The Jesuit Order (also known as the Society of Jesus) is a Catholic missionary order of priests and brothers which was founded in 1534 by St Ignatius of Loyola. St Ignatius (1491 - 1556) developed a whole new spirituality in the Church known as Ignatian Spirituality which focuses on helping individuals to discover how God is active in their lives. This spirituality is often summed up with the phrase ‘finding God in all things’. At the time, this was considered a revolutionary thought, namely that nothing in life is outside of the spiritual. This spirituality is at the heart of Jesuit life.
Alongside our unique spirituality, we are also unique in our work. Jesuits are often described as ‘contemplatives in action’, meaning that we are not contained within monasteries but are missionaries who are rooted in prayer. This has led to us living diverse lives and being involved in many different fields, as parish priests, teachers, doctors, spiritual directors, lawyers, writers, artists, and astronomers.
Because of their missionary nature, Jesuits have spread all over the world, and are the largest Catholic order of men in the world. Pope Francis, the first Jesuit Pope, understands this Jesuit missionary calling and has challenged all Christians to ‘go forth from our own comfort zone in order to reach all the “peripheries” in need of the light of the Gospel.’
Jesuits are members of the Jesuit Order. As the Jesuits are a religious order, Jesuit priests take vows. These vows are of poverty, chastity, and obedience, plus a fourth vow of obedience to the Pope specifically in regard to worldwide mission. A commitment to poverty means to have freedom in response to created goods and therefore, not owning possessions. Chastity means to be Christ-like men for others, living chaste, unmarried lives and being in friendship and communion with all. A vow of obedience is a response to the call of Christ, and a willingness to be sent wherever the need is greatest. The fourth vow reflects a dedication to the service of the universal Church and the greater good, and it means that Jesuits are ready to accept whatever mission the Pope gives them.
Most Jesuits are priests but there have always been Jesuit brothers who assist the mission of the Society without being ordained as priests.
Jesuits today continue to be inspired by the vision of their founder, St Ignatius. Ignatius’ vision echoes something of his own experience as a man of arms; he refers to the members of the Jesuit Order 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’.
Foremost, Jesuits have always been called to be ‘companions of Jesus’, on a mission of reconciliation and justice.
The Jesuits were founded by St Ignatius of Loyola in August 1534. Born Iñigo Lopez de Loyola in 1491, in what is now Spain’s Basque province, he was, for a large part of his life, a soldier. In defending Pamplona from a French army, Ignatius’ legs were severely injured by a cannonball and he was hospitalised. This would prove to be a life-changing event for Ignatius. In the hospital, he read the Gospels and the lives of saints, becoming inspired by them and devoting his life to following their example.
Ignatius would go on to become a priest and one of the most influential figures in Church and world history. His spiritual insights are a gift to the Church and the world, with Ignatian Spirituality, especially his ‘Spiritual Exercises’, having enriched the lives of many. The order he founded is now the largest male, Catholic, religious order in the world. The influence and legacy of his life are in many ways incalculable.
In all these things, Ignatius held firm to the ultimate purpose that God created humanity for, something he repeats many times in his revolutionary work the ‘Spiritual Exercises’:
‘The human person is created to praise, reverence and serve God Our Lord, and by so doing to save his or her soul.’ St Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises
Jesuits believe that God is involved in the details of our lives and that there are ways of learning how to discover Him in our lived experience. This core idea is often referred to as ‘finding God in all things’. Jesuits are dedicated to helping others to find God for themselves and to be able to live prayerful lives even in the day-to-day rush of working life. In this way, Jesuit spirituality is a spirituality for real life. This spirituality was developed by the founder of the Jesuit Order, St Ignatius of Loyola, and is often referred to as Ignatian Spirituality. Ignatius also taught that people connect with God in different ways and that each person has to find the ways of praying that work for them.
‘It is dangerous to make everybody go forward by the same road: and worse to measure others by oneself.’ St Ignatius of Loyola
All of this spiritual thought is built on the bedrock of the teachings of Jesus Christ and His Church, which teaches that God wants to draw near to us.
