The tomb of St. Ignatius Loyola is situated at a brilliant side altar in the Society of Jesus’s Mother church in Rome, the Church of the Gesu. One of the most striking features of the tomb of St. Ignatius is the sculpture to the right of the altar entitled “Religion Overthrowing Heresy and Hatred” by the Baroque master Pierre Le Gros “the Younger” (1666-1719). Indeed it is a memorable and striking work, the intricacies of which tell the story of a triumphant Church and a religious order of men that was dedicated to ensuring such triumph. G.K. Chesterton once commented, “Baroque was regarded as a bombshell; especially as it was spread by the Jesuits, who were credited with consistent readiness to throw a bomb.” Some of the Jesuits of my acquaintance were indeed bomb-throwers but not of the baroque variety.
My own Jesuit formation was a strange admixture of orthodoxy and dissent. On the one hand, November 16 was — and is — a day celebrated with the utmost solemnity on Jesuit campuses across the country. It was on that day in 1989, that six Jesuits, their cook and her daughter, were tragically gunned down in El Salvador. Hailed around the world — the Jesuit world, that is — as “martyrs,” special remembrances are paid every year for the slain liberation theologians. On the other hand, October 19 passes like any other day in most Jesuit high schools and universities across the country. Yet that is the day that the Church sets aside to honor the 17th century Jesuit martyrs who sanctified the North American continent with their blood amidst some of the cruelest tortures that fallen man has ever devised. Why the disparity in treatment?
To answer that question brings up for discussion the great cultural and philosophical upheavals of the latter part of the 20th century. An examination of these upheavals and their effects upon religious orders will be something that will occupy scholars for many years to come. One such contribution — and one which may provide an insight into the mood generally experienced by other religious orders — is the late Fr. Joseph Becker, S.J.’s two-volume anecdotal and documentary study The Re-Formed Jesuits. Father Becker chronicles the changes in religious formation in Jesuit novitiates, scholasticates, and theologates beginning in the 1950′s. The militaristic training that had been the hallmark of the Society was being relaxed in certain quarters and “experimentation” was beginning in different Jesuit Houses.
Indeed, the seeds for a certain relaxation of formation may have come about as a result of the influx of World War II veterans who joined the Society. Many of these men were battle-hardened and most had seen much of life already; much different from the young men who had joined the Society immediately upon graduation from high school. Did they require the same regimen of formation that the latter group would have required? In certain quarters it seems that Superiors deemed this a legitimate change of circumstance and thus, certain accommodations were desirable. In this way, we can see an intelligent reading of the “signs of the times” by Jesuit Superiors across the country. Yet, the generation of men who were not WWII veterans but who were entering in the 1950′s were also stung by the “experimentation” bug.
This mood of experimentation seems to have been largely behind the walls of the religious houses across the Catholic world. For the layman in the United States, Fulton Sheen dominated the airways, Cardinal Spellman’s power was unmistakable, and Catholic schools were full to bursting. Yet the era of “experimentation” was underway, picking up speed in the early 1960′s, and troubling to many in the highest echelons of the Church. Very few observers were aware of Blessed Pope John XXIII’s Apostolic Constitution, Veterum Sapientia (1962), in which a very concerned Pope demanded facility in Latin and Greek by seminarians and religious. Already, many religious houses were “experimenting” and moving away from the languages that give expression to the Church’s mysteries. The Jesuits at this time largely preserved study of Latin and Greek but the winds of change were in the air.
The Second Vatican Council’s Perfectae Caritatis called all religious orders to re-discover the original charism and spirit of their founders so that they might better carry out their apostolic endeavors from the heart of the Church. In all too many cases, religious orders took this as an excuse to “re-form.” The Society of Jesus was no different. The 31st General Congregation (1965-1966) of the Society ushered in a new era that — simply stated — placed focus on this-worldly concerns. Thus, new emphases on social justice became the primary mission of the Jesuits.
Likewise, there was a downplaying of traditional priestly functions such as the dispensing of the Sacraments and less emphasis on devotions such as Devotion to the Sacred Heart. In addition, the First Principle and Foundation of the spiritual life — given such beautiful expression by St. Ignatius in his Spiritual Exercises — seems, in those heady days, to have given way to theologies of liberation which sought to eliminate unjust social structures, which, unfortunately, included the institutional Church. A Hegelian-Marxist philosophical bent was beginning to be cultivated in some Jesuit quarters, and a theology developed that was, simply put, heretical.
