New Historian

The Founding of the Jesuits

Ignatius de Loyola

<![CDATA[On the 27th September 1540, the Society of Jesus received its charter from Pope Paul III in Rome. The event symbolised the official recognition of the missionary organisation by the Catholic Church. The Society of Jesus, or Jesuits as they are commonly called, has since played a key role in converting millions of people around the world to the Catholic faith. Always a controversial group, the Jesuits have been feared and persecuted in some societies. Elsewhere, they are regarded as the most prestigious order in the Catholic Church, with their influence spreading as far as India and China. In the seventeenth century the organisation was considered the leading force in the counter-Reformation - the reaction of the Catholic Church against the dramatic spread of Protestantism throughout Europe. Later, the Jesuits became leaders in the modernisation of Catholic practice. The Society of Jesus originated with Ignatius de Loyola, a Spanish soldier who experienced a religious conversion during his convalescence from a wound received in battle. In 1534 Ignatius became a priest, and took vows of poverty and chastity with six of his students in Paris. These seven individuals became the first members of the Society of Jesus. The group intended to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, converting Muslims along the way. When they realised the pilgrimage would be impossible, they instead vowed to do any apostolic work requested by the Pope. In 1539 Ignatius created a blueprint for the order's organisation, the document that was approved by Paul III the following year. After the papal ratification, the order grew quickly, still under the guidance of Ignatius. Jesuits played a key role throughout Europe in convincing former Catholics to return to their faith. At a time when the Catholic Church was largely in retreat from the spread of Protestantism, the Jesuits stood out as a key proactive force for the religion. A central part of their method of spreading the message of scripture was education and charity. In Rome Ignatius founded the Roman College (later called the Gregorian University) and the Germanicum, a facility to educate German speaking priests. The early Jesuits also employed preachers who were devoted to the care of the sick, orphans, prostitutes and wounded soldiers. By the time of Ignatius' death in 1556, just twenty two years after founding the organisation, the Society of Jesus boasted over a thousand priests. This is a startling success considering the group's humble beginnings. Within the founder's lifetime, missionaries had been sent to work in Ethiopia, India, China, Brazil and the Congo. Jesuits were also significant in introducing several innovations to Catholic life, as part of a programme to modernise the church. Many archaic medieval practices were abandoned by the order, such as mandatory penances, common uniforms and recitation of the liturgical office. The order deployed a highly centralised form of authority, with the head carrying out life tenure. In contrast to these innovations, the order also advocated obedience, in particular to the pope, and lacked a female branch. The Society of Jesus entered a decline in the eighteenth century, suffering suppression and persecution in many European countries. In 1773 the order was dissolved by Pope Clement XIV. The Jesuits work had not gone unrecognised however, and in 1814 Pope Pius VII re-established the order in response to popular pressure. The Jesuits have since become one of the most recognised missionary organisations in the world.]]>

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