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Men on A Mission
By Fr. John Felix Raj. S.J.

The author is Rector and professor of Economics at St. Xavier’s College, Calcutta.


Some of the best education in India is imparted by Jesuits. This month, on July 31st, the Order remembers its Founding Father, St. Ignatius of Loyola, who died 444 years ago.

Jesuit run not less than 25 university colleges, 5 Institutes of Business Administration and 100 high schools in India and almost all of them are among the most reputed in the country. In them, more than 200,000 students belonging to every religious, linguistic and caste group, receive their education. Yet it seems strange that not many people, not even Jesuit students, former and present, and their parents, know what the Jesuit Order is and what it stands for. Some ignorantly believe that it is an educational society like the Deccan Education Society. Few realise that the Jesuit Order is the largest religious order in the Catholic Church which herself is the biggest organised religion with more than 1000 million adherents spread throughout the world.

The Jesuit Order, called the "Society of Jesus", was founded by Ignatius of Loyola in 1534. Ignatius was one of those unusual characters of the 16th century. A Basque nobleman, his father entrusted his education to an official at King Ferdinand's court. Ignatius gladly went through the long training and became a brave knight.

In May 1521, at the age of 30, Ignatius was wounded in both legs in the battle between Francis 1, 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 Ignatius read two books, the Life of Christ by Rudolph of Saxony and the Flos Sanctorum, which transformed his life.

In 1522 he left home and went to the shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat near Barcelona, Spain. There he hung up his sword and dagger as a pledge of his new consecration to Christ and His Mother. For the next year he lived on alms, spending long hours in prayer. There he wrote his Spiritual Exercises, the most efficient and widely used retreat manual today in the world.

Firm in his determination to serve God and His people, but realising that first he needed the weapon of knowledge, he completed his philosophical and theological studies at Paris University. There he met and won over six men, all brilliant students. One of them was the then famous professor of the Paris University, Francis Xavier, who came to India in 1536.

The day came when Ignatius and his companions decided to form themselves into a new community. After much prayer and consultation Ignatius prepared a document, outlining the new order, to be known as the "Society of Jesus," which was made a Religious Order by Pope Paul III in 1534.

It was typical of Ignatius that unlike the founders of the previous religious orders, (e.g. the Franciscans or Benedictines), he refused to attach his name to his order but insisted on calling it the Society of Jesus to indicate that Christ was the sole model of 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 religious order and its determination to use the name 'Society of Jesus'. In the same way, at the beginning of the Christian era, the word "Christianus" was concocted as a nickname for the followers of Christ and it is typical that, as in the case of the whole Church, the Society of Jesus also soon adopted its nick-name as an acceptable synonym for common use.

It was not only its name which distinguished the new order from the others. Much more distinct was its objectives and its way of life. Very firmly, Ignatius refused to limit the objectives of the Society to any particular type of work. Though the Jesuits have come to be particularly known for their educational work, nowhere it is stated in the Constitution of the Society prepared by Ignatius that education is to be given special importance.

The Jesuit, according to Ignatius, 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). In particular, they should be prepared to do any task assigned to them by the head of the Catholic Church, the Pope. 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 America, India, China, Japan, the Philippines and other southeast Asian countries. By the time of Ignatius' death in 1556 the Jesuits, numbering around 1,000 had spread to all four continents.

One of them was Matteo Ricci who 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.

Hailed by Max Muller as the "First European Sanskrit scholar”, Robert De Nobili came to India in 1605, mastered Tamil and Sanskrit and translated the Vedas and other Hindu scriptures. Others like Beschi and Stevens became reputed scholars in Indian languages. Their works, in Tamil and Marathi, recognised as classics, are studied even today. 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 Joffee and acted by De Niro. The success of the Jesuits in defending the Indians so infuriated the Spanish and other colonists that they expelled the Jesuits, destroyed the communities and finally brought pressure on Pope Clement XIV to suppress the Society of Jesus. The Pope yielded to the pressure and disbanded the Jesuit order "for the greater good of the Church" in 1773. With the typical obedience, members of the Society obeyed the unjust order without demur.

However, Catherine the Great of Russia, the powerful and self-willed queen, who had learned to esteem Jesuit teaching methods, refused to promulgate in her dominion the Pope’s order suppressing the Society of Jesus. Therefore the Jesuit Order remained alive in Russia till 1814 when Pope Pius VII revoked the decree. Then, about 600 Jesuits emerged from Russia to rebuild their beloved Society.

