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Origins of the Society of Jesus: The Jesuits

The Society of Jesus was established in the sixteenth century around the time of the Protestant Reformation by founder Saint Ignatius Loyola, a former knight who became a priest. As a religious order of the Catholic Church, the Society of Jesus - originally called The Company of Jesus - received papal approval by Paul III in 1540. The term Jesuit was first applied to the members of the Society of Jesus in reproach, but was eventually adopted within the order. Today, the Jesuits comprise the largest religious order of men in the Catholic Church, and 14,000 of the order's members are priests.

Society of Jesus: The Foundation

The Company of Jesus was first established as a self-reformation movement, originated by Ignatius Loyola along with a group of like-minded followers. The founder of the Society of Jesus established the order based on the imitation of Jesus Christ, and the Jesuits pledging themselves to a vow of poverty and chastity, devoted to missionary work in Jerusalem.

However, as a result of renewed war between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, travel to Jerusalem became impossible and the members devoted themselves to Jesuit missions in Italy to serve the Pope. It is around this time that the first Jesuits were ordained as priests; however, fulfilling the missions of the Pope was becoming problematic within the society, and the members proposed to bind themselves spiritually under a single Jesuit leader.

The Jesuit constitution was thus created and received favorably by a congregation of cardinals. The Society of Jesus was confirmed by Pope Paul III in the bull (charter) known as the Regimini militantis on September 27, 1540.

Saint Ignatius Loyola: Founder of Society of Jesus

Ignatius Loyola became the first superior-general of the Society of Jesus following the establishment of the Catholic bull. Ignatius Loyola was also the writer of the Jesuit Constitution, the foundational principles of which included the following:

  • adoption of a tightly centralized organization
  • renunciation of self-interest and obedience to the Pope as well as superiors

Ignatius Loyola would spend years later writing the Constitutions of the Society, following the unofficial Jesuit motto: For the greater glory of God. Indeed, the founder's original vision was accompanied by spiritual exercises and meditation, placing value on charity and a devotion to God.

Ignatius Loyola's original vision and establishment of the order followed a meditative period spent recovering from a battle injury in his Spanish hometwon, to which he was carried by his French captors. Partially because of Saint Loyola's history as a knight, the Jesuits have since been referred to as the "Soldiers of Christ" and the "Foot soldiers of the Pope."

The Establishment of the Jesuits

The Society of Jesus is considered a mendicant order of clerks, meaning that the priestly society relied on charitable donations to support its members so that more time and energy could be used for religious practice, preaching, and service - particularly to the poor.

The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus was not codified for the first six years following the establishment of the Jesuit order. Ignatius Loyola spent three years methodically formulating the laws of the constitution; these were revised and finally put into practice during the last six years of Saint Loyola's life.

Upon the establishment of the Society of Jesus, the order focused on three main activities:

  • establishing schools throughout Europe, including colleges and seminaries
  • Jesuit missions to convert Christians to Catholicism
  • stop the spread of Protestantism

Jesuit missions were an important activity from the very beginning for the Society of Jesus, making the order's active role in the Catholic Counter-Reformation against the rise of Protestantism a natural one. Though this activity was never a fundamental basis for the order, the Jesuits succeeded in reestablishing faith in the Catholic Church in Poland-Lithuania, southern and western Germany, and Austria, as well as preserving Catholic faith in France.

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