The Jesuits You Don't Know

Fr Myron Pereira SJ

The The Jesuits, who are known worldwide for their schools, their writings, their missionary work, and much else besides, have a founder who’s one of the great ‘unknowns’ in church history: Ignatius Loyola. Whenever he is mentioned, people seem to remember that he was a soldier, that he was wounded in battle, that he changed his life … and then stop. Francis Xavier, Ignatius’s friend is the stuff of legend, and there are hundreds of St Xavier’s schools and colleges. But Ignatius ? Whatever happened to him after his conversion ?
It’s a long story, and an interesting one, but what is not generally known is that Ignatius Loyola is one of the key figures, not just in church history, but also in the western world. He changed the way in which we think and pray. This was through two important things he did.

Before we come to this however, let me locate Ignatius in history. Ignatius was born in 1492, the year Columbus discovered America, and began the age of European exploration. When he was 30, he was wounded in battle. The year was 1521, the very year in which Luther defiantly posted his challenges to the Pope on a church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
Five years later 1526 in north India, a young Turkish commander won the battle of Panipat by using cannons on the battlefield for the first time. He was Babur, the first Mughal emperor.
It was a time of turbulence and change, both in India and in Europe.

I said just now that Ignatius was a key figure in history. What did he do which made him so important? Two significant things.
First, he authored a book, a slim volume called the Spiritual Exercises; then, he started a group of men called the ‘Jesus Company’, or the Society of Jesus, who changed the world through the schools they built.
First, the book we call the Spiritual Exercises. It’s a small book, and you can probably read through it in two or three hours. The point is that it’s not a book to be read and forgotten, but to be worked out and practiced. It is a workbook, a practical, “how to” book. If you ever go for a retreat with Jesuit fathers,  the preacher will give you practical exercises from this book.  The purpose of these exercises? To get to know the Jesus of the Gospels better, and to guide you in making the right decisions in your life.
Let’s face it – life continually confronts us with many choices, many decisions. What shall I do next year? What job shall I take up? Shall I take that promotion? Is this the time to get married? How shall I use my money? And so on and so forth. These are “life choices”. They often make us anxious, because we don’t know whether we’re doing the right thing. Ignatius’s book helps us to “discern”, to make the right choice, to see where God is leading us. It has made millions of men and women aware of God in their lives leading them, showing them the “right decision”, supporting them with peace and quiet courage.
The Spiritual Exercises taught the modern Church to pray.

But Ignatius did more, much more. He formed a group of men who soon dazzled the world with their zeal and energy. History knows them as the Jesuits, an array of men who in Macaulay’s words became “the schoolmasters of Europe” . For the greatest contribution of the Society of Jesus was their setting up schools wherever they went, an innovation which captured the imagination of Europe, and, if I may make so bold to say, taught the modern world to think.       The ‘Jesuit school’ is the Spiritual Exercises adapted for a younger, wider audience.
Before the Jesuits came on the scene, you didn’t go to school. If you wanted to learn a trade, you  apprenticed yourself to a craftsman. “The Jesuits were the first to inculcate graded and systematic knowledge, not just of crafts and skills, but also of ideas.”

Let me briefly mention some of their innovations.

Jesuits invented the textbook.  This was possible because of the invention of printing, which allowed books to come into common use. Today we take textbooks for granted, not realizing what a ‘new thing’ it was – to have selections of writings for reference, in a graded and systematic way, leading the reader to a mastery of the subject.
One of the classic textbooks was the catechism (today we call these FAQ), where simple but persistent questions on a topic are reproduced with their stock answers.

Jesuits wrote the first dictionaries, grammars; and designed the first maps. All these are corollaries of the printed page, for print was the device which carried the revolution in learning forwards. The first map of the moon was plotted by the Jesuit scholar Clavius.

Jesuit education took place in a personalized context, stressing the contact between teacher and student. This is why even today, old students remember their Jesuit teachers with great affection, never mind they’ve all but forgotten the subjects they were taught. The inspirational value of the teacher was enormous.

Finally, their education was in the widest sense ‘humanistic’, not ‘classist’.  A Jesuit school was where you’d find aristocrats, merchants and peasants. There were even schools for tribals. Technical skills as well as communication skills were emphasised, like public speaking, play acting and music. Volumes have been written about Jesuit theatre. The scholar Kirchner invented the “magic lantern”, the forerunner of today’s movie projector.
All this was done – in the words of the Jesuit motto – “for God’s greater glory”, and for the uplift of men and women everywhere (or as they worded it in the 16th century, “for the salvation of souls”).

The first Jesuit school was started in 1548 by one of Ignatius’s followers, in Messina, Sicily, in his own lifetime.  The second was started in Goa by Francis Xavier. It was called St Paul’s College, and ruins of its façade can still be seen today. From Ignatius too comes the “seminary”, which taught  young men ‘in a graded and systematic way’ how to become educated priests.
All this is our heritage, as Jesuit teachers and Jesuit students. It’s something to cherish and preserve, and even more, to activate. For learning is not just books on a shelf, but going out to into the field to innovate and experiment, to discover and invent.

What the printing press was to yesterday, the electronic media are today. They have changed the way we think and relate to each other. They are already transforming education, and so the world.

What would Ignatius Loyola have done today with television, radio, the internet and cell-phones?

The question is ours to answer.