Ignatius of Loyola and a New Direction for the History of the Jesuits

By Kountz, Peter | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1996 | Go to article overview

Ignatius of Loyola and a New Direction for the History of the Jesuits


Kountz, Peter, The Catholic Historical Review


Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint. By W W Meissner, S.J. (New Haven: Yale University Press. 1992. Pp. xxx, 480. $45.00 clothbound; $ 18.00 paperback.)

In the period since the 1992 publication of W. W. Meissner's Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint, two significant events in the annals of the Society of Jesus have occurred, the 34th General Congregation of the Order and the publication of John W O'Malley's The First Jesuits. Some comment about each is in order as a way of setting a context for a fuller consideration of the Meissner text.

If, as some scholars and commentators have argued, the Society of Jesus remains a work in progress, there is no better evidence for this argument than the 34th General Congregation and its documents. For the first time ever, representatives to a General Congregation of the Society from Europe and America were a minority; the 34th General Congregation carries a significant element of "lay collaboration"; only some of the Congregation documents maintain eloquent certainty, e.g.,"Our Mission and Interreligious Dialogue," while others seem to be half-hearted efforts, e.g., "Ecumenism." And the documents of the 34th General Congregation reveal the "work-in-progress" nature of the Jesuit position on women in the Church and the economic, political, spiritual, and theological realities of developing countries. Perhaps of greatest significance is what appears to be an unclear and/or changing commitment to the world-wide Jesuit apostolate to education, in prep schools, seminaries, and in colleges and universities. More than anything else, the documents of the 34th General Congregation of the Society of Jesus reveal the Order's efforts to remain "flexible" and "improvisatory" with respect to the realities of contemporary culture and cultural mores, to the practice of religion, and to the articulation of a theology and spirituality that are, above all, relevant to the world in which they are grounded. Jerome Nadal, one of the group of the first Jesuits, said often that Jesuits"are not monks.... The world is our house? The 34th General Congregation and its documents offer powerful testimony to the continuing efforts of the Society of Jesus to serve the world as it is. More than any other religious order, the Jesuits should be regarded as "organic" in that their apostolate is to serve the world as it is, not as it has been.

It is commonly accepted by scholars of the history of Christianity that, as John O'Malley argues in his work, The First Jesuits, the writing on the Society of Jesus "has been woefully inadequate" In spite of the Constitutions, the Spiritual Exercises, the 125 volumes of the Monumenta Historica Societatis Jesu, and the 7000 letters of Ignatius Loyola (the largest extant correspondence of any sixteenth-century figure), there has been no history of the Society of Jesus that is as complete and thoroughly comprehensive in the way, for example, that David Knowles' still remarkable history of the monastic orders in medieval England is. There is, in fact, no substantial history of the Jesuits from their founding in 1540 to the present. It is no wonder, then, that the Jesuits are often so misunderstood and misrepresented. John O'Malley's The First Jesuits seeks to remedy this deficiency and while it is only "Part One" of the story in that it covers the first years of the Order, from a gathering of the seven "friends in the Lord" in 1534 to 1565, the year of the 2nd General Congregation of the Order and the year when Diego Laynez, who succeeded Ignatius as Superior General, died, it has set the stage for a work or works that will address the 450 years of Jesuit history in an equally thoughtful and thorough way. Because there is no substantial "secular" history of the Jesuits-as distinct from its own ecclesiastical histories-the myths about the order and the frequent disfigurements of its founder and his colleagues remain. John O'Malley's The First Jesuits and W W Meissner's Ignatius of Loyola, taken together, must be seen as a major first step in remedying such an extraordinary deficiency. …

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