like (at least in this country), picture a 60-something man, very likely same-sex attracted, probably teaching in an institution of higher learning, accustomed to three square catered meals a day (and therefore a bit on the self-indulgent side around the midriff) and almost certainly not wearing a clerical collar.

But they are also sinners in need of a savior just like the rest of us. And I do believe many of them are doing the Lord's work (insofar as that can be done within Romanism).

Instead of casting in terms of Protestant vs Catholic, why not simply recognize his spiritual exercises as a way of becoming an active participant in one's own sanctification, instead of being simply passive. There are many imperatives in Scripture toward doing good works, practicing virtue, and shunning evil. I recognize that there is debate within the Reformed community on the role of works with regard to sanctification, so it isn't a strictly Catholic thing.

The title to Steven Ozment's book is The Age of Reform (Yale University Press).

Please post the reference from Ozment. Thank you so much.

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