The Pope's Light Cavalry

Book cover
God's Soldiersby By Jonathan WrightDoubleday. 352p $27.95

This book, as its subtitle indicates, is a history of the Jesuits from their origins up to the present day. It is well researched, broadly learned, sophisticated, fast-paced, sympathetic yet critical, somewhat impressionistic in approach and sometimes breezy in style. I recommend it.

Jonathan Wright opens the book with a story about a Portuguese noblewoman in Goa who, hell-bent on having a relic of St. Francis Xavier, bit a toe off his corpse. That’s an attention-getter if there ever was one! With a few broad strokes he then describes Xavier’s exploits while he was alive and the fate of his body parts after he died. The fate of those parts leads Wright into one of his main themes, the repulsion felt by Protestants (and others) for everything the Jesuits stood for. He only then begins to tell the story of the founding of the Society of Jesus.


These opening pages are typical of Wright’s approach. He has a gift for ferreting out stories and particularly vivid incidents to illustrate his larger points, and he uses it to great advantage in the book. But do not be deceived. This is a book by a well-trained historian who just happens to bear his learning lightly. The book includes an extensive and well-chosen bibliography that shows that Wright has assimilated the literature well. Despite the author’s light touch, this is not a light-headed book.

One of the strong features of God’s Soldiers is Wright’s grasp of anti-Jesuit literature—tracts, poems and satires of various kinds from the 16th through the 19th century. He spices the text with quotations from these sources (maybe just a few too many), and then often goes on to point out how ill-founded, even spiteful they were. Wright admires the Jesuits and, for my taste, mostly for the right reasons.

What is especially welcome is his chapter on the suppression of the Society of Jesus in the late 18th century, “The Jesuit Is No More,” a piece of history that is still very much under-researched and little understood. Many otherwise well-informed Catholics do not even know it happened. The final chapter, “The Fifth Jesuit Century,” is a sensitive and sensible look at the Jesuits today. The author has read and understood, for instance, the decrees of the recent general congregations of the Society, including the 34th in 1995. Less successful is the penultimate chapter on the Society in the 19th and early 20th centuries, after it was restored in 1814. It sometimes devolves more into a history of the European church than of the Jesuits, but I admire Wright for even attempting to write on a subject so sprawling and, again, under-researched.

The “Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power” part of the title might be intended to grab potential readers, but it also points to the general approach Wright takes. Like any historian, he had to be selective. He chose to write a political history, if we take that term in its broadest meaning. The book is about what the Jesuits did, very little about what made them tick. By that I mean he includes practically nothing about the Spiritual Exercises and its ongoing impact. Nor is there much about why the Jesuits got into education, made it their primary ministry and stuck with it, nor enough on the Jesuits’ cultural engagements—painting, architecture, music and dance.

Perhaps Wright’s emphasis on the Jesuits and the Reformation accounts for the main title, God’s Soldiers. But Wright is a British historian, and in Britain as almost nowhere else the Jesuits had little choice but to identify themselves, and be identified by others, as a force mainly intent on countering the Reformation. The book’s title reinforces that old stereotype.

Wright is a young scholar who completed his doctorate at Oxford in 1998. This is his first book. It has limitations, but this will be true of any attempt at such a large theme. Although I admire Jean Lacouture’s Jesuits: A Multibiography (1996), with which this book is roughly comparable, I think Wright does a better job in fewer pages of presenting a panoramic view of Jesuit history.

Neither book, however, is a substitute for the History of the Society of Jesus, by William Bangert, S.J, now over 30 years old. If you can imagine a book-length encyclopedia entry, that is what Bangert’s History amounts to. This means it can be deadly dull reading, but if you want solid information provided in a systematic and reasonably comprehensive way under one cover, that is the book you must turn to. Otherwise, pick up Jonathan Wright.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.


The latest from america

Sagal knows what it is to run away from problems, to need to be needed, and how much can be achieved through stubborn persistence.
Emma Winters January 11, 2019
The simple lessons of Jean Vanier on humility and Christian love always bear repeating.
Colleen DulleJanuary 11, 2019

“Anyone can do any amount of work,” wrote the American humorist Robert Benchley, “provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” Procrastination is an act of will, the choice to postpone what needs to be done.

Nick Ripatrazone January 10, 2019
The stories of Andre Dubus delve into loneliness, the ferocity of parental love, adultery, retribution and sex that is a stay against loneliness.
Kevin SpinaleJanuary 03, 2019