The Society of Jesus: Who are the Jesuits?

Who are the Jesuits?

Duomo in Florence The Society of Jesus is a religious order of the Roman Catholic Church

Pope Francis is the first member of the Society of Jesus to be elected pontiff. So who are the Jesuits?

According to the all-male Society, there are 20,000 Jesuits working in more than 100 countries, with 200 members in the UK in parishes, schools, colleges and spirituality centres.

Jesuits take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.

Around three-quarters of Jesuits are priests, but there are also 2,000 Jesuit brothers (men who take vows but are not ordained) and almost 4,000 'scholastics' (men studying for the priesthood).

There was initial speculation that the Pope chose the name Francis after one of the order's founding fathers, St Francis Xavier, but it has been confirmed that the choice is in honour of St Francis of Assisi, who died centuries before it began.

The Jesuit motto is Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam - For the greater glory of God.

Reformation response

The society was founded as an answer to the Reformation by a Spanish knight, Ignatius Loyola, in 1539. It secured papal approval in 1540.

An incredibly influential order, members of the society were heavily involved in European politics from the offset. Jesuits were implicated in plots to overthrow Elizabeth I. They were also associated with the Gunpowder plot to destroy Parliament, after James I made the order illegal. During this time all Catholics in Britain were told they must recant their catholicism or face death.

The term Jesuit was first applied to the society as a reproach and was never employed by its founder, though members and friends of the society later accepted the name.

Today Jesuits continue to be one of the most influential groups in the Roman Catholic church.

Becoming a Jesuit

The Jesuits only accept men who have been Catholics for three years or more.

Trainee members of the Jesuits can be either scholastics, who become ordained priests after their studies, or brothers, who serve the group in a variety of other ways.

The stages of training, or "formation":

  • Novitiate - two years
  • Candidate takes his first vows of poverty, chastity and obedience
  • "First studies" of philosophy and theology - two years or more
  • Regency, time spent in the wider community - two or three years
  • Theology studies - four years
  • Further advanced studies - often three to five years
  • Tertianship, further study of the Jesuits - seven/nine months or two years
  • Candidate takes final vows and becomes a Jesuit priest or brother

Their alleged influence over monarchs and leading figures led to envy and the suppression of the society during the late 18th Century, but they were re-established in 1814.

The society has a strong educational focus. During the 16th and 17th Centuries the Jesuits grew rapidly, founding missionaries, schools, colleges, and seminaries around Europe.

By the 17th Century there were more than 500 Jesuit schools established across Europe. The Jesuits' standardised curriculum and teaching methods became the basis of many education systems today.

The Jesuits were great patrons of art, using murals and theatres to convey their message to as a wide an audience as possible.

The Spanish Inquisition

The Jesuits are famous for their role in the Spanish Inquisition, though contrary to popular opinion the Jesuit order did not begin it. The inquisition was set up in 1480, 60 years before the Papal bull that formalised the creation of the Society of Jesus.

The Spanish Inquisition was originally overseen by members of the Dominican order, though members of the Jesuit brotherhood were involved at a later date.

Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition was not formally disbanded until 1834, though its influence had significantly dwindled prior to that date.

The Inquisition was famous for its use of torture to elicit confessions from accused 'heretics'. It was believed that confessions extracted after torture must be true, an idea that was later dispelled.

Jesuits today

The Jesuits continue to serve the Church and wider community in a wide range of ministries, most notably in Catholic parishes and in education - from preparatory level, through secondary schools to university colleges.

They place great emphasis on retreats and spiritual direction based on the spiritual exercises of Saint Ignatius.

The Jesuit Refugee Service, set up by Fr Pedro Arrupe SJ in 1980, works with poor and disadvantaged communities in more than 50 countries.

Jesuits continue to work in the fields of art and science, in particular at the Vatican Observatory.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola

(b. 1491 - d 1556)

A statue of St Ignatius at Farm Street Church in London Saint Ignatius became more spiritual after suffering a serious injury on the battlefield

Saint Ignatius was a Spanish Knight. He underwent a spiritual conversion while recovering from a serious battle injury at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521. Following this he abandoned his previous military life and devoted himself to God.

Ignatius, along with nine companions, founded the Society of Jesus in 1539. It was granted approval by Pope Paul III in 1540. The idea for the society was formed in 1534 after Ignatius and six friends, only one of whom was a priest, swore oaths of chastity and poverty.

Ignatius became the first Superior General (the title of the leader of the society) in 1541.

The 16th Century was a time of turmoil as the Reformation took hold across Europe. The Society of Jesus was seen as a counter-Reformation group and grew significantly in power and influence during its early years.

Ignatius was beatified (the first stage in being made a saint) on 27 July 1609 by Pope Paul V.

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