Who Are the Jesuits? | Founding, History, Controversies, and Education

Krista Stevens, Juliette Parsons
  • Author
    Krista Stevens

    Krista has taught highs school, college, and graduate level humanities courses for over seven years. She has a PhD in Theological Ethics from Fordham University, a Master of Divinity from Boston College, and a BA in English Literature from Spring Hill College.

  • 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.

Learn about the Jesuits. Discover who founded the Jesuits and the focus of their work. Explore the controversies in their past and their significance today. Updated: 10/13/2021

Who are the Jesuits?

The Jesuits, also known as the Society of Jesus, is a men's religious order of priests and brothers.

Religious orders are organizations of men or women who profess three vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience. Some orders add a fourth vow, as the Jesuits do with a specific vow of obedience to the pope. Different orders have different charisms, or core values.

Who Were the Jesuits?

The current pope, Pope Francis, is also the first Jesuit pope. Jorge Bergoglio, his birth name, 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.

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  • 0:04 Who Were the Jesuits?
  • 0:36 Jesuits Founding &…
  • 1:45 Jesuit Beliefs
  • 3:42 Criticism of Jesuits
  • 4:24 Jesuits' Current Role
  • 5:11 Lesson Summary
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Who Founded the Jesuits?

In 1534 Ignatius of Loyola and some of his closest friends dedicated themselves to founding the religious order that would become the Society of Jesus. The order received official recognition from Pope Paul III in 1540.

Who Was Ignatius Loyola?

Ignatius was born in Spain in 1491 and spent his early years as a soldier and courtier. As a young man, he sought fame and honor on the battlefield. However, his military career came to an end in 1521 at the Battle of Pamplona when an errant cannonball shattered his right leg.

Ignatius sought fame and honor as a soldier.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ignatius_of_Loyola_(militant).jpg

Ignatius endured several surgeries that left him with a noticeable limp and a prolonged period of convalescence. During his recovery, he read books on Christ and the saints to pass the time. His reading started a spiritual conversion and created a desire to serve God.

Ignatius's Conversion

In 1522 Ignatius had recovered enough to travel and wanted to go to Jerusalem to live where Jesus had lived. He first traveled to Catalonia where he left his sword and dagger at the foot of a statue of the Virgin Mary and then walked to the nearby town of Manresa.

Ignatius had planned to stay in Manresa for a few days but ended up staying there for almost a year, living in a cave just outside of town. He spent a lot of time in prayer and contemplation and had a vision of God that shaped how he saw creation and likely laid the groundwork for the Ignatian spirituality of finding God in all things.

Ignatius eventually made it to Jerusalem but was forced to leave because of unrest, so he turned his attention to his education.

The Beginnings of the Jesuits

Though in his 30s, Ignatius had little formal education and so committed himself to studying in order to help others. He eventually ended up at the University of Paris, where he met Peter Faber and Francis Xavier. The three men, along with their friends, committed to pilgrimaging to Jerusalem and offering themselves as servants to the pope.

Because of fighting throughout the Mediterranean, the group was cut off from Jerusalem and decided to travel to Rome instead. On the way, Ignatius had a vision of Jesus carrying the cross with God the Father at his side. Jesus said to Ignatius, "I wish you to serve us."

This vision spurred Ignatius and his companions to rethink their commitments and decided that they could do more good as one group, instead of individuals scattered around. The group petitioned the pope to form a new religious order, and Pope Paul III approved their request in 1540.

Jesuit Beliefs

Jesuit beliefs are characterized by their commitment to Ignatian Spirituality.

Ignatian Spirituality

Throughout his life, Ignatius dedicated himself to spiritual formation and wrote extensively on the spirituality that would come to characterize the Jesuits.

Discernment

Key to Ignatian spirituality is a process of discernment of consolation and desolation by which people can better understand God's will for them.

Finding God in All Things

Ignatius understood the created world to be revelatory, a place where people could encounter God in their daily lives.

Contemplatives in Action

While spending time in personal prayer and discernment was crucial for Ignatius, he also believed that it was out in the world, among other people, that people also could encounter God.

For the Greater Glory of God

Commonly abbreviated as "AMDG" (ad majorem Dei gloriam, Latin for the greater glory of God), Ignatius urged Jesuits to do everything in service to God.

Cura Personalis

Latin for "care for the whole person," cura personalis is an important component of Ignatian spirituality that is prominent in Jesuit education. This value emphasizes focusing on the development of the whole person - intellectually, mentally, spiritually, physically.

Jesuit Formation

While Jesuit priests are priests within the Catholic Church, their process of formation and their work and engagement with the world differs from other religious orders. The path to becoming a Jesuit priest is called formation and includes multiple steps over the course of several years. While a man becomes a Jesuit as soon as he enters the order, he does not immediately become a priest.

Novitiate

A two-year process during which a Jesuit learns about the Society of Jesus, learns how to pray, and learns how to live in community. Novices also work in ministry and make the 30-day Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius. When novices complete the novitiate, they pronounce "First Vows" of chastity, poverty, and obedience.

