The Society of Jesus, a Contemporary Organization That Has Deep Roots

By Dr. Michael W.  Higgins, President and Vice-Chancellor of Corpus Christi-St. Mark's at UBC

Pontifex Minimus blog

Special to This article is part of a series on the significance of Jesuits today.

What is the role of the Jesuits in today’s complex Canadian—and even international—religious context? What do they bring to the people involved in their various apostolates as compared to other organizations that do not have a religious identity?

Today, the Jesuit apostolates work with the same groups of people or for the same causes as many nonprofit organizations. What is the advantage of the Jesuit apostolates?

Robert Drinan, a priest and professor of law at Georgetown University, once said to me,

“Michael, the one thing that distinguishes what we do from NGOs and other organizations is, at the end of the day, really quite simple. It’s the Spiritual Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. If we’re not grounded in the Exercises, if that’s not the root of everything we do, then we’d just be a bunch of professional bachelors doing our own thing. If our activities are not based on the Exercises of Saint Ignatius, then they won’t last.”

This is a very sound statement, in my opinion. The Society of Jesus has been around for half a millennium, and the Exercises are one of the reasons it has endured—while many congregations have disappeared or are disappearing.

It must be said, however, that the number of Jesuits has dropped significantly since 1965 or so, when they had a record number of members. Why the decline? Partly because of the Jesuit identity: many men entered the Society with their professional interests as their primary focus. So they became scientists or professors… and they also happened to be Jesuits. After the Second Vatican Council, especially in the 1970s, there was a crisis of priestly identity. We witnessed changes in the culture and the freedom that came from secularization, as well as negative elements. And there were some men who left.


Why then do the Jesuits still exist, while some other orders do not?

Through their general congregations over the years, Jesuits have tried to understand what is unique about the Jesuit identity. They asked themselves, for example, why are we different from others? Does it make sense in the twenty-first century to do what Ignatius of Loyola envisioned in the sixteenth century? What role do we have to play in the future? These types of self-scrutinizing questions seem to be what Jesuits are very good at. Many congregations have not engaged in this level of serious self-examination, or have done so too late, or cannot define what they are because they are the product of a very particular context that has disappeared.

The Jesuits are different. They are the product of the sixteenth century, the product of Spain, and the product of the Catholic Reformation. Their origins are different and broader, not based solely on education, for example. The Jesuits do not have a narrow conception of their ministry. They know that the context in which they live always changes: they are uniquely flexible. Yes, they have experienced crises—and suppression—but they have always responded to the changing signs of the times.

Where does this flexibility come from? From their centre, the Exercises of Ignatius of Loyola. During the Second Vatican Council, the Church and the congregations went back to the sources (the Church Fathers for the former, the founders’ documents for the latter), with varying degrees of success. Some congregations discovered that they had practically nothing, while the Jesuits had the Spiritual Exercises, the Constitutions, the Ratio studiorum… With these documents, they were able to explore their past in order to understand the original intentions of the founder and how they had evolved.


Can you give us an example in the Canadian context?

After the Council and after some internal discussions within the Society of Jesus itself, there were questions about how to give the Exercises. In the late 1960s, Paul Kennedy, a Jesuit from Wales, began this phenomenal movement of reconnecting with the original intentions of the founders and Father Arrupe in terms of how to do the Exercises. For centuries, the Exercises were practiced only by and for Jesuits. But when they went back to look at their history—this is a wonderful example of renewal (ressourcement)—the Jesuits discovered that it was the third superior general, Father Aquaviva, who had suppressed Ignatius’ original intention that the Exercises be offered to everyone (Ignatius himself had given the Exercises to aristocratic women). Thanks to the work of Father Kennedy, they were made available to all.

The Canadian Jesuits, with people such as Father John English, were among the first to get involved in this movement. They went to Wales for formation, and when they returned to Canada, they introduced an enormous change by first offering the Exercises to religious women (especially those with a background in Ignatian spirituality). After this innovation, they began to include lay men and then lay women. And now, you don’t even have to be Catholic or Christian to do the Exercises; spiritual guides are no longer just Jesuits, men, or even Catholics!

It’s a huge development of the last fifty years that is actually quite revolutionary. And although the formation originated in Wales, this way of giving the Exercises has been implemented mainly in North America.

The fact that Jesuits can go back to their roots is one of the gifts of the Society of Jesus and one of the reasons that it survives, because it is constantly questioning itself. What makes a Jesuit? Rootedness in the Spiritual Exercises is essential to the survival of the Jesuits, and I think that is why the Jesuits in Canada have decided to maintain their retreat houses and continue their spiritual ministry, while other apostolates have been abandoned over time.


Do these same Spiritual Exercises have value today for people other than Jesuits?

Yes! In an age of frenetic activity, disconnection, isolationism—personal and political—and a sense of alienation from the institutional structures of religion, the Exercises offer a sense of focused interiority, the space to let go, and a deep sense of communion.


And what do you think about the future of the Society of Jesus in Canada?

I think that Canadian Jesuits do have a future, precisely because they have a past to which they return for nourishment. But they are not locked into a spirit of nostalgia.

Jesuits tend to think prophetically, and that is at the heart of their religious charism. They have a prophetic courage to go to the margins.

That’s why it’s not insignificant that the first Jesuit pope in Catholic history, Francis, speaks of the peripheries, and it’s not insignificant that he appointed men from marginalized countries to the College of Cardinals. He attracts people from the periphery because he understands that Christianity lives on the margins of society. And who understands that better than the Jesuits? When Francis speaks about this as pope, he draws on his own experience as a Jesuit, it is deeply ingrained in him.

So I think that for Canada at least, the Jesuits have a future. They have been focusing specifically on higher education and retreat houses. They are facing, pragmatically, a decline in numbers, but they have also had some recent ordinations. They have merged their provinces, also with Haiti. They know that although the structures in which they work are historically defined, they are not eternal. And so it is this dialogue with their history that keeps them alive in the present. When you don’t have that dialogue with history, you don’t understand what you’re doing in the present and therefore your future disappears.


Why do people still engage with Jesuits today?

My sense is that it’s the “Jesuit brand.” Jesuits offer a legacy of service. They are not willing to follow the latest whim, although they are not insensitive to substantive contemporary trends, and they are clearly inclusive—gender inclusive, ecumenical, nonjudgmental.


On the other hand, why is the number of vocations and commitment to the Society declining?

Every order and congregation has its historical cycle of expansion and contraction. After the Second Vatican Council, the continuing crisis around the identity of the “religious” in the Church continues to call for a new vision. Various “ecclesial movements” have experienced some success in recruitment, but most indicators suggest that it is temporary and founder-centered. When the founder dies and succession problems arise, the future of the new religious entity is often threatened.

There seems to be some growth in monastic communities, but it is very specific to each region. Jesuits face the particular challenge of being “in” the world—apostolic rather than cloistered—and the lure of the exotic is less powerful.

The vocation dilemma is in fact built around a deeper problem: significant reforms are needed both in our understanding of the priesthood and in the structures we create for the formation of priests.

Until they are addressed in a meaningful way, the Society of Jesus and other religious orders will be collateral damage.


This content is published with the permission of the Jesuits of Canada.

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