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The Jesuit Mission: Seeking God in All Things

March 14, 2013 – With the election of the first Jesuit pope yesterday, Georgetown, the first American Catholic and Jesuit university, hopes to help the public become more informed about the history of the Jesuits and their mission.

The university’s vice president for mission and ministry, Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., said the Wednesday election of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, S.J., of Buenos Aires (now Pope Francis) was “received …with great joy made all the deeper because he is the first Jesuit pope and first pope from South America.”

But who are Jesuits? Who was their founder? How do they fit in to the Catholic Church? What is their history? The following attempts to answer some of these questions.

What is a Jesuit?

The Jesuits are an apostolic religious community called the Society of Jesus grounded in love for Christ and animated by founder St. Ignatius Loyola’s spiritual vision to help others and seek God in all things.

As members of a worldwide society within the Catholic Church, the Jesuits are committed to the service of faith and the promotion of justice.

When did the Society of Jesus begin?

St. Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, created the religious order of men in the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century.

Who was St. Ignatius?

Ignatius was born in the Basque region of Spain in 1491, the youngest son of a minor nobleman.

While defending a castle against a French onslaught, he was struck by a cannonball that shattered his leg and left him bedridden for months. Out of boredom he turned to the only books available in the castle's limited library – the lives of Christ and the saints. This resulted in a deep desire to serve God.

Ignatius began to travel widely – begging, preaching, and caring for the poor and sick. Along the way, he recorded his spiritual insights and methods of prayer in a manual, the Spiritual Exercises. This handbook provides the paradigm for retreats that Jesuits and many others continue to make today.

How did Ignatius develop a following?

During this phase of Ignatius’ deepening conversion, he recognized his lack of formal training in the humanities, philosophy and theology and became an ambitious scholar. While finishing his studies at the University of Paris, Ignatius’ experience of God and his boundless spirit captivated other students.

Soon, in a chapel outside Paris, Ignatius and six other men professed religious vows of poverty and chastity to bind themselves more closely together in their dedication to God and "the help of souls.” These companions, who called themselves "friends in the Lord," would eventually become the first Jesuits, officially known as the Society of Jesus (hence the S.J. behind Jesuits' last names).

How did the Jesuits become associated with education?

While Ignatius never originally intended for Jesuits to open schools, he soon discovered how greatly people's lives could be improved by an education rooted both in gospel values and the humanistic revival of the Renaissance.

The Jesuits quickly built a reputation as teachers and scholars. Students from all over Europe flocked to the burgeoning schools, and Jesuit missionaries opened schools where none before had existed. Even prior to the establishment of Georgetown University, Jesuits were operating more than 800 universities, seminaries, and secondary schools almost around the globe.

How Does a Jesuit Become a Jesuit?

After entering the Society, men pursue a decade-long course of studies and spiritual formation before being ordained to the priesthood. Many also earn advanced degrees in a wide variety of academic disciplines. For instance, the Georgetown Jesuit community has been home to actors, astronomers, poets, politicians, playwrights, physicians, lawyers, sculptors, painters and professors of every field. Not all Jesuits serve as priests. There are Jesuit brothers, several of whom live and work at Georgetown, including the administrator of the community.

How is this tradition continued at Georgetown today?

The religious experiences and convictions of Ignatius and the early Jesuits marked the schools they founded. For that reason, Georgetown continues to offer its students a distinctive education. Certain characteristics, grounded in the vision of the founder and his companions, are of paramount importance for universities in the Ignatian tradition.

St. Ignatius believed that as individuals come to understand the world and develop a truer vision of it, they are led to act in new ways. He understood the integral connection between knowing and acting, and hoped that Jesuits and graduates of their schools would be “contemplatives in action.” Jesuit schools try to foster this "”way of proceeding” by educating students with an appreciation of their own agency. Ignatian pedagogy not only requires students to read, take notes, and write papers and exams – it also motivates them to think and learn on their own.

Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach, S.J., superior general of the Society of Jesus, describes four objectives that influenced St. Ignatius and the early Jesuits to become involved in higher education. These directives still determine the work of Ignatian educators today.

They strive to:

  • Provide students with knowledge and skills to excel in whatever field they choose.
  • Contribute to the education of women and men as good citizens, people of competence, conscience, and compassion dedicated to the service of faith and the promotion of justice.
  • Celebrate the full range of human intellectual power and achievement, viewing reason not as antithetical to faith, but as its necessary complement.
  • Affirm a Christian understanding of the human person as a creature of God whose ultimate destiny is beyond the human.

What is cura personalis?

During the time of his conversion, Ignatius experienced God not as distant and removed, but as a teacher personally involved in his life. Early Jesuit educators similarly worked to develop a reverent familiarity with their students, which allowed Jesuits to educate them on an individual basis, according to the particular needs and gifts of each student. The Latin phrase associated with this Jesuit focus on the individual is cura personalis or “care of the person.” Caring for the whole person means knowing the student beyond what a transcript can reveal.

In keeping with this age-old tradition, Georgetown faculty and administrators strive to know students personally - their backgrounds and life histories, their strengths and limitations, their struggles and hopes. They seek to build personal, trusting relationships with students so that they will be free to ask questions, take intellectual risks, make mistakes and learn from them.

Who was Georgetown’s founder?

Jesuit principles guided Bishop John Carroll when he first announced his plans for Georgetown, plans at once modest and grand. In a letter to friends, dated 1788, he wrote:

“We shall begin the building of our Academy this summer. …On this academy is built all my hope of permanency and success to our holy religion in the United States.”

Carroll does not have an “S.J.” after his name because Pope Clement XIV suppressed the Society of Jesus in July 1773. It was not until the early 1800s that the Jesuits were re-established.

The Jesuit college that Carroll's imagination framed so long ago still stands as a living tradition of which every Georgetown student is a part. Every student shares in the responsibility for keeping this heritage alive. Georgetown University is not "Jesuit" merely because Jesuits live and work here. Ignatius' inspiration is for all men and women, and John Carroll's imagination shapes the experience of all Georgetown's daughters and sons.

What is the Legacy of the Jesuits at Georgetown?

Jesuits have cared for the university from its earliest days. Histories of the university celebrate their numerous contributions as teachers, scholars, administrators, chaplains and counselors, and many Georgetown buildings bear the names of these men.

Hundreds of other Jesuits, along with generous alumni and benefactors, have also worked tirelessly to build Georgetown, both literally and figuratively, into the university it is today. Through the years a significant number of Georgetown alumni have entered the Society of Jesus.

Jesuits continue the work of their predecessors, contributing to all aspects of university life. Most of these men live in Wolfington Hall, Jesuit Residence, in Georgetown’s Southwest Quadrangle. Others serve as chaplains-in-residence in residence halls and student apartments. The Jesuit community is led by its local religious superior, called the rector, and is connected to the worldwide Society of Jesus through a regional superior, known as the Provincial. Ultimately, all Jesuits come under the jurisdiction of the Superior General, who resides at the Jesuit headquarters in Rome.

The above information was edited down from an online brochure on the Georgetown Jesuit Community’s website. The brochure made use of books written by Georgetown scholars, including:

  • A book by Rev. John W. O'Malley, S.J., a university professor in the department of theology, called The First Jesuits (Harvard University Press, 1993).
  • Georgetown professor emeritus Robert Emmett Curran’s The Bicentennial History of Georgetown University: From Academy to University, 1789-1889. (Georgetown University Press, 1993).
  • Georgetown University: First in the Nation's Capital (New York: Doubleday, 1964) by the late Georgetown professor Rev. Joseph Durkin, S.J.

A recent book, The Ignatian Adventure (Loyola Press, 2011), by Rev. Kevin O’Brien, S.J., Georgetown’s vice president for mission and ministry, won an Excellence in Publishing Award from the Association of Catholic Publishers.

The book is a guide to daily living with Ignatian values and spiritual exercises.