Scholastic

Jesuits next become scholastics and spend a few years in the academic study of philosophy. Scholastics also spend time working in different ministries.

Regency

Scholastics next move into regency where they work full time in ministry. Many scholastics teach in Jesuit high schools or colleges. During this stage, they learn to balance ministry work, prayer, and living in community.

Theological Studies

After regency scholastics spend three years studying graduate theology, often culminating with a Master of Divinity degree. During this stage, scholastics are ordained as deacons. After completing theological studies, Jesuits are ordained as priests.

Tertianship and Final Vows

After many years of training, Jesuits enter tertianship, where they make the full Spiritual Exercises. After completing the Exercises, Jesuits fill out evaluations identifying their suitability to make final vows. If approved, Jesuits then make final vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and make a special fourth vow of obedience to the pope.

Work of the Jesuits

In addition to education, Jesuits work in many different ministries around the world. Many men work in parishes and retreat houses, while others work in refugee services, and others work in advocacy for various social justice issues.

Jesuit History

Soon after their founding, Ignatius was elected as the first superior general (leader) of the religious order, and the group formally professed their vows in 1542.

Ignatius became the first superior general of the new order.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Ignatius_Loyola.jpg

While their initial focus wasn't on education, Ignatius soon recognized the value of a humanistic education, rooted in the values of the Gospels. The Jesuits quickly opened schools across Europe, often educating children who otherwise would not have had access to a formal education.

By the late 1500s, Jesuit missionaries were working in India, China, and Japan. Many missionaries would soon travel to the Americas. Other Jesuits engaged in scholarship in the sciences. By 1750 Jesuit astronomers oversaw several observatories.

In 1773 Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus, effectively disbanding the 23,000 man order.

In 1814 Pope Pius VII restored the Jesuits, and the order quickly moved back into schools.

Currently, more than 16,000 Jesuits work around the world.

Jesuits' History: Missions

Immediately after their formation, Jesuit missionaries traveled around the world to spread the Gospel. Many were known for their respect for and attempt to learn the languages and cultures of people they encountered.

Francis Xavier

From 1542 until his death in 1552, Francis Xavier worked in India, Indonesia, Japan, and China. He believed that missionaries should learn local customs and languages, and he urged education for native clergy.

Jose de Anchieta

In 1553 Anchieta traveled to Brazil to help found a new settlement in Sao Paulo. He worked to protect native peoples from plantation slavery and helped set up schools.

Allesandro Valignano

In 1556 Valignano traveled to Japan, where he encouraged his priests to dress like Buddhist monks, to learn the native language, and to train native priests. In 1582 he set up the first Japanese diplomatic mission to Rome when he sent four Japanese Christians to the city to be received by the pope.

Matteo Ricci

In 1582 Ricci arrived in China. He immersed himself in Chinese language and culture which earned him acceptance from Chinese leaders. His work also gained him access to Confucian scholars, and he was allowed to travel to Beijing where he wrote books in Chinese.

Matteo Ricci immersed himself in Chinese culture and language.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Matteo_Ricci_2.jpg

Peter Claver

In 1610 Claver arrived in Columbia. He worked to protect enslaved peoples and advocated for their humane treatment.

Jesuits Founding & Early History

Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuit order, or Society of Jesus, in 1539 as an organization of zealous Catholics dedicated to proselytizing the word of the Church with absolute loyalty to the Pope. Ignatius of Loyola 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.

During the Counter Reformation, or the period of time in which the Church fought back against the rise of Protestantism, Ignatius became an important defender of the Catholic Church. As mentioned earlier, 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.

Jesuit Beliefs

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.

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.

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Video Transcript

Who Were the Jesuits?

The current pope, Pope Francis, is also the first Jesuit pope. Jorge Bergoglio, his birth name, 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.

Jesuits Founding & Early History

Ignatius of Loyola founded the Jesuit order, or Society of Jesus, in 1539 as an organization of zealous Catholics dedicated to proselytizing the word of the Church with absolute loyalty to the Pope. Ignatius of Loyola 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.

During the Counter Reformation, or the period of time in which the Church fought back against the rise of Protestantism, Ignatius became an important defender of the Catholic Church. As mentioned earlier, 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.

Jesuit Beliefs

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.

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.

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Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between Jesuit and Catholic?

The Jesuits are a Roman Catholic order and as such are full members of the Catholic Church who believe in the one trinitarian God who redeemed humanity through Jesus Christ. Where they differ from Catholicism in general is in their specific charism, or characteristics, of Ignatian spirituality and formation.

Who are the Jesuits and what do they believe?

The Jesuits are a Catholic male religious order of priests and brothers. Their specific spirituality focuses on discernment, finding God in all things, working for the greater glory of God, and care for the whole person.

Who founded the Jesuits and why?

After experiencing a spiritual conversion, Ignatius Loyola, gathered friends like Peter Faber and Francis Xavier, to discern how they could best serve God. This group became the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits.

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