Victory after a long battle
On Thursday 7 August, the Society of Jesus throughout the world celebrates the 200th anniversary of its Restoration by Pope Pius VII. Although the English Province had been technically reinstated 11 years previously, the occasion is still a cause of major celebration.
A dozen or so English Jesuits had survived the Suppression of the Society of Jesus by Pope Clement XIV in 1773 and were continuing ministry at their college in Liege (then an independent principality, now modern Belgium) when it was overrun by the French revolutionary army in 1794. One of these Jesuits, Fr Charles Plowden SJ, persuaded Thomas Weld of Lulworth, an old boy, to grant them asylum at Stonyhurst Hall, a rarely visited, derelict mansion in Lancashire. Plowden was described by another former pupil as having “great eloquence, which was alternatively vehement and persuasive”. The Jesuits duly arrived and re-established their college which survives to this day. The English Jesuits became known as the Gentlemen of Stonyhurst and Pope Pius VI made the college a Pontifical seminary with the right of self-government.
Eleven years previously Pope Pius VI had verbally approved the existence of the Society of Jesus in Russia where Empress Catherine the Great valued the Jesuit colleges too highly to allow them to be closed at the time of the Suppression. In 1801, Pope Pius VII (who had been elected in 1800) confirmed the White Russian Jesuits by the Brief Catholicae Fidei.
From Stonyhurst, Fr William Strickland begged leave for the former English Jesuits to affiliate with Russia and, after hesitation, in 1803 Pius VII granted them permission, with Fr Marmaduke Stone SJ as English Provincial and Fr Plowden, at the age of 62, as novice master. Hodder House, Stonyhurst, became the noviciate with a contingent of 12 novices, including "several enthusiastic but ill-educated recruits from Ireland".
But it would be a further 11 years before the Society of Jesus was restored worldwide when Pope Pius VII’s bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum of 7 August 1814 finally reversed the decision of Clement XIV to suppress the Society 40 years previously. Having returned to Rome after his exile in France, Pius had been determined to reconstruct the religious landscape of Europe after the chaos and the destruction of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars; and a key part of his plan was to restore universally the Society of Jesus.
He had hoped to have the papal bull ready by the feast of St Ignatius – 31 July 1814 – but it was delayed by just over a week over such matters as the tone of the document, whether the Constitutions should be altered and where blame for the Suppression should be apportioned. But eventually, according to eye-witnesses, Pope Pius VII arrived at the church of the Gesù in Rome on 7 August 1814, where he was welcomed by cardinals, royalty and about 100 elderly Jesuits. He celebrated Mass at the altar of St Ignatius and then retired to the adjacent Chapel of the Nobles where the rest of the ceremony took place. After the bull was read, it was given by the Pope to Father Luigi Panizzoni , the superior of the Italian Jesuits.
Irish Jesuit, Fr Charles Aylmer SJ (1786-1847) attended the celebration at the Gesù church and wrote to Fr Plowden in England afterwards, describing it as “truly a day of jubilee and triumph for the Society”.
“At about 8 o’clock in the morning his Holiness came in state to the Gesù, where he celebrated Mass at the altar of St Ignatius, attended by almost all his Cardinals, Prelates and by about 70 or 80 of the Society,” he wrote. “After his Mass and thanksgiving, we all proceeded to the Sodality … (where) the Bull which re-established the Society all over the world was read … All of the Society present then went up in order and kissed the Pope’s feet. He spoke to several as they came to him and expressed particular joy and satisfaction in his Countenance during the whole ceremony. He continually smiled at the number of old men, who came hobbling up to the throne, almost all with tears of joy in their eyes.”
Even Fr Aylmer himself admitted to Fr Plowden that he found the occasion emotional. “The people exulted with joy, and loaded us on every side with Congratulations. I could not refrain from tears: little did I expect or hope to be present at so consoling a ceremony in the Capital of the World, and attended by such circumstances. Never was any order established in this manner; never such marked attention paid by any Pope; never so great a triumph. O truly how sweet is victory after a long fought battle!”
Today, Jesuits around the world number around 18,000 priests and brothers in over 100 countries, working as missionaries in areas of greatest need. They continue to provide education in schools, colleges and universities; but they are also engaged in social justice ministries among the poor and marginalised (especially refugees) and by providing retreats and spiritual direction. One of them is even the Pope – a situation that would have seemed inconceivable 200 years ago!
For more about the Restoration of the Society of Jesus, follow this link.