John McGreevy's 'American Jesuits and the World' tells of the Jesuit contribution to global Catholicism

American Jesuits and the Worldby John McGreevy

Princeton University Press. 300p $23.00

If immigration has been a key factor in the development of the United States since its colonial origins, arguably immigration has played an even greater role in the growth of the Society of Jesus in the United States. In a study stunning in the breadth and depth of its international contextualization, John T. McGreevy, through a focus on five emblematic developments in the late 19th century, has deftly captured this remarkable growth of the Jesuit institutional presence in the United States and its intellectual evolution from a countercultural body under siege to one “at home” with American culture and institutions, while recapturing the global vision of its 19th-century founders.

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Of the six jurisdictions that constituted the Society of Jesus in the United States in 1900, five of them owed their origin to Jesuit immigrants of the mid-to-late 19th century. Four of the five benefited from Jesuits seeking asylum in America from oppression in Europe. Only one of the provinces (Maryland; after 1879 called the Maryland-New York Province) had missionary beginnings that long antedated the extraordinary Jesuit migration that transformed Jesuit history in the United States. Even in Maryland, by the 1850s, thanks to the Jesuit influx from the European revolutions of the late 1840s, Europeans made up a full third of the province. More important, when the majority of the displaced Jesuits returned to Europe after the old political order was restored, many of the best and the brightest of the asylum seekers were allowed to remain in America. That cadre formed an intellectual critical mass that set the direction and character of the province over the next half century.

This influx coincided with the revival in the United States of an anti-Catholicism that centered on Jesuits as the chief threats to the country’s republican well-being. The Swiss Jesuit John Bapst (1815-87) was tarred and feathered for his criticism of the (Protestant) Bible-based public education in Maine and for his audacity in starting his own school for those seeking an alternative. Five years before his harrowing evening in Ellsworth, Me., Bapst had decried the “infidel country” that gave Catholics the choice of surrendering to its false values or being destroyed. What to non-Catholics was a sacred right of religious liberty was to Catholics just another form of ersatz autonomy, no better than that of the unregulated marketplace as the engine of economic success. To the Belgian Jesuit Ferdinand Helias, ministering in Central Missouri on the eve of the Civil War, American liberalism was inseparable from anti-Catholicism. Distrust of government followed.

That many of the Republicans had roots in the Know-Nothing movement only deepened the animus of most Jesuits against the Lincoln administration. An arms-length relationship with the government, at best, tended to mark Jesuit-state relations for the rest of the century. At Woodstock College near Baltimore, the theologate that became the American intellectual center of ultramontane Catholicism, the émigré faculty barred celebration of the patriotic holidays (Washington’s birthday and the Fourth of July) that had been a staple at Jesuit colleges in the antebellum period and allowed neither faculty nor students to vote.

Five years after Appomattox, American Jesuits became major promoters of papal infallibility as a counterweight to the “acids of modernity” infecting the Western world. The First Vatican Council’s definition of papal infallibility as an article of faith in 1870 helped complete the ultramontane position of the American Jesuits and most of their lay constituents.

Another consequence of the Jesuit émigrés’ coming to America was the growth of a devotional culture that privileged the miraculous and focused on suffering as a crucial sharing in Jesus’ redemptive life. Benedict Sestini, of Woodstock College, was a key promoter, through his publication Messenger of the Sacred Heart, of this new devotionalism that was increasingly put into the service of papal primacy and infallibility.

To appreciate the vital role that immigrant Jesuits played in the creation of the network of colleges that spanned the nation, one needs only to know that they founded 23 of the 25 Jesuit institutions begun in the 19th century. By the late 19th century, this meant uniform, Rome-centered education, symbolized best, perhaps, by the Gesu Church that Burchard Villiger built contiguous to St. Joseph’s College in the 1880s, modeled after its Roman namesake and proclaiming the fundamental Roman allegiance of those who built it and worshiped in it.

“The construction of a vast Catholic subculture of parishes and schools,” John McGreevy notes, “the cultivation of a global Catholic sensibility centered in Rome, the widespread adoption of devotional practices like the Sacred Heart and architectural styles like the baroque, and a renewed fascination with the miraculous did not depend solely on exiled Jesuits. But they are unimaginable without them.”

If McGreevy has brilliantly captured the main lines of this extraordinary, refugee-shaped history, it seems to this reviewer that he has truncated one important stream of this development. There is an implicit assumption that the really significant Jesuit history begins with the waves of Jesuit exiles who found refuge in America, literally from coast to coast; that America was pure and simple mission country for the Jesuits throughout most of the 19th century. Tellingly, he points to the general raising of Jesuit jurisdictions in the country from the rank of mission to the level of provinces in the last decade of that century.

But in 1892 when several missions were formally made provinces, there were already two provinces (Maryland and Missouri) in the country, one of which (Maryland) predated the mass migrations by more than a decade. The Maryland Province, in fact, had in the early part of the century developed a strong national identity that valued the separation of church and state, proudly proclaimed its patriotism (including exuberant celebrations of the nation’s feast days) and had a close relationship with government and a wary attitude about the miraculous. James Ryder, S.J., Irish born and American raised, gave a testament in stone to this republican vision when, in his second term as rector of Georgetown College, he erected Trinity Church, with its neoclassical exterior and stark interior. The year he commissioned it was, ironically, 1848.

From its restoration as a mission of the Society in 1806, Maryland had benefitted immeasurably from a steady stream of immigrants from continental Europe. But there quickly developed conflicts over the issue of the relationship of the Society and the church in America to the nation and Rome. The massive influx of refugees in 1848 proved a decisive turning point in that contest. When the next Jesuit church was built in the District of Columbia, a decade after Trinity, it was Gothic, with multiple altars and sacred paintings and busts richly adorning its interior, all the design of Benedict Sestini and named in honor of a Roman Jesuit saint, St. Aloysius Gonzaga. By 1870, a Maryland provincial, Joseph Keller, a native of Bavaria, could proclaim that the pope’s loss of his temporal power had “made ultramontanes of us all.” In Maryland, the triumph of that ghetto- and Rome-centered mentality had been one that was slow and long in coming against formidable competition.

Fittingly, McGreevy sees the beginning of a change in this worldview in the experience of a band of Jesuits of the Maryland-New York Province sent to work in, and eventually take over, the international Society’s mission to the Philippines. In a new land, they recovered an old tradition.

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