Jesuits at the Court
of Akbar the Great
in the late 16th
There was a good homily at Mass yesterday morning for the feast of Saint Ignatius Loyola. The priest, retired military chaplain and former missionary up on the Peruvian Altiplano—a man of some truly wonderful experiences—praised the Jesuits. Turns out that he, like I, is a product of Jesuit schooling, though he went first cabin: Georgetown and Fordham.
What he praised the Society of Jesus for is that they are not afraid to ask “Why?” They are always willing to question. This is rooted in the spiritual experience of Ignatius himself. Ignatius had not been an easy convert: it took God’s Grace a lot of effort to reel him in and land him in the net of the saved. And once in Peter’s barque, Ignatius was not afraid to question the tried and the true and do things in new ways. For example, his “Companions of Jesus” were the first religious community to reject the “choral office”—choosing rather the somewhat revolutionary (at the time) idea that they should say their daily offices privately and individually rather than sing or chant the prayers liturgically in the church. Also Ignatius didn’t mark a distinctive habit for the men of his new Society to wear. Normally they dressed like secular priests. But when there was need for them to adopt lay clothing—such as for their missions in Elizabethan England or persecuted 20th century Mexico—they had no trouble doing so. Jesuit missionaries to China first took on the robes of Buddhist monks and then, when they realized that this strategy hadn’t been the best to gain them access to the influence where they could make converts, they switched to the dress of mandarin scholars. They also began saying Mass in Mandarin three and a half centuries before Vatican II put the Mass in the language of the people. (Mandarin wasn’t the language of the ordinary Chinese, but of the scholars—similar to the Latin of 17th century Europe.) And yes the Church had “condemned” the thought of Copernicus and Galileo—but that didn’t stop Jesuit scholars such as Christopher Clavius or Wenceslaus Kirwitzer from their studies of the skies. (Actually the list of Jesuit Astronomers in the 16th and 17th centuries is amazing and even today it is one of the most widely practiced sciences among Jesuits.) There are always Jesuits thinking outside the box: they are seismologists, molecular biologists, computer scientists, ornithologists, mathematicians, paleontologists, botanists, and zoologists. Jesuits are and have been musicians, philologists, natural historians, medical doctors, physicists, playwrights, poets, and lawyers. Jesuits have served in the United States Congress and other parliamentary bodies, served as ambassadors, government ministers, university presidents, editors, and on governmental panels. They have also taught high-school freshmen basic masculine hygiene, worked as chaplains in emergency rooms and hospitals, been missionaries under the most difficult circumstances and served as parish priests. They have been confessors and spiritual directors to popes, kings, queens, and scullery maids. There have been more than a few saints among them and, as in all groups, their share of sinners. They have given their lives for the faith at the hands of Elizabethan Protestants, the North American Iroquois, Soviet Atheists, and U.S. sponsored militias in Latin America. They are truly the most phenomenal group of religious to have served the Church through our two millennia of spreading the Gospel. Though there have been several communities of women religious who have modeled themselves on the Jesuits, the Society acknowledges no female branch, never has, and claims it never will. Though I supposed they should be brave enough to ask themselves the question they ask everyone else in authority: “why?”
When we talk about evangelical Catholicism, the Jesuits exemplify the model. They are men profoundly rooted in the Word of God. From their first days in the novitiate Jesuits are formed in the Spiritual Exercise of Saint Ignatius Loyola—a thirty day retreat in which the new disciple is led through profound meditation to reflect on his own sinfulness, the life and teaching of Jesus, the sufferings of Jesus, and the Resurrection of Jesus and the impact that Resurrection is meant to have on our lives. Those spiritual exercises not only give shape to the Jesuit’s own spirituality but his life and ministry for others. The challenge is how to take this personal encounter of Christ, an encounter rooted in the Word of God, and make it the very blood that flows through our veins.
One thing Jesuits—collectively—are not known for and that is quality liturgy. (One of my favorite axioms is: “As confused as a Jesuit in Holy Week.”) This is somewhat unfair, as some Jesuit establishments are known for the excellence of their liturgies. I think of Holy Trinity Church in Georgetown DC, for example. But by and large Jesuits tend to be a bit “low Church.” Nevertheless, while the liturgy may not the most exciting, the sacramental life is intense. Jesuit parishes: Holy Trinity in DC, Saint Ignatius or Saint Francis Xavier in New York, Saint Ignatius in Chicago, Saint Louis University Church in Saint Louis, Saint Ignatius or Saint Agnes in San Fran, The Gesu in Milwaukee, Saint Ignatius (they keep using that name) in Boston—are life-filled and lively centers of Catholic life and worship. People come to these churches, they hear the word of God preached, they are welcomed into the community of the Church, and brought into a deeper life in Christ.
I am obviously a super fan of the Society of Jesus and their contribution to the Church. And delighted that we have a Jesuit Pope who is opening doors and windows and blowing the musty air out of the Church. Ignatius’ motto was Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam—to the Greater Glory of God. Well done good and faithful Jesuits!