The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present

by John O’Malley, S.J.

Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D




I read this book on the plane coming back from Atlanta as I was preparing myself for an Ignatian pilgrimage to Spain in a couple of months. What I like about most books I read by Jesuits is that they lead right away with the purpose of the book. This book is no exception. The book is to “provide in almost skeletal form the basic narrative of the origin, development, triumphs, and tribulations of the society of Jesus up to the present”. Secondly, “to provide through almost arbitrary choice descriptions in detail of a few undertakings”. I will abide by those guidelines.

The relationship of the Pope to the Jesuits is investigated in the Preface as a way to understand how Jesuit will interact with this Pope. The Pope’s own relationship with the Jesuits has not been without bumps. He called the Superior General of the Jesuits and they talked about the importance of their structure and how it will be played out. The Jesuits Rescue Service which operates in 47 countries and serves 750,000 people.


The Jesuits would like to double there service in this area by 2020. In the United States, the Jesuits are attempting to provide quality education for all through their Christo Ray schools. The Jesuits have begun Arrupe College in Chicago to assist financially disadvantaged students to move on and finish up their schooling at Loyola University. This is often a complicated task as all the variables confounding the issue need attention by the student and their professors.

Returning to the Foundations of the order, the reader sees Ignatius in Paris around 1528. He is in union with 6-8 men who consider themselves, friends in the Lord. The first major thing they did together was to take a trip to the Holy Land. As it is for most of the civilization including myself, it made a significant difference in their spirituality. They banded even more together to create the Formula to submit to the Holy See. With the publication of this document, the Society of Jesus came into existence on September 27, 1540. The membership grew by leaps and bounds and 16 years later when Ignatius died there were over 1000 members. They engaged in the same ministries of other orders: preaching and hearing confessions. Different from other orders, the Jesuits did not wear a distinctive habit and they retained their family names. Ignatius gave himself to a severe practice that included long hours of prayer, fasting, self-denial and other austerities that would be considered harsh even at that time in the history of the Jesuits.


The Spiritual Exercises became an important part of the Jesuits daily life. The purpose of the book was to get in touch with themselves and to get in touch with the God within. This was to help to create a deeper spiritual life. These exercises gave a structure for the lives of the novices who were joining the Jesuits. From the spiritual exercises came the Retreat. This retreat was beyond the rites and rituals already established but was a way of deepening their relationship with Jesus. Their schools proliferated in an almost mystical fashion. They wanted to teach all socioeconomic classes and intended to keep the doors open to all, however, many of the students were from the upper class. The Jesuits created lectures on a book of the Bible or some topic of interest to all. They would sit in the congregation and the people listening would sit in front. The Jesuits had a structure that assisted all in loving and serving God more deeply.


Another person of importance to the foundation of the Jesuits was Fr. Canisius who founded 18 schools in the area around Germany. The Reformation made inroads around the area and into Poland, Fr. Canisius brought Catholicism back to the area. Brazil was another area that the Jesuits became successful in. The linguistics of the area made hearing confessions a problem as the native customs hampered the understanding of the different dialects. By the time Ignatius died, the relationship with the Holy See had disintegrated into a kind of chaos. The Pope wanted the Jesuits to say the Liturgy of the Hours but the foundational documents were the Spiritual Exercises. When the new Pope, Pius IV, made amends with the Jesuits and released them from the obligation of the Liturgy of the Hours, peace was established with the Holy See. The first century of the Jesuits went well and the Jesuits moved into the second with confidence. The work with the Japanese failed but that was an exception so they moved on with distinction. Their institutions in Latin America provided networks of support that assisted their work.


The next 30 pages or so discusses the movement of the Jesuits across the globe. They made mistakes and were willing to do so. In 1773 by virtue of a papal brief, the Society of Jesus ceased to exist and by virtue of a papal bull 41 years later, it was restored to life. The Vatican Council II and moved the Society beyond certain positions it had formally or informally adopted in those circumstances, gave the society the mandate “to promote understanding and dialogue among people of all religious faiths. It took into account the great cultural shifts that occurred since the great restoration of 1814 and moved the Society beyond certain positions it had formally or informally adopted in those circumstances”


I would recommend this book to anyone fascinated by the many different facets of the Jesuits. My interest in and admiration of the Jesuits have been in the field of education but there is so much more to these holy men including our beloved Pope. After reading this book I understand more fully the wise decisions that all Jesuits are called to make.

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