The National Catholic Review
Remembering turbulent times for the Jesuits

Jesuits and their colleagues, collaborators and friends—and all persons formed by the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius—owe a debt of gratitude to Pope Pius VII. Without Pius VII, it is fair to say, there would be no Society of Jesus today, no Jesuit schools, colleges or universities, no Jesuit retreat houses and no Jesuit periodicals. For it was Pius VII who, on Aug. 7, 1814, restored the Society of Jesus, some four decades after its suppression by Pope Clement XIV. This year marks the 200th anniversary of that restoration. And, in fact, this anniversary takes place amid many other anniversaries worth acknowledging, as they provide useful context for the surrounding events. Anniversaries also offer exceptional occasions for influencing which aspects of a historical event are remembered and which are not—and how they are remembered. Let us take a look back.

In 1814, after some 15 years of dominating Europe, the French emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, had been outflanked by the Quadruple Alliance of Britain, Austria, Prussia and Russia, an alliance aided by the moral support of the papacy. For a good part of the previous two decades, France had been at war with the rest of Europe—extending the benefits of the French Revolution, some claimed; violently subjugating various states and their peoples, according to others. The violence had taken place within France as well: the Reign of Terror sent many to the guillotine for even the slightest suspicion of hostility to the revolution.

From 1814, war gave way to relative peace in Europe for the next century. After Napoleon’s final defeat in 1815, there would not be another general European war until World War I. Napoleon’s victims had been many, including hundreds of thousands of his own soldiers, many lost in the frozen expanses of Russia. Popes also were among Napoleon’s victims. Pius VI had died in France in 1799, a prisoner of the emperor. Cardinals elected Pope Pius VII the next year in Venice, which proved a fortuitous decision. Without the fortitude and perseverance of Pius VII, who reigned from 1800 to 1823, the papacy could have disappeared altogether in the wake of Napoleon. In 1801 pope and emperor agreed on a concordat that restored the episcopate and diocesan structures in France but left no place for religious orders of men or women. Soon Napoleon wanted more from Pius, including the dissolution of the Papal States. The French army seized Pius VII and eventually took him to France as a prisoner for several years.

Seen as a kind of living martyr by much of Europe, Pius was a highly honored survivor of Napoleon’s warfare and bullying. Almost as soon as Pius returned in triumph to Rome in the spring of 1814, he acted to restore the Jesuits throughout the world. Thus the anniversaries of Napoleon’s defeat (or the liberation of Europe from Napoleonic domination) and of the restoration of the Jesuits are very closely related. In recent years, study of Jesuit history from the founding of the order in 1540 to the suppression of 1773 has become a hot topic, with large numbers of conferences, dissertations, articles and books on the subject. Study of the restoration and of the restored Society has remained, at least until now, a somewhat lesser concern. A few notable Jesuits of the 19th and 20th centuries, like Pierre Teilhard de Chardin or Gerard Manley Hopkins, attract a good deal of attention, but they are exceptions.

The Society in Context

Of course, Jesuit history did not unfold in isolation from the rest of the world. In 1214 the future King Louis IX of France was born, a king who would lead crusades to the Holy Land, a king also destined to be a canonized saint. He was the ancestor of many French monarchs, some of whom were great supporters of the Society of Jesus and some of whom certainly were not. And 2014 is also an anniversary year in Great Britain. In 1714 the Elector of Hanover succeeded Queen Anne as George I, monarch of England and Scotland, and with him came the guarantee of a Protestant succession that continues today.

That the Society of Jesus survived at all after its suppression by Pope Clement XIV was due in large part to Catherine the Great, who, like George I, was a German Protestant who became a monarch outside German lands. As Tsarina of the Russian Empire, Catherine refused to allow the papal document of suppression to be published in her territories, and she made it possible for Jesuits to continue their work running schools and recruiting new members for the Society. Under the House of Hanover, Jesuits in Britain and its empire eventually came to prosper in ways that went beyond what they had been able to do under the Tudors or Stuarts. One of the lessons of Jesuit history is that friends and supporters, or at least people willing to tolerate Jesuits, may be found in surprising places, and that figures one might expect to be strong supporters of the Society of Jesus are not always so.

Many of the various anniversaries marked this year are related to war, European or other. In the United States, we are marking the sesquicentennial of the Civil War; this year, the 1864 founding of Arlington National Cemetery has garnered special attention. We also remember the 50th anniversary of the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Such anniversaries can help to discourage idealization of the past, including the Jesuit past, as if it had been a purely golden age. For the Jesuit past includes the holding of slaves and other acts of acquiescence in what we now see as appalling human rights abuses.

