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by FR. FELIX RAJ, SJ, DIRECTOR |  « back


Jesuit Mission - I

The Jesuit Order called the “Society of Jesus”, with its 20,408 members spread all over the world, has taken up every conceivable form of work, which may, in some way, lead people to total welfare. There are Jesuits working as doctors, social activists, research scholars, scientists, astronomers, architects, circus performers, movie actors, journalists, psychiatrists, besides of course, the traditional work of teachers and preachers. The Jesuits all over the world are celebrating their founder’s 450th death anniversary.

The Society of Jesus was founded by Ignatius of Loyola which was officially approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. Ignatius was one of those unusual characters of the 16th century Spain. As a Basque nobleman, he had his education in King Ferdinand’s court and became a brave knight.


Transformed life

In May 1521, at the age of 30, Ignatius was wounded in both legs in the battle between Francis I, King of France and the Province of Navarre. In hospital he underwent a painful and unsuccessful operation. During the long weary weeks of convalescence at home, he read two books, The Life of Christ by Rudolph of Saxony and Flos Sanctorun (Lives of Saints) which transformed his life.

In 1522, he left home and went to the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat near Barcelona and hung up his sword and dagger as a pledge of his new commitment to Christ and His Mother. For the next year, he lived on alms, spending long hours in prayer and meditation. He wrote his Spiritual Exercises there, the most efficient and widely used retreat manual today in the world. But realising the need for knowledge, he went to Paris University and completed his philosophical and theological studies. He met and won over there six men, all brilliant students, including Francis Xavier, the then professor of the Paris University who came to India.

It was typical of Ignatius to insist on calling his Order the Society of Jesus to indicate that Christ was the sole model for all its future members. This insistence explains how the name “Jesuit” came to be attached to the members of the Society of Jesus. Its Latin equivalent “Jesuita” meaning “like Jesus” was originally a nickname coined by people who disliked the new Order and its determination to use the name “Society of Jesus”. In the same way, at the beginning of the Christian era, the word Christians was concocted as a nickname for the followers of Christ.

It was not only its name which distinguished the new Order from the other religious Orders in the 16th century. Much more distinct was its objectives, administration and its way of life. Very firmly, Ignatius refused to limit the objectives of the Society of Jesus to any particular type of work. Though nowhere in the Constitution of the Society prepared by Ignatius education is given special importance, the Jesuits have come to be particularly known in the public mind for their educational work.

Willing workers
The Jesuits, according to their founder, should be ready to undertake any work in any part of the world which will be for the “Greater Glory of God” (the Jesuit Motto: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam). Spurred on by their motto, Jesuits fanned out to every country, chiefly to all the new lands just “discovered” by Portuguese and Spanish explorers-North and South Americas, India, China, the Philippines, and other South Asian countries. By the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, the Jesuits, numbering around 1,000, had spread to all four continents.

That is why on the dust jacket of his book, The Jesuits, Malachi Martin wrote: “In that world where faith and power clash, the Society of Jesus has been the most fabled and fabulous, the most admired and reviled, in the practice of both. Jesuits have been both a puzzle and a model for the rest of the world. Friends and enemies, Catholics and non-Catholics, have all tried to unravel ‘the power and the secret’ of these religiously trained and devoted men who stand as giants in every secular pursuit of mankind as well. In science and art, writing and exploration and teaching-and not least in world politics-Jesuits always aimed to be the best. And they were. They had a part to play in every major political alliance in Europe and America, in Asia and Africa. They became shapers not only of religious history, but of world history. Even Hitler and his Nazi generals dreamed of such a cadre of men; and even Lenin envied them”.

The Indian mission of the Jesuits lies at the very origin of their Order. It is to India that Ignatius of Loyola, the Founder of the Society of Jesus, sent his greatest son, Francis Xavier, and to him and his collaborators, that he gave that inspiration and those directives, which became the basis of the Jesuit mission and method. India has also been the birthplace of missionary theories and the testing ground of missionary policies.

Francis Xavier was the first Jesuit to set foot on Indian soil on 6 May 1542. That day, he entered Goa in the entourage of the new governor, Martin Affonso de Sousa, with whom he had sailed from Lisbon. They were given a rousing welcome, and the natural beauty of the Mandovi riverside, together with the imposing buildings, could not but move Xavier. He took charge of the College of St Paul in Goa, started in 1541 by a group of Portuguese. This college was the first educational institution in India which became later the cornerstone of widespread Jesuit mission in education and in other fields.

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Charitable work

Xavier was a zealous “missionary on the move”. He constantly travelled along the Fishery Coast, then west into Marava country, then to Mylpore (present day Chennai). He sailed to Malacca and Japan in 1549 where he spent two and a half years. In April 1552 he set sail to China via Malacca from Goa, never to return alive. He died at Sancian, a small island facing China, on 2 December of the same year. Wherever he went, he plunged himself into charitable and pastoral work preaching the message of God’s love to people. At the time of his death there were 64 Jesuits in India. He worked in India for 10 years, 1542 to 1552, called the Xaverian decade.

