What is a Jesuit?

atkins-bookshelf-cultureOn his first visit to the United States in September 2015, Pope Francis is drawing large enthusiastic and adoring crowds. News articles abound that mention that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit priest to be elected Pope. But if you are not Catholic or have not attended a Catholic school, it may not be clear why this is significant. Moreover, the question on many Americans’ minds is: what is a Jesuit?

The Society of Jesus (originally Societas Jesu, Latin for “companions of Jesus”) is a Catholic religious order founded in 1540 by St. Ignatius Loyola along with six other students who attended the University of Paris. Members of this order are called Jesuits (“Jesuit” is an anglicized version of the Latin word Jesuita, meaning “Yes, Jesus.”)

Loyola was a Spanish soldier and aristocrat who was very influenced by the Renaissance. While contemplating the scriptures after a severe war injury (a cannonball shattered his leg in 1521), Loyola wrote the Spiritual Exercises, a compilation of prayers, meditations, and contemplative practices. The book guides Jesuits along a spiritual path to discern God’s presence in everyday life (“find God in all things”) and taking action in the world (“contemplatives in action”). The motto of the Jesuits is ad majorem Dei gloriam (A.M.D.G.), Latin for “for the greater glory of God.” It is this spirituality that inspires the social justice work of the order — to help and inspire individuals to live more serious Christian lives, to find their personal calling, discern how to use their unique talents to serve God, and most importantly, to help others. The Jesuits are best known for their commitment to social justice, education, and missionary work to spread Catholicism.

The Society of Jesus is the largest male religious order in the Catholic Church.  There are about 17,000 priests and brothers serving in 112 countries. In the United States and Canada, there are 2,600 Jesuit priests and brothers. Jesuits take four vows: poverty, chastity, obedience to Jesus, and obedience to the Pope in matters regarding mission. Of all the religious orders, becoming a Jesuit priest takes the longest — between 8 and 15 years. Jesuits are known for their erudition — they are the best educated religious order. In addition to their spiritual formation, all Jesuits obtain a Bachelor’s degree and study theology and philosophy. After earning a Bachelor’s degree, most Jesuits go on to earn a master of doctoral degree — or several. An inside joke among Jesuit college campuses is that Jesuits are like walking thermometers — because they have so many degrees. (The joke also serves to underscore that many Jesuits are very witty and punny.) There are Jesuits who are accomplished doctors, paleontologists, scientists, mathematicians, historians, philosophers, authors, poets, and photographers — and the list goes on. After ordination, a Jesuit is assigned to do missionary work in foreign countries, teach at a Jesuit school, or perform ministry work (at a Jesuit parish, spiritual center, or hospital).

One of the cornerstones of the Jesuit order is the “education of children and unlettered persons.” The Jesuits were the first teaching order in the Catholic Church; unlike the Dominicans and Benedictines who only taught the clergy, the Jesuits were focused on teaching boys and young men. In 1548 the Jesuits established their first school (now, the University of Messina) in Messina, Sicily. Over time, the schools enrolled both young men and women. An education, they believe, should form individuals who are inspired to help others; thus the motto for Jesuit education is: “men and women for others.” In the vast ocean of education, the Jesuits cast a very wide net: they have founded 2,300 schools in 67 countries. In the United States and Canada there are 30 Jesuit colleges and universities. Many of these are known for their academic excellence, including Georgetown, Boston University, Loyola University Chicago, University of San Francisco, and Santa Clara University. Incidentally, Georgetown was the first Jesuit university founded in the United States in 1789. There are also 81 Jesuit secondary and pre-secondary schools in the U.S. and Canada. Several decades ago, a few of those high schools were boarding schools, including Bellarmine College Prep and Brophy College Prep. Georgetown Preparatory School in North Bethesda, Maryland remains as the only boarding school in U.S.

In terms of religious education, Jesuits are regarded as free-thinkers; that is to say, they fully encourage religious tolerance and teach other religions in their schools (as one of my Jesuit professors often remarked: “there are many paths to God.”) Unlike other religious schools, Jesuits teach biblical scholarship and encourage students to read, reflect on, and even question what they read in the bible. Through mandatory retreats in their high school campuses, Jesuits help students nurture a spiritual life.

In addition to their commitment to education, Jesuits are passionately committed to social justice and the care of those who live in underserved parts of the world. Jesuits are strong advocates for peace and for the relief of poverty, hunger, and injustice around the world.

Famous Jesuits:
Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (paleontologist)
Angelo Secchi (physicist, mathematician, astronomer, “Father of Astrophysics”)
Gerard Manley Hopkins (poet)
James Martin (author and media commentator)
Jorg Mario Bergoglio (Pope Francis, named after St. Francis of Assisi of Italy)

Nicknames of the Jesuits:
The Company
God’s Marines
God’s Soldiers

Read related posts: Time’s Person of the Year 2014
Religion vs Spirituality
What Do All Religions Have in Common?

For further reading: The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius translated by Louis Puhl (2000)
The Jesuits: A History from Ignatius to the Present by John O’Malley, S. J. (2014)

The Jesuit Guide to Almost Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin (2012)
God’s Soldiers: Adventure, Politics, Intrigue, and Power – A History of the Jesuits by Jonathan Wright (2004)


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