St. Ignatius Loyola, from the Ratio Studiorum (1606)

Books Illustrating the First Two Centuries
of Contemplation and Action of the Society of Jesus

Thumbnail image from Mathias Tanner, depicting Roger Lea.


by Paul Shore[1]

Since the first days of the Society of Jesus, when Ignatius and his companions began their work, radical mobility has been a salient characteristic of the Jesuits. This mobility, which stood in sharp contrast to the Rules of some of the older Catholic orders, was both highly flexible—Jesuits might be sent anywhere on earth on the orders of the Pope—and consistently directional. Jesuits have always been on a journey toward a goal.

Many of these journeys have been geographical, as Jesuit priests and brothers spread across the world, establishing schools and missions that numbered in the hundreds in the century after Ignatius’ death. But before undertaking these geographical journeys, all Jesuits were expected to undertake a spiritual journey framed by the experience of the Spiritual Exercises and carried forward through devotional practice, examination of conscience, and reflection upon their experiences and actions as teachers, preachers, missionaries, artists, and scientists. The Jesuit experience, understood individually and collectively as a “Society” of companions, is in part an account of the interplay between these two journeys. Jesuit encounters with lands and peoples led to the refinement of these men’s understanding of their spiritual quest, while the interior spiritual journey provided the frames of reference, the language, and the models of conduct that guided Jesuit priests and brothers in their temporal and geographical pilgrimage.

The spiritual journeys that have been a characteristic of the Society since its establishment in 1540 continue today. This exhibit offers examples of a few of the books that supported and documented these journeys during the first two centuries of the Society’s existence. Books were the companions of the first Companions, and later were the means by which Jesuits shared their experiences with other Jesuits, with those they taught and ministered to, and ultimately with the larger world, Catholic and non-Catholic. Books defined and defended Jesuit undertakings, promoted iconography and emblems that spread messages the Society sought to propagate, and provided a record of the richness of the natural and human worlds with which the Jesuits came in contact. It was said that Jesuits without books would have been like soldiers without weapons. But these books were also an expression of the identity, worldview, and aspirations of these early Jesuits.

Book 8, p. 338. Wenceslaus Sturm pointing out the truth of scripture to a Czech Protestant

The books created by the Jesuits also influenced the production of other books. Jesuit educational principles, enunciated in the Ratio studiorum of 1599, were imitated and emulated by even the Society’s Protestant opponents. Jesuit presses in Antwerp, Rome, and elsewhere produced books whose lavish illustrations were a model for scientific and belles lettres volumes throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Jesuit translations of works such as the Analects of Confucius set the standard for future cross-cultural undertakings, while the devotional works in the vernacular that flowed from the Society’s presses left a lasting imprint on the book culture of many language groups.

The books exhibited here are presented as representative of three phases in the history of the Jesuits during the more than two centuries preceding the suppression of the Society in 1773. These years were a period of extraordinary growth and success for the Society, tempered with several significant setbacks, the most important being the collapse of the mission to Imperial China in the wake of the Chinese Rites Controversy that culminated in 1715. This period was also a time of renewal and resurgence within the Catholic Church, a process variously called the Counter-Reformation, Catholic Revival, or the Catholic Reformation. Jesuits and the books they produced played a key role in the history not merely of the Catholic Church, but of the entire world during these years.

It is not hard to obey when we love the one whom we obey. —Ignatius Book 8, p. 473.

The first historical phase begins with the encounter between the bedridden soldier Iñigo de Loyola and a devotional work that would change his life. This period covers the composition and refinement of the foundational texts of the Society. We then move toward the zenith of Jesuit success and influence in the mid–seventeenth century. The idea of founding a new religious order was born when the first small knot of companions gathered in Paris. A few years later these men received papal approval for their new Society. The focus of the first Jesuits soon turned from a more generalized mission of simply serving where asked by the Pope, to the more specific tasks of founding and staffing schools throughout Catholic Europe, thereby becoming the first Catholic order to have schooling as a formal ministry. Simultaneously Jesuits traveled to the limits of the known world, keeping records of the peoples, flora, and fauna they encountered, and sending back reports that sometimes became bestsellers of their day. The name "Jesuit," first hurled as an insult at the earliest members of the Society, gradually became the respected name of the first truly worldwide educational and missionary enterprise. The expansion of the Portuguese and Spanish colonial empires, the establishment of a Catholic Hapsburg dynasty in Central Europe, the efforts to unite the Eastern and Western Churches, the grounding of a network of highly successful schools, and even the brief return of Catholicism to England under Mary Stuart all served to extend the influence of the Society.