Robert De Nobili came to India in 1605. Hailed by Max Muller as the “First European Sanskrit scholar”, he mastered Tamil and Sanskrit and translated the Vedas and other Hindu Scriptures. Constantine Beschi (1680-1747) occupies a special place in Tamil literature, something that the fifth world Tamil Congress held at Madurai in January 1981 proudly acknowledged by erecting his statue in the city. Thomas Stevens (1549-1600) has received accolades for his Kristaun Puran or Christian Purana, an epic in 11,000 stanzas which scholars still hail as a masterpiece of Marathi literature.

The Jesuits started the first printing press in India in 1556. Antonio de Monserratte (1556-1600) was the first person, after Ptolemy, to make a map of India. Joseph Tieffenthaller (1710-1785) was the first geographer to draw up a fairly accurate map of the Ganges. His Historical Geographical Description of India contains accurate descriptions of Indian birds, trees, plants and flowers that he studied during his 29-year-long tour of the region and also as a result of astronomical and geographical observations he made during those wanderings. The Jaipur astronomical library stands as a tribute to his work.

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Two observatories

Fr Richard at Pondicherry used a telescope for the first time on Indian soil in 1689. He discovered the binary nature of the star Alpha Centauri. Fr Manuel de Firueredo, emissary of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh of Jaipur to the King of Portugal, was largely responsible for the Jaipur and Delhi Observatories, impressive monuments, built between 1724 and 1735, for his astronomical genius. Fr Jerome D’Souza of Madras was a member of the Indian Constituent Assembly and four times India’s delegate to the UN General Assembly.

Frs Ethelbert, Blatter and Henry Santapau were well known in botanical circles for their contribution to Indian botany. The internationally acclaimed Herbarium at St Xavier’s College, Mumbai was established by them and was later named as Blatter herbarium. Fr Santapau became the first chief of the Botanical Survey of India and remained chief for six years. He was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India and the Birbal Sahani Medal by the Indian Botanical Society in 1964 for his services to Indian botany.

Fr C Bulke, a Belgian, India’s most famous Christian Hindi scholar, enriched the Hindi and Sanskrit languages by his writings. He was an authority on the Rama theme and a well known lexicographer. The Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan in 1974 in recognition of his contribution to Hindi research and language.

Fr Eugene Lafont of St Xaviers College, Kolkata, has the distinction of introducing modern science into India with his knowledge of experimental physics and his ability to popularise science among the people. He was called the Father of Science in India. Sir JC Bose and Dr CV Raman found encouragement for their introduction to science in the person of Fr Lafont. Modern Indology owes much to the Belgians, Johans, Dandoy, Antoine and Fallon of St Xavier’s College, Kolkata. They also enriched the Bengali and Sanskrit languages. Fr Fallon was called the “apostle of inter-religious dialogue” in Kolkata.

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Reform of calendar

Matteo Ricci went to China and mastered Chinese. He rapidly became a mandarin and an advisor to the Emperor, a post held by generations of other Jesuits who succeeded him. Ricci was the first westerner to master Chinese and translate some of that country’s classics into western languages. Alexander de Rhodes first gave Vietnamese a script. A Jesuit botanist, Jiri Kamel, working in Manila, gave the world the Camelia; while one of the lunar craters is named after the Jesuit astronomer, Christopher Clavius who was also largely responsible for the reform of the calendar resulting in the Gregorian calendar now in universal use.

The Jesuits in Latin America not only discovered cinchona, also known as Jesuit’s bark, from which quinine is derived, but also worked mightily to protect the Indian tribes from the depredations of the Spanish colonists by forming them into self-contained communities which would be able to feed, house, clothe and protect themselves. The most celebrated example of this work are the famous “Jesuit reductions of Paraguay”, which is very beautifully portrayed in the famous film Mission by Ronald Joffe and acted by Robert de Niro.

Three of the most famous Jesuits of recent times have been Gerard Manley Hopkins, the poet and founder of the Romantic movement in English poetry; Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the renowned paleontologist and mystic whose thought responds to a deeper human urge of today, the need to integrate science and human progress with the world of the spirit; and Karl Rahner, one of the greatest theologians of te Catholic Church.

In the world today the Indian Province of the Society of Jesus is the largest with 3,851 Jesuits, followed by the USA with 3,635. In India, they work among the fisher folk of the Malabar Coast, Kerala; among the poor Harijans of Tamil Nadu and Bihar, among the tribals of Maharashtra in Nasik district; in Chotanagpur and in Santal Parganas. There is their legal aid programme through the Indian Social Institutes, Delhi and Bangalore. These reflect their new thrust and their “preferential option for the poor”.

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Schools and colleges

They run no less than 31 university colleges, five institutes of business administration and 155 high schools spread throughout the country, almost all of them among its most reputed. More than 300,000 students belonging to every religious, linguistic and socio-economic group receive their education. In the context of glaring inequalities and widespread poverty, the insistence is no longer on influencing the rich, the learned and the powerful as the best means of doing good, but rather on helping the common man to live a decent human existence as the first prerequisite for any spiritual concern.

A new thrust is seen: a single-minded and wholehearted response to the multi-religious and multi-cultural realities of the modern world. Their response is promotion of justice as an integral dimension of faith and a dialogue with unbelievers and with those of various secular ideologies. These three bearings now guide the course of Jesuit activity and institutions.

By Felix Raj.

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