Who Are the Jesuits and Where did they Come From?

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A Brief History

On May 20, 1521, the man that would become Saint Ignatius of Loyola was seriously wounded at Pamplona in a battle between the Spanish and the French supported Navarrese during the Spanish Conquest of Navarre, the region of land on the Iberian Peninsula between France and Spain.  Spanish soldier Inigo Lopez de Loyola, later known as St. Ignatius of Loyola and the principal founder of the Society of Jesus (better known as the Jesuits), had suffered a cannonball injury to his leg, but bore his injury with such courage that his Navarrese foes acknowledged his bravery by carrying him all the way to his home at Loyola!  It was during this journey that Ignatius contemplated and meditated on life and otherworldly things, convincing himself to change his life from that of a soldier to that of a priest.

Digging Deeper

Born in 1491, in what is now Basque country (a border area between Spain and France, with a people of which Ignatius was a member that have their own unique cultural background) in Spain, Ignatius (or Inigo as they called him), became fascinated with all things military and chose that career.  After fighting may battles without injury, at Pamplona he suffered a wounded right leg and a smashed left leg with several serious fractures when a cannonball smashed into his legs.  His recover required several surgeries, and even the bones in the left leg being re-broken and reset, and of course, all of this without modern medical techniques or anesthesia!  His serious wounds left one leg shorter than the other and gave Inigo a noticeable limp.  During and after recovery, he turned his attention and studies to the Bible and theology, ultimately forming The Society of Jesus and becoming Superior General at Paris in 1541, the first man to hold the office.  The Jesuits took upon themselves a special vow of fealty to the Pope, a factor that must have endeared the order to the Vatican!  Ignatius did not form the Jesuits all alone, of course, and major contributions were made by Saint Peter Faber and Saint Francis Xavier among others.  St. Ignatius died in Rome in 1556, of Malaria, called “Roman Fever” at the time.

Tomb of Saint Ignatius, c. 1675.  Photograph by Torvindus.

Founded in Paris in 1540, the Order is headquartered today in Rome.  Membership is around 16,000+, with several missions for the Order to focus on, including Education, Research, social ministries, hospital ministries and promoting cultural dialog.  The Jesuits are decidedly they intellectual branch of the Catholic Church and have many Universities under their aegis, including John Carroll University in University Heights, Ohio near Cleveland, Gonzaga University of basketball renown in Spokane, Washington, and Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Boston College, Fordham University, Georgetown University as well as several universities named “Loyola” in North America and even more colleges and universities in other countries.  Perhaps due to the military experience of St. Ignatius, the Order is sometimes referred to as “God’s Soldiers” or even “God’s Marines” (a much more glorious title, eh?).  Jesuit priests are not required to wear any special sort of clothing other than that appropriate to the country they are in, although many wear the familiar monastic cassock or regular priestly garb such as black clothes and a clerical collar.

The missionary work done by Jesuits in the New World provided considerable exploration and information to the European conquest and settling of the new lands.  Jesuit missions in Asia did not fare as well, except in the Philippine Islands where the Order had some success in converting natives to Catholicism. Wherever the Jesuits conducted missions, they spread literacy and scientific knowledge as well as preaching the Gospel. The Order (or “The Company” as the Order is sometimes called) also played a role in the Counter-Reformation after Schism that developed between Protestants led by Martin Luther and the Catholic Church.

Martin Luther (1529) by Lucas Cranach the Elder

As with virtually any organization, the Jesuits have had trying times and controversies, sometimes suspected of undermining governments and sometimes persecuted for their beliefs.  During World War II, Jesuits were instrumental in saving many Jewish people from the Holocaust, and the Order was persecuted itself by the German Nazi regime.  As with the larger Catholic Church, there have been some allegations of sexual abuse by Jesuit priests.  A recent controversy surrounding Jesuits in North America arose when it was discovered that John Carroll, the first Jesuit Bishop in North America and the founder of Georgetown University had been a slave owner.

The Society of Jesus, or simply, The Jesuits, remain one of the most prestigious religious orders in the Christian world.  Their influence on education has been and continues to be enormous.  Jesuit contribution to the fields of seismology and the study of earthquakes has earned Seismology the nickname “The Jesuit Science.”  Jesuit researchers have also been significant in the development of psychics and astronomy, among other sciences.

The main building of St. Ignatius College (renamed John Carroll University), now part of the Saint Ignatius High School campus.  Photograph by Hornandsoccer.

Question for Students (and others): Have you ever attended a Jesuit educational facility?  Do you know any alumni of a Jesuit College or University?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Feingold, Mordechai (editor). Jesuit Science and the Republic of Letters.  MIT Press, 2002.

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Ignatius of Loyola. The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: or Manresa.  TAN Books, 1999.

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Martin, James. The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life.  HarperOne, 2012.

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Martin, Malachi. The Jesuits.  Simon & Schuster, 1988.

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The featured image in this article, a photograph by John Workman of Ignatius of Loyola wounded in battle at Pampeluna, 1521, at the nave of St. Ignatius Church, Boston College, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.