What is a Jesuit?
Jesuits are neither monks nor friars but ‘clerks regular’. They take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live in community. Most are priests but there have always been Jesuit brothers who assist the mission of the Society without ordination. Many Jesuit priests also take a fourth vow, unique to the Society of Jesus, of special obedience to the Pope with regard to missions.
Jesuits today continue to be inspired by the vision of their founder, St Ignatius. His plan for the order's way of proceeding was first expressed in in 1540 in Pope Paul III’s bull, Regimini militantis Ecclesiae. It contains a foundational text known as the ‘Formula of the Institute’. Its opening lines declare that the Society’s aim is to
strive especially for the propagation and defence of the faith and progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine.
Ignatius’ vision echoes something of his own experience as a man of arms; he refers to the Companions as “soldiers of God”, called to serve “beneath the banner of the Cross”. But it’s a flexible vision, too, always to be adapted to suit the times and places in which Jesuits find themselves, serving the Church “according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good”.
St Ignatius expanded his vision in the much longer Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, ratified by Pope Paul IV in 1558, a book which still provides the basic structure of Jesuit governance and practice. In 1974, the Thirty-Second General Congregation expressed Jesuit identity in these rather more pithy and memorable terms:
What is it to be a Jesuit? It is to know that one is a sinner, yet called to be a companion of Jesus as Ignatius was.