Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.47.1: THE JESUITS, by Jonathan Wright, (2004) BR

V047-01_thejesuitsI recall with much clarity when, as an eighth-grader being taught by the Sisters of St. Joseph, it was announced in class that the Jesuits were coming to town. The nuns spoke of the imminence of this Catholic religious order of priests and brothers with the type of respect the residents of Dodge City must have shown when some feared and appropriately noir-attired gunslinger was coming to their town.


These nuns were women who were “brides of Christ,” whose salvation was pretty much “in the bag.”   So, what did they have to fear from the Jesuits? Or were they just awestruck? Who were these priests who seemed to command more respect, fear, resentment, and admiration than other Catholic religious orders?   Who were these members of the Society of Jesus, who were going to make the Basilian fathers who had the town to themselves for decades, look like quivering sheriff’s deputies facing down the quickest, deadliest “guns” in the Roman Catholic Church.


I all but burst through the door to tell my parents, ” The Jesuits are coming! The Jesuits are coming!”   There was a momentous anticipation in the air.   I felt like something big was in the offing, and though I don’t know why, but I wanted to be a part of it. Beyond the brief hagiographies of Ignatius Loyola and Francis Xavier, the founding pillars of the Society, I knew nothing about the Jesuits.   But if the were he Mantle and Maris of the Roman Catholic Church, I wanted to be on their team.


The Jesuits are perhaps the main reason why he institution of religion in general, and the RCC in particular, and even the power of belief, remain fascinating to me and lend a vibrancy to my enduring agnosticism. Because the Jesuits are those black-robed “gunslingers”—not cloistered monks trying to pray a better world into being, or parish priests readying for bingo night—but worldly men of action who follow Xavier’s motto ignem mittere in terram , willing to commit metaphysical arson in service of Loyola’s loftier anthem, Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam.


The “jebbies” always had balls. They were the sort who wouldn’t point to that part of the bleachers where they were going to hit a home run.   They were not daunted by Hindus in Goa, Buddhists in Canton, or animists in Canada. If you want a prayer-chain supplicate a nun or a monk; if you want to extend the roads that lead to Rome, dispatch the Jesuits.   These were guys, like Issac Jogues, and Jean de Brébeuf, o would saunter into Huron country in winter and feel fortunate if they came back with most of their appendages and maybe a few “soul scalps” hanging from the belts of their raggedy soutaines. These were guys like Manuel de Norbrega, or Antonio Ruiz de Montoya, who would brave venomous snakes and poison-tipped arrows in South American rain forests, foraging for souls and fomenting rebellion. [1]   These are guys like Matteo Ricci, cleverly ingratiating himself to the Emperor of China with western philosophy and technology. [2]


Not all Jesuits dallied with martyrdom. Some were confessors, counselors and confidants of royalty and the politically powerful. They would have laughed at the notion of the separation of church and state. From the confessional they influenced finance and policy and conflated the “greater glory of God” with the greater glory of their clients.


Small wonder that there were, and still are, those who despised and feared these black-attired legions of the church. Interestingly, although there have always been Protestants who saw the Jesuits as enemies, it was often their co-religionists, fellow Catholics, who regarded them with extreme opprobrium.   The Jesuits were fierce and effective competition for the other legions of the church, the Dominicans, Benedictines, Franciscans, Piarists, and other orders.  Jesuits not only formed attachments with secular authority, but also seemed to have special access to the corridors of the Vatican. [3]   These factors were certainly responsible for envy from the other religious orders, but perhaps the primary basis for this envy if the Jesuit educational system.


“Give us a boy until age seven and we well show you the man.”   So confident in bending the will of young men to theirs so goes the Jesuit boast.   There is more that a grain of truth; it is sometimes surprisingly easy for one “Jesuit product” to spot another. By the time the decided to open a high school in my town there were already Jesuit high schools, colleges and seminaries all over the world.   There must be hundreds of schools named after Xavier and Loyola alone. I have spotted them in Nagasaki, Macao, Bombay, and on Southern Pacific islands. I don’t know whether their effect is always the same on the young men who study with the Jesuits, but they do seem to imbued their charges, at whatever ages the get them, with a sense of ambition, purpose and service.  


The Jesuits are men of action, not contemplation; they get things done, sometimes setting them “on fire.” This is not doubt why they have made enemies over the centuries, even at times angering the church that they serve. They have been prohibited, expelled, and executed, but the have prevailed, and their influence carries forward in the men (and women) they have taught.


I was often just in awe of my Jesuit teachers in high school, and certainly didn’t know their history as a do after reading this book and a few others in the years since I graduated.   But I got an inkling of their controversial nature the day after I graduated in the first graduating class of their high school in my town. By that time the original entrants had been winnowed down to those who could endure the sometimes withering academic pressures.  A piece in the local paper the next day caught my eye. I can only recollect it with dim memory now, but it said much more than just the statistics. The article, obviously informed by a press release from my school said something to the effect that our graduate had been offered so many scholarships to colleges and universities that there were enough left over the might have bee used for the graduates of the other boy’s Catholic high school in town. In other words, the Jesuit high school was the only place to go for academic excellence. That other school must have been pissed off.   But by then it was too late; the blacked-robed Jebbies, the quickest gunslingers in the Roman Catholic Church, and the slickest public relations dudes as well, had already set the town ablaze.

©2007, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 11.4.2007)

[1] Cf. The excellent 1986 film by Roland Joffé, The Mission, in which Jesuits fight against the enslavement of local tribes in Portuguese colonies.

[2] See, DCJournal No. 31. 2, a review of Jonathan Spence, THE MEMORY PALACE OF MATTEO RICCI

[3] The Jesuits also competed with other religious orders (as well as the Protestants) through their missions, e.g with the Spaniards in New Spain and the Franciscans in the Orient.   Although they were often the first to venture into new territory in search of souls, they were sometime beat out by other orders.   For example, the Franciscans were in Western China well before the Jesuits.   The Franciscans were in Mongolia in the early 14 th C, but apparently their connections there ended in 1368.   It was the Jesuits, arriving with Matteo Ricci, whio made the most effective inroads into China.