September 27, 1540: Pope Paul III signs the Bull “Regimini militantis ecclesiae” and so establishes the Society of Jesus or Jesuits. Ignatius of Loyola was born in 1491 at the castle of Loyola in Spain. He was the youngest of thirteen children. By 1509 he was aligned with the Duke of Nájara and proved adept at both military leadership and diplomacy. He fought without sustaining any injuries until 1520. At that time he was severely wounded and returned to the castle to heal (or die). During his recuperation, he read De Vita Christi by Ludolph of Saxony. He continued his religious reading and changed his life.
Ignatius traveled to Paris, Rome, and Jerusalem as he continued his studies. He was imprisoned several times. He and six others, including Francis Xavier, took a vow in 1534, defining their new purpose in life. They entered into a life of poverty and chastity and vowed to enter “hospital and missionary work” wherever the Pope would direct them. In 1537, they traveled to Rome to get papal approval and the Pope permitted them to be ordained as priests. The group was intent on serving in Jerusalem but a war was in progress and impeded their travel. There was debate within the Catholic hierarchy, but finally the Papal Bull or charter was issued.
The original charter gave the group a limit of sixty members. Number restrictions were rescinded in a subsequent Bull issued in 1543. Ignatius was the first Superior General of the Society of Jesus. As such, he wrote “The Formula of the Institute” whereby he laid out the fundamental charter for Jesuits. All following documents flow from and must conform to this initial text. Francis Xavier left for India with two other Jesuits in 1541 and arrived thirteen months later, establishing a base for missionary work in the East.
Today, the Society of Jesus is the largest religious order of priests and brothers in the Catholic Church. The greatest number of members serve in India with the second highest concentration residing in the US. There are over 19,200 members serving in 112 nations on six continents. The current Superior General is Adolfo Nicolás. The Jesuits are famous for missionary work, human rights advocacy, social justice, and higher education. They run many colleges, universities, and high schools around the world with fifty in the US alone. The Society has been rumored to have been involved in conspiracies and have suffered from controversy during their centuries of service.
“Teach us to give and not to count the cost.” – Ignatius of Loyola
“Imagine that leader of all the enemy, in that great plain of Babylon, sitting on a sort of throne of smoking flame, a horrible and terrifying sight. Watch him calling together countless devils, to dispatch them into different cities till the whole world is covered, forgetting no province or locality, no class or single individual.” – Ignatius of Loyola
“Give me the children until they are seven and anyone may have them afterwards.” – Francis Xavier
“If you know anything about Loyola or the Jesuits, you would expect us to do this. People don’t come to a Jesuit university expecting mediocrity.” – Lisa Martin
This article first appeared at Examiner.com in 2009. Editor’s update: The Jesuits have been accused of seeking out power and political intrigue. They have been said to create unjustifiable causes for their unsavory ends as well as being anti-Semitic. As counterpoint to that last issue, twelve named Jesuit priests have been formally recognized for their heroic rescue efforts during World War II’s horrific Holocaust. The Jesuits were considered to be one of the Nazi party’s greatest enemies. Over the centuries many Jesuits contributed to a wide variety of scholarly learning especially in the sciences. They have also contributed to our greater understanding of mathematics and history. There has even been one Pope who was a Jesuit.