Yet another anniversary of war is upon us, the centennial of the start of what would become World War I. How is it to be remembered? A current exhibition in London’s National Portrait Gallery presents a selection of photographs from the Great War that show both self-assured and even triumphant faces of military leaders, but also tired and demoralized faces of the injured and horrifically scarred. In Paris, in contrast, there is an exhibition of photographs published in the journal Excelsior between 1914 and 1918 that show little other than courage and determination, with very little to suggest that victory ever was really in doubt. War may be remembered in very different ways.

The history of the Jesuits is, among other things, the history of a potential antidote to national antagonisms and the warfare they spawn. From their beginnings, Jesuits were international, for the first Jesuits were all foreign students in Paris. Once approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, the Society of Jesus soon became still more international, as Francis Xavier headed to Asia and other Jesuits spread out across the globe. The Jesuits crossed (or transgressed) all kinds of boundaries: geographic, political, cultural, linguistic, religious. Many of the most famous Jesuits to work in Portuguese Asia were Italians, while not a few German Jesuits worked in Latin America.

By the mid-1700s Portuguese, Spanish and French monarchs had had enough of the Jesuits, for with their international way of proceeding, including a close relationship with the papacy, Jesuits did not fit into the model of church in which heads of state controlled the church in their territories. Eighteenth-century Catholic monarchs also wanted control of education within their states, and the Jesuits were perceived as a major obstacle to this goal. Though some historians argue that Jesuit arrogance played a significant role in the suppression of the Society of Jesus—and it may have played some role—the most important factor was the centralizing agendas of the Catholic monarchies, agendas that sought to make the church subordinate to the state. The monarchs’ intense pressure on Pope Clement XIV was the immediate cause of the suppression in 1773.

The Global Society

In 2014 the Catholic Church continues to mark the 50th anniversary of the Second Vatican Council (1962-65), an ecumenical council that still matters greatly in many ways, including as a demonstration of and an impetus to a genuinely global Catholicism in the service of world peace. A global church, not tied to any particular nation or language or culture or political structure, is something that Jesuits promoted as far back as the 16th century. But the ease of travel today and access to the Internet have made this much more achievable than ever before. In 1964 Pope Paul VI inaugurated the model of an itinerant pope by traveling to the Holy Land. Pope Francis recently marked that journey’s 50th anniversary with a trip to many of the same places and by speaking out and praying for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East, despite seemingly long odds against this hope.

Because he comes from Argentina, Pope Francis also draws attention to Latin America. The year 2014 marks another anniversary significant for Jesuits, the 25th anniversary of the martyrdom in 1989 in El Salvador of six Jesuits along with their housekeeper and her daughter. Especially since Vatican II, Jesuits have clearly articulated a vision of humanity in which human dignity and human rights transcend social and economic class, racial and ethnic identities, and national and political boundaries. It is a vision that has cost many Jesuits their lives. If the situation in El Salvador has improved in recent years, the cost of being companions of Jesus, as Jesuits call themselves, remains. Jesuits are not meant to live in a protective bubble, somewhere apart from the rough and tumble and violence of world events, however attractive such a bubble may at times seem. In the world, and engaged in struggles for a more just world, Jesuits have been vulnerable to attacks of many kinds and remain so.

In the late 1700s, few would have expected or predicted the universal restoration of the Society of Jesus. And yet it did happen. At the College of the Holy Cross I teach a course on the papacy in the modern world, starting around 1500. I used to tell my students that we would never see a Jesuit pope. I was wrong, and I have, happily, done some rethinking and some reimagining of the papacy and of the Jesuits. I tell myself to be open to still more surprises. In this complex anniversary year, perhaps Pope Francis, by his example, words and actions, can help Jesuits, their colleagues, collaborators, friends and indeed all persons to move forward in reimagining and rethinking who they are and who they wish to be in the 21st century and beyond. In turning to St. Francis of Assisi for his name as bishop of Rome, Jorge Bergoglio, S.J., already has shown us how we may draw on a figure from the past in order to recreate and reinvigorate who we are and has offered many examples of how we may make central to our lives the service of the poor and the promotion of peace.

Thomas Worcester, S.J., is professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., and a specialist in religious and cultural history. He is co-editor, with James Corkery, of The Papacy Since 1500: From Italian Prince to Universal Pastor (2010) and general editor of the forthcoming The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the Jesuits (Cambridge University Press).


John Walton | 7/28/2014 - 10:52am

What did Georgetown do during the period of suppression?

Robert Killoren | 7/28/2014 - 10:44am

The reinstatement of the Jesuit order helped bring about the return of Jesuit missionaries to serve the Native American tribes of the West and the start of St. Louis University.

Luigi Del Gaudio | 8/1/2014 - 1:10am

And the suppression of the Jesuits in the 1870's in Italy, that were violent and anti-Papal, brought the Jesuits to the West Coast of the United States to establish their universities that now exist here from CA to Washington States.