Both praised and condemned for their role in the aggressive reassertion of Catholic influence in many countries, the Jesuits confronted the Protestant emphasis on vernacular literacy with their own program to promote Latin literacy. At the same time, Jesuits working in such literate cultures as Japan and China learned these languages as a vehicle for engaging the elites and spreading the Gospel. Elsewhere, Jesuits studied the languages of preliterate peoples such as the Allentiac of South America and produced grammars that were then published, giving modern scholars a rare glimpse of these languages.[2] Along with drama, dance, architecture, oratory, and music, the printed word became a key medium through which the Society communicated its message and defined itself. And while the Jesuits soon earned a reputation as defenders of Catholic doctrine, their printing enterprises were not limited to this function. In fact, one of the first books published by a Jesuit press, in 1558, was a volume of the epigrams of Martial, a pagan author.[3]

Unus non sufficit orbis. —Portuguese Jesuit Manuel de Nobrega, 1517–1570[4]

By the mid-1600s, the Society of Jesus was a force in world politics, its members serving as confessors and tutors to the most powerful Catholic houses of Europe, or working for secular regimes as diplomats, journeying as explorers, missionaries, and scientists, and often combining several of these roles. At the high noon of Jesuit influence and prestige, the Society envisioned its mission as world-embracing and its objectives as vast and profoundly transformative. Ambitious printing ventures, such as the huge folio editions of the Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher?s studies of music, languages, and archeology, reflected the universalist aspirations of the Jesuit mission and the Society?s determination to document this mission with books. Jesuits dominated the higher levels of education in many parts of Europe, as well as in parts of the Americas and Asia. In remote regions of Asia and the New World, Jesuits negotiated a balance between fidelity to the Society?s Constitutions and the educational ideas of the Ratio and the practical necessity of engaging and understanding local cultures. A striking instance of this occurred when Jesuit teachers in late sixteenth-century Japan incorporated traditional Buddhist texts into their curricula.[5] Jesuit book culture, while still avowedly Eurocentric, early on acknowledged other cultures of the book.

Death is swallowed up in victory. —I Corinthians 15:54

The Society's startling successes were achieved at a great human cost. Jesuit undertakings in Japan, which had begun with such promise, were brutally suppressed after 1614, while the Jesuits' efforts in Transylvania, Peru, the Philippines and elsewhere were punctuated with the martyrdoms of Jesuits and those they had converted. The Society even faced competition and hostility from other Catholic religious orders. Nevertheless, the edifice of devotion and learning that the Society had erected survived, and even prospered, and as the list of those whose had sacrificed grew, and the stories of their martyrdom were embellished, the triumphalist narrative put forth in Jesuit publications was supplemented with edifying accounts of how the mission had actually been carried out.

A High Baroque understanding of the body and of physicality turned the suffering of Jesuits (and their allies) into a victory of the Faith. The heroic deaths of Jesuits provided not only inspiration for Jesuit and non-Jesuit alike, but in their self-conscious imitation of Christ's passion these men died "good deaths," thereby completing and fulfilling their good lives. Moreover, some Jesuit martyrdoms, such as those of St. Stephanus Pongracz and his companions described later in this exhibit, produced relics which themselves became the objects of devotion, thereby strengthening the faith.

Meanwhile the Jesuit journey continued. The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, while they did not witness the rapid geographic expansion of the Society that had characterized the earlier period, were nevertheless a time of consolidation and further exploration. Jesuits advanced in several directions in the Americas and probed deeply into the center of Asia. The reports of plant, animal, and human life brought back from these expeditions count among the most important contributions of the Society during this period. A European audience for these reports grew and came to expect further Jesuit discoveries, including those achieved by Jesuit brothers. This exhibit closes with a glimpse of this far-flung activity, which continued more or less unabated until the suppression of the Society in 1773.

[1] Thanks to Claude Pavur, Daniel Stoltzenberg, John Padberg, Travis Brimhall, and Michael Yonan for their assistance in the preparation of this text.

[2] Luis de Valdivia, Doctrina christiana y cathechismo en la lengua Allentiac (En Lima: Por Francisco del Canto, año 1607). Jesuits also legitimated marginalized languages by producing comparative grammars of these tongues and Latin. For example, the classic Latin grammar of Emmanuel Alvarez (1526–1582) was recast as a trilingual grammar that included Hungarian and Slovak. Emmanuel Alvarez, De institutione grammatica tres libri (Tyrnaviae: Typis Academicis Excudebat Johann Christoph Beck, 1688–1689).

[3] M. Valerius Martialis, Epigrammata, paucis admodum vel rejectis (Romae: In aed. Societatis Jesu, 1558).

[4] "One world is not enough." Nobrega placed this motto (modified from Juvenal, Satires 10:168) on the sails of the ship he sailed to Brazil.

[5] M. Antoni J. Üçerler, S.J., "The Jesuit Enterprise in Japan (1573–1580)," in The Mercurian Project: Forming Jesuit Culture 1573–1580, ed. Thomas M. McCoog, S.J. (St. Louis: The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2004), 860.

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