Pope Paul VI, seeing this radicalism in the Society beginning to take root, attempted to call the Society to a particular mission during the confused era of the late 1960′s and early 1970′s. He wanted to use the wealth of intellectual gifts that the Jesuits possessed to combat atheism. The root of the intellectual currents of the day, much infected by a Gramscist version of Marxism, was a loss of God. In reality, Paul was only asking the Jesuits to be good priests. After all, isn’t a priest’s job at its root the salvation of souls and bringing God to people? Many Jesuits were indeed continuing their good work. One thinks of the many good priests who kept the pilot light of faith burning during these dark years — Fr. John Hardon, S.J., Fr. Walter Ciszek, S.J., and Fr. James Schall, S.J. are but a few in this number.
By the 1980′s, a new generation began to take over the reins of an arguably out-of-control Society. This new crop of Superiors was formed under the regime of “experimentation” in the Society. Battle cries of “Jesuit Tradition” and “the Spirit of Vatican II” were used to cover a multitude of contradictory actions and policies. The older Fathers were paraded out for commencements as a show of “Jesuit Tradition,” but promptly locked back up in their residences after the PR opportunities were over. Indeed, some boldly stood up to their academic and religious Superiors as to the directions of the schools and their precipitous fall from the Faith. The subordination of the animating principle of Jesuit universities, the Catholic Faith, to diversity and cheap sloganeering was of great concern to many. In most instances, Provincials either silenced these individuals or relegated them to solely academic functions. A “black list” was certainly a reality. Whether the Black Pope knew is a good question.
Throughout the 1990′s, many of the men who kept the Faith and discipline during the last half of the 20th century were beginning to die. The non-baroque bomb-throwers were still in charge. Yet, as is the case in the Church throughout this era, small cadres of the faithful — Jesuits and students — learned from the old Fathers. In some instances, these were clandestine meetings. It is my contention that those small cadres have an experience of learning the faith and maintaining the faith that will serve to build up the Church like never before. We can already see the fruits.
A survey of the Jesuit world in the last decade has shown this to be the case. Young men have taken on a decidedly more traditional bent — renewing traditional devotions, intellectually recapturing the Ratio Studiorum, pledging fidelity to the Holy Father. The faithful men who — in many cases clandestinely — pursued a more traditional spirituality and intellectual route are now also finding their voice as they are also arriving at positions of seniority. I believe that Pope Benedict XVI [Ed. Note. Pontiff at the time this article was written] sees this as well. Many faithful Jesuits are well placed in Vatican positions that should give the faithful comfort. Likewise, and quite significant is the leadership of some of the Jesuits in the episcopacy. Archbishop Terrence Prendergast, S.J., Archbishop of Ottawa, and Archbishop Luis Ladaria Ferrer, S.J. of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith are just two examples.
Finally, a new online Jesuit journal, New Jesuit Review, is a wealth of intellectual and spiritual discourse by Jesuits and for Jesuits and their friends on the authentic spirituality and mission of the Society. Docile to the Magisterium and infused with the spirit of Ignatius himself, Archbishop Prendergast notes: “The Second Vatican Council urged religious congregations to embark on a process of recovery and re-appropriation of the spirit of their founders and of their best spiritual traditions. This is a complex yet important task, which the Society of Jesus has already begun to undertake. I applaud the inauguration of the New Jesuit Review, hoping that it may play a part in the deepening of Jesuit understanding of the Society’s extraordinary legacy.”
In the years since Vatican II, Le Gros’s sculpture at the Gesu has been variously received. An urban legend in Rome notes that a Jesuit of a more modern bent was known to have melted wax over the names Luther and Calvin on the bindings of the books that were being playfully ripped apart by a cherub. An act of ecumenism in our more tolerant world. Mysteriously, over and over again, the wax would be scratched away and the names of the heresiarchs would reappear. Again — according to the same urban legend — the work of an elderly and curmudgeonly Jesuit Brother faithful to the First Principle and Foundation of man’s existence: “Man was created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul.” Let the Baroque bomb-throwing continue.
Ed. Note. This article originally appeared in the June 24, 2010 edition of The Wanderer. It is all the more timely now that the Vicar of Christ, Pope Francis, is re-introducing some of the fundamental tenets of St. Ignatius’s teaching to the Universal Church.