Admirers and friends of the Jesuits, commenting on this tragic episode in the history of the Church and of the Society of Jesus, like to point out that an Order, glorying in the name of Jesus, should consider itself privileged to reproduce in its own life the death and resurrection which was the central feature of Christ's life on earth.

The effects of the suppression are hardly evident in the restored Society of Jesus. Jesuit involvement, scholarship, initiative and creativity continue. 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 intergrate science and human progress with the world of the spirit; and Karl Rahner, one of the greatest theologians of the Catholic Church.

Today, the Society of Jesus, with 21,354 members spread all over the world, has taken up every conceivable form of work which may, in some way, lead to man's total welfare. There are Jesuits working as social workers, doctors, research scientists, astronomers, architects, members of Parliament, circus performers, movie actors, journalists, psychiatrists, besides of course, the traditional occupations of professors, teachers and preachers.

In India, the first printing press was started by the Jesuits in 1556. A telescope was first used on Indian soil by Fr Richard at Pondicherry in 1689. He discovered the binary nature of the star Alpha Centauri. Fr Figueredo, emissary of Maharajah Jai Singh II of Jaipur to the King of Portugal, was largely responsible for the Jaipur Observatory, an impressive monument to his astronomical genius.

Fr Lafont, professor of Physics at St Xavier’s College, Calcutta, played a leading role in popularising science. Sir J.C. Bose and Dr C.V. Raman found encouragement for their introduction to science in the person of Fr Lafont. He was called the "Father of Science in India." Dr. C. Bulcke, a Belgian, enriched the Hindi and Sanskrit languages by his writings. He was an authority on the Rama theme and a well-known lexicographer. In 1974 the Government of India awarded him the Padma Bhushan, in recognition of his contribution to Hindi research and language.

Modern Indology owes much to the Belgians, Johans, Dandoy, Antoine and Fallon of St Xavier's College, Calcutta. They also enriched the Bengali and Sanskrit languages. Fr Fallon was called the "apostle of inter-religious dialogue" in Calcutta. 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. Blatter and James Santapau are well-known in botanical circles for their contribution to Indian botany. Fr. Santapau was the first chief of the Botanical Survey of India and remained chief for six years.

One may wonder what keeps these Jesuits united or what keeps them going. The answer lies in their basic characteristics which are, first of all the Order's 'humanism' - its refusal to condemn or despise anything human - and its willingness to use all human knowledge and achievements in the service of God and man. Another Jesuit characteristic is obedience or flexibility, willingness to adjust and to compromise. There is only one thing a Jesuit is taught to be rigid and uncompromising about and that is moral evil or sin.

Another mark of the Jesuits is their way of combining stern inner discipline with maximum freedom for each individual Jesuit in external life and in the choice of methods. And finally there is a certain thoroughness in all that is undertaken. This is indicated by the frequent use of the words "Magis," “greater," "higher" in relation to the goals the Jesuits, as individuals and as a group, should strive for.

A new era has opened up for, the Jesuits in the second half of the 20th century. The second Vatican Council, a policy-setting meeting of the world's bishops, held in 1965, opened the Church doors to the winds of change in the 20th century. Especially after the 32nd General Congregation of the Jesuits held in 1974, a new thrust is seen in all the works of the Jesuits, as a single-minded and wholehearted response to the multi-religious and multi-cultural realities of the modern world. 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.

In the context of glaring inequalities and widespread poverty, their response to this reality is threefold: the promotion of justice as an integral dimension of faith; enculturation along with an ongoing dialogue with other religions and a dialogue with unbelievers and with those of various secular ideologies. These three bearings now guide the course of every Jesuit activity and institution.

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, throughout the country and similar works in other parts of the country. These reflect their new thrust and their ‘preferential option for the poor', the oppressed, the world's most needy. In the world today the Indian assistancy of the Society of Jesus is the largest with 3,851 Jesuits, followed by USA with 3,635. Bihar alone has 1265 Jesuits, one third of all working in India. Indian Jesuits continue their involvement in the secular and religious fields, contributing their mite to the total development of modern India. They must not forget to live up to their age-old maxim of aiming at the greatest good for the greatest number of People.

 

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