Mission & Identity

A Society Reborn

BUFFALO, NY - Much has been written about the origins and influence of the Society of Jesus throughout its nearly 500-year history.  One of the most astounding chapters in the Order’s past, however, is also one of its least documented.

“The Jesuit suppression of 1773 was one of the Society’s most humbling times in its history,” explains Rev. Michael F. Tunney, S.J., director of mission and identity at Canisius. 

The suppression, issued by Pope Clement XIV in the papal brief Dominus ac Redemptor (Our Lord and Redeemer), “dissolved, extinguished and abolished” the Society of Jesus, its constitutions and authority, as well as its schools, parishes and apostolic works from every Catholic country, worldwide.  It wasn’t until four decades later, August 7, 1814, that Pope Pius VII officially restored the Order. 

This year commemorates the 200th anniversary of the Society’s renewal.  Jesuits across the globe are using the occasion to reflect on their past and contemplate their place in the future.       

“Our charge now, from Superior General Nicolás Adolfo, S.J., is to learn from our mistakes and use those lessons to improve upon our works with renewed vigor and zeal,” says Father Tunney.   

A PERFECT STORM

There is no simple explanation for the Jesuit suppression.  In fact, “several individuals, interests and ideologies were simultaneously at play,” explains Jesuit historian and Le Moyne College Professor Robert E. Scully, S.J.  But many of the events that led up to the suppression played out during the Age of Enlightenment. 

“Intellectual fashions were changing a lot during this period,” says Julie S. Gibert, PhD, associate professor of history at Canisius.  “There was this flowering of new philosophical ideas, which supported reason, facts and research, and which questioned the traditional religious and government institutions, and how much control one had over the other.”

As head of the international church, the Pope claimed supremacy over everything and everyone, including Catholic monarchs.  Conversely, monarchs believed they reigned supreme and became emboldened by their Protestant neighbors who had already rejected papal control.

The Society of Jesus held preeminent roles among both these spiritual and secular powers-that-be. But by the mid-18th century, lay and clerical adversaries, alike, became suspicious of the Society and the excessive power it held religiously, politically and culturally. 

“The Society was seen as using its influence for its own internal advancement. As Jesuits, we are to labor for God’s greater glory, not our own gain,” explains Father Tunney.

Catholic monarchs in Portugal, France and Spain doubted the allegiance of their Jesuit advisors, since the Order is ultimately sworn to serve the Holy See. Enlightenment philosophers disparaged the Jesuits as defenders of tradition and obstacles to progress.  Even various Church factions found fault with the Jesuits: Dominicans and Franciscans condemned the Society because it accommodated the non-Christian cultures it was trying to evangelize at its missions in Asia and Latin America.  Rigid Jansenists and Gallicans denounced the Jesuits” for being too lax in the confessional,” notes Father Scully.

AN EXILED SOCIETY

One by one, Catholic countries expelled the Society.  First, Portugal then France and Spain.  What followed was a unified campaign, demanding the entire destruction of the Society of Jesus.  These efforts crested in July 1773.  Under extreme pressure from Catholic monarchs and the growing burden to keep peace within the church, a reluctant Pope Clement issued the papal brief that formally extinguished the Society of Jesus.    

“Pope Clement finally surrendered, rationalizing that it was better to cut off an arm than to let the whole church body die,” says Father Scully. 

The consequences were fast and far-reaching. 

The papacy ordered the imprisonment of Jesuit Superior General Lorenzo Ricci and his advisors.  Officials from the church and state closed Jesuit colleges, seized the Society’s properties, and destroyed its missions and ministries.  In all, approximately 20,000 Jesuits disbanded from 41 provinces, 61 novitiates, 609 colleges, 171 seminaries and 270 missions.    

Their banishment lasted more than four decades.  Yet the lack of a formal Jesuit presence never truly negated the Society’s existence – nor its commitment to carry out St. Ignatius’ vision. 

“Ignatius of Loyola understood and insisted upon ‘adaptation to circumstances.’ This became essential to the Jesuits during the suppression,” says Father Tunney. 

SUPPRESSED BUT NOT STRUCK DOWN

Lay sodalities kept the Society’s spiritual vocation alive throughout Europe.  Formed prior to the suppression, these sodalities continued the important charitable and mission works of the Jesuits, under their own energies. 

“Even back then, the Order recognized the importance of handing its mission and ideals on to the laity so that the spirit of the Society can live on in very real and practical ways,” notes Father Tunney. 

An unlikely savior similarly helped preserve the Society of Jesus in Eastern Europe. 

Catherine the Great of Orthodox Russia had absorbed portions of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.  Eager to foster the loyalty of her newfound Catholic subjects, the Empress refused to endorse the brief of suppression and encouraged the Jesuits to continue operating their schools in new lands. 

“Catherine the Great admired the Jesuits’ work, particularly in the sphere of education, and realized the need for expanded educational opportunities in her realm,” explains Father Scully.     

While some Jesuits found asylum in Orthodox Russia, others sought spiritual and educational refuge in the growing and more tolerant United States of America.  Here, the Jesuit mission was complicated by the suppression but not halted by it.

Georgetown University is a striking example.

The nation’s oldest Jesuit institution was established during the height of the suppression by John Carroll, S.J.  America’s first Catholic bishop loyally carried out his Order’s mission to educate the faithful and provide proper training for priests. 

“In one way, shape or form, all the Jesuit missions – the pastoral, the sacramental, the educational – continued during the suppression but in less formal ways and in more far-flung regions of the world,” notes Father Tunney. 

In fact, the viability of the vocation survived throughout its 40-year exile not because it was beholden to a particular place or institution but because the Order’s singular mission was – and always will be - to serve God. 

“Jesuits are guided solely by God’s grace and therefore we will always find ways to revitalize the mission of the Society so that we may always care for people, tend to their souls and help them flourish as human beings,” adds Father Tunney. 

RENEWED VIGOR AND ZEAL

Though this year marks the 200th anniversary of the Society’s restoration, its ultimate redemption may be yet to come. 

For the first time in the Order’s history, a Jesuit sits in the chair of Saint Peter.  Pope Francis’ vision for the Catholic Church is an inclusive one, focused on simplicity, mercy and service to others.  He leads with humility and an open spirit, ready to share the Jesuit charism with Catholics and all people of good will.  In pursuit of this, Pope Francis is challenging the Society of Jesus to consider its place in and relationship to the modern world.  It’s an examination that compels Jesuits to reflect on their past in order to determine their future. 

“This is an opportunity for us to live out our calling more completely and more deeply,” says Father Tunney.  “We aim to make something good out of this experience from our history and live the magis going forward.”

Click here to read the full history of the Jesuit suppression and restoration, as documented by Rev. Robert E. Scully, S.J., in “The Suppression of the Society of Jesus: A Perfect Storm in the Age of Enlightenment.”