The Jesuits: Definition & History

Instructor: Juliette Parsons

Juliette has a PhD in History from USC and a BA in History from Yale. She has taught courses at the middle school, high school, and college level.

The Jesuits have been influential in the Catholic Church for over 500 years and are its largest religious order today. Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to hold the highest office in the Catholic Church. We will learn about their incredible history.


The current pope, Pope Francis, is also the first Jesuit pope. Jorge Bergoglio was appointed pope in 2013. After becoming pope, he changed his name to Pope Francis in honor of St. Francis. As pope, he has emphasized his devotion to poverty and awareness of social issues. But he is also considered controversial. Bergoglio has been criticized for failing to help other Jesuits who were wrongfully imprisoned when he was the head of the Jesuits in Argentina in 1976.

Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope
Pope Francis, the first Jesuit pope

Founding and Early History

Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuit order, or Society of Jesus, in 1539. He was a Spanish knight who was inspired to start the Jesuits after being seriously wounded in battle. As he recovered from a fever, Ignatius received visions of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. He believed God had saved him and converted to Catholicism.

Birthplace of Ignatius of Loyola
Birthplace of Ignatius of Loyola

During the Counter Reformation, Ignatius became an important defender of the Catholic Church. The Jesuits believed in absolute devotion to the Pope and in 1540, Pope Paul III officially recognized the Jesuit order. In 1541, Ignatius was elected to the first Superior General of the Jesuits. He died in 1556 and Pope Gregory XV made him a saint in 1622. St. Ignatius became the patron saint of soldiers and of the Jesuits.

Ignatius of Loyola
Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits


The Jesuits seek to help all those in need, regardless of religion. They encourage religious toleration and independent thought. They try to bring spirituality into the everyday world by promoting scholarly work and social justice. They are strongly committed to fighting poverty and injustice. The Jesuits were first founded as a missionary order and the Pope sends them to help people wherever the need is greatest. Jesuits take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

Missionary Work

The Jesuits traveled all over the world to promote the spread of Christianity. In the 16th century, they sought to convert the peoples of the West Indies, North America, South America, and Asia. They were among the first European colonists in the New World, where they quickly spread Catholicism throughout the Americas.

The Jesuits learned from the native peoples, as well. The Aztecs in Mexico fed tomatoes to the Jesuit priest, Jose de Acosta, who thought they were delicious. He was one of the first Europeans to eat a tomato. He liked tomatoes so much that he mailed seeds back to Europe and wrote the first recipe for salsa.

In 1549, the Jesuits were also among the first Europeans to travel to Japan. Within a year, they converted around 1,000 Japanese Buddhists to Catholicism.


The Jesuits have always been a powerful but controversial order. During the 16th and 17th centuries, other Catholic orders criticized the Jesuits for their arrogance and manipulation. Jesuits have also been condemned for forced conversions of pagans and their role in the Spanish Inquisition.

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