‘God ... in a plan of sheer goodness freely created man to make him share in his own blessed life. For this reason, at every time and in every place, God draws close to man. He calls man to seek him, to know him, to love him with all his strength.’ Catechism of the Catholic Church 1:1
The Jesuit Order has mostly been known throughout its history as a Catholic religious order of missionaries and educators. This is still very much true today, but in the modern world, Jesuits have adapted to the challenges of the twenty-first century. In recent years, Jesuits across the world have agreed to focus their work and ministry on four areas of vital need. These are known as the Jesuit ‘Universal Apostolic Preferences’.
Showing the way to God
Showing the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment.
‘In the next ten years, we want to share with others this most fundamental discovery of our own lives: Jesus Christ.’
Walking with the excluded
Walk with the poor, the outcasts of the world, those whose dignity has been violated, in a mission of reconciliation and justice.
‘We desire, first and foremost, a conversion in our own hearts, that makes us alive and sensitive to the suffering Christ in our midst. Our communities desire to be more hospitable and open, learning how to live more deeply in the Spirit of Jesus, a Spirit that welcomes.’
Journeying with youth
Accompany young people in the creation of a hope-filled future.
‘Young people have so many possibilities in this digital age which unites them as never before. We want to walk with them, discerning these possibilities and finding God in the depths of reality. Accompanying young people puts us on the path of conversion; it requires a new way of living in Jesuit community, a way that is more coherent, more personal, more open, more evangelical.’
Caring for our common home
Collaborate, with Gospel depth, for the protection and renewal of God’s Creation.
‘At this vital time in our world’s history, the Society of Jesus commits itself to answer this call of our Creator over the next ten years.’
Even with these areas of vital need, the ultimate work of changing the world still starts within ourselves.
‘He who goes about to reform the world must begin with himself, or he loses his labour.’ St Ignatius of Loyola
Yes, the Jesuits are the largest male, Catholic, religious order in the world. Pope Paul III approved the Jesuits as a religious order of the Catholic Church on September 27th 1540. Since then, the Jesuits have been an order of missionaries and educators, taking the gospel of Jesus Christ throughout the world.
In 2013, Pope Francis became the first member of the Jesuit order to become Pope. So yes, Jesuits are Catholic!
Yes, Jesuits can become pope. Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina became the first Jesuit pope when he was elected on March 13th 2013 as Pope Francis.
Within St Ignatius’ lifetime, the Jesuit Order grew rapidly and, as missionaries, they spread out across the world. From their founding in 1534 to Ignatius’ death in 1556, roughly 1,000 Jesuits (priests, brothers and novices) went out on mission to Spain, Italy, France, Germany, Portugal, Ethiopia, Brazil, Japan and India. Mission has always been a part of the Christian faith, with Jesus instructing His followers to spread the Gospel to all the nations of the world.
‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.’ Matthew 28:19-20
Education was a large part of how the Jesuits spread the Catholic faith throughout the world, and even today the Jesuits are largely known for being educators. We can trace the beginnings of Jesuit Education back to Ignatius founding the Roman College in Rome. Over the centuries, hundreds of Jesuit schools, colleges and seminaries have been founded all over the world.
Their missionary activity frequently put Jesuits in danger in foreign lands, where they were sometimes persecuted or killed by authorities hostile to their mission of conversion. However, in some lands, the Jesuits were welcomed as men of wisdom and science.
On arriving in Venice in 1537, Ignatius and most of his companions were ordained. Here Ignatius had one of his most decisive visions: he saw Christ with a cross on his shoulder, and beside him was God the Father, who said, "I wish you to take this man [meaning Ignatius] for your servant." Jesus said to Ignatius, "My will is that you should serve us." In this vision, Ignatius was also told that his group was to be called "the company of Jesus," that they were to be like a company of traders, yet focused on doing God's will.
In 1540 the small band gained the pope's approval and was named the Society of Jesus: they determined a method of decision-making, vowed to obey the pope as the voice of Christ and elected Ignatius as superior general. The vision and disciplines of the "Jesuits," as they came to be called, soon caught the imagination of Europe, and Jesuits were found in Europe's major cities as well as in the new world.
IHS is what is known as a Christogram - a combination of letters to represent the name of ‘Jesus’. Specifically, it is an abbreviation of the Greek spelling of the name, IHΣΟΥΣ (Jesus).
The Jesuit Order adopted IHS as its fixed emblem sometime in the 1600s. As the Jesuits are the Society of Jesus, it makes sense that the heart of their symbol is the name of Jesus.