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Pope Francis (Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio) made history in becoming the first Jesuit to be elected as leader of the Roman Catholic Church. But who are the Jesuits?

The answer to that question begins with a man named Don Inigo de Onez y Loyola, otherwise known as Ignatius (1491-1556). He was the youngest in a family of thirteen children who spent his early years seeking fame and fortune in the military. He "grew up a courtier and caballero, captive to the romantic ideals of medieval chivalry" (Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform, 410).

Both his legs were severely injured in a battle against the French in 1521, whereupon he spent much time in a hospital enduring excruciating pain and ultimately unsuccessful therapy. During long periods on his bed he studied and meditated on religious literature that focused on the life of Christ and famous saints in history. In March, 1522, he made a pilgrimage to a shrine near Barcelona. There he entered a cave at Manresa where he spent the next ten months in solitude. He underwent a profound spiritual experience that led him to devote himself to the church and the pope. After a brief trip to the Holy Land he devoted 12 years to study and eventually settled at the Sorbonne in Paris. There he, with nine other men (among whom was Francis Xavier), founded what would become the Society of Jesus (1534). They vowed poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. The organization was recognized and approved by Pope Paul III in 1540 and Ignatius was elected its first general on April 7, 1541. He held that office until he died on July 31, 1556.

The Society's major functions included education, suppression of dissident elements, and foreign missions. In 1548 Ignatius published his Spiritual Exercises, "the Counter Reformation's manual of self-discipline for clergy and laity" (Ozment, 412). The focus of the treatise was on special disciplines or exercises designed to induce certain feelings or states of mind. Ozment explains:

"Ignatius learned through his struggle with physical pain how to control mental anguish; mastery over basic physical reactions gave him insight into more complex psychological responses. The Spiritual Exercises built most perceptively on the interconnectedness of emotion, belief, and behavior. What justification by faith had attempted to accomplish for the anguished Protestant saint, Ignatius' disciplined exercises tried to do for the troubled Catholic saint. The routines it prescribed overcame old habits and prepared individuals for new states of mind and morality by playing directly on their basic emotions of fear and love. Particular sins, for example, were eliminated by attacking each with all five senses and the mind's power of imagination at regular daily intervals" (412).

The course of study extended over four weeks during which the student lived in absolute solitude, as fully cut off from sight and sound of the outside world as possible. Visualization and use of the imagination to see and feel spiritual realities was at the heart of the program. According to Lindsay (History of the Reformation), the outstanding feature of the Exercises is "the minute knowledge they display of the bodily conditions and accompaniments of states of spiritual ecstasy, and the continuous, not to say unscrupulous, use they make of physical means to create spiritual abandon. They master the soul by manipulating the body" (II:541).

Ozment points to the obvious contrast between Ignatius and Luther:

"In the persons of their founders the antithetical character of original Protestant and Counter Reformation piety is strikingly revealed. Whereas Luther had despaired of calculated efforts at self-reform and salvation, concluding that neither sublimation nor repression, no matter how diligently practiced, could ever bring peace of mind, Ignatius carefully examined himself and discovered a self-control like that of the first man, who could sin or not sin at will. Here was a new type of religious self-confidence that ran counter not only to the Reformation, but to much traditional spirituality as well" (412).

Devotion, discipline and strict obedience to the higher authority of the pope were the hallmark of the Jesuits. Each member vowed

"to abandon his own will, to consider ourselves bound by special vow to the present pope and his successors to go, without complaint, to any country whither they may send us, whether to the Turk or other infidels, in India or elsewhere, to any heretics or schismatics, as well as to the faithful, being subject only to the will of the pope and the general of the order."

The Jesuit devotion to hierarchical order and authority, particularly their blind obedience to the pope, is nowhere better seen than in the famous thirteenth rule in the Spiritual Exercises:

"If we wish to be sure that we are right in all things, we should always be ready to accept this principle: I will believe that the white that I see is black, if the hierarchical church so defines."

Such was the dedication and vision that inspired the Jesuits and made them "fully a match for Lutherans and Calvinists during the confessional wars that engulfed Europe between 1560 and 1648. With the assistance of determined rulers, an estimated one-third of earlier losses to Protestants within the empire, especially in Hapsburg Austria and Bavaria and major Rhenish episcopacies, was recovered by century's end" (Ozment, 416).

By the 18th century their missionary strategy entailed adapting the Catholic faith to local religious convictions, provoking opposition from the Franciscans and Dominicans who insisted they were conceding too much to paganism. Pope Clement XIV officially disbanded the order in 1773, but Jesuits remained in existence until the edict was rescinded in 1814 by Pope Pius VII.

The Jesuits reached a peak of over 36,000 members in 1964. In the unrest following Vatican II, membership fell to less than 25,000 in 1988. However, they remain the largest single religious order in the RCC, numbering somewhere around 20,000.

As noted earlier, the Jesuits are known primarily for their focus on education and missions. Today they operate 189 colleges around the world, 28 of them in the United States (among the more famous of which being Georgetown University and Boston College).

Although the Jesuits have a reputation for being to the left of center theologically, it appears that Francis is more conservative and traditional, especially in matters relating to sexual morality and the role of women in the church. Much has been made of Francis’s commitment to the poor and powerless, a hallmark of Jesuit conviction.

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