The Jesuits-History and Impact: From Their Origins Prior to the Baroque Crisis to Their Role in the Illinois Country

By Hechenberger, Daniel | Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, Summer 2007 | Go to article overview

The Jesuits-History and Impact: From Their Origins Prior to the Baroque Crisis to Their Role in the Illinois Country


Hechenberger, Daniel, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society


Members of the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus, established in the wake of the Protestant Reformation) quickly rose to prominence as papal missionaries, educators, advisors, confessors, and innovators across Europe and then in Asia and the Americas. With a zeal and power that seemingly invited attacks from the critics during the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, the Jesuit missions among the Illinois tribes wielded great influence. To gain a deeper understanding of the Jesuits and their impact in the Illinois country-a microcosmic portrait of the Society's rise, fall, and legacy-one might ask a series of questions. Under what circumstances did the Jesuit order begin? How was the Jesuit order received at its origin and during its first century? Why and how did the Jesuits become involved in New France? What impact did the Jesuits have on the Illinois Indians? What approaches and Catholic doctrines did Jesuits likely use in their early years in the Illinois country? Why were the Jesuits in New France suppressed in the 1760s? When and under what circumstances did the Jesuits return to North America in the 1800s?

Origins of the Society

The Society of Jesus was born amidst times of enormous tension in Europe. The continuing impact of the Reformation, initiated by Martin Luther's actions in 1517, polarized the continent. The pressure of the situation often exploded in the cities. In Paris in 1534, the seeds of the future Jesuit order took root amid a year of turmoil that, according to historian Jonathan Wright, included: destruction of "statues of the Virgin," "heretics . . . jailed and killed, scandal," and the "Affair of the Placards"-an attack on the Roman Catholic mass and transubstantiation, the belief that the presiding priest transforms the water and wine into the body and blood of Christ. Wright declares that the reaction of King "Francis I ... [and] the French establishment . . . [included] persecution, lynching, and execution."1

The continuing impact of the Reformation would expand the challenge to the authority of the Church and lead to the Baroque Crisis, the transition period from the Renaissance into the Enlightenment. However, Wright points out that, in 1534, at the private mass where Ignatius Loyola, Francis Xavier, and five of their fellow seminarians exchanged "solemn vows of poverty, . . . they did not see the upheaval of the previous two decades in hardand-fast doctrinal terms but, rather, as a symptom of widespread spiritual malaise and moral crisis."2 The future missionaries planned to convert nonChristians in the Holy Lands. Barring that, they vowed to offer their spiritual services directly to the pope, to do their work wherever the pontiff saw the greatest need. Loyola was the driving force behind the group.3

Bom of a noble family, Ignatius of Loyola was wounded in battle as a young man and briefly imprisoned by the Inquisition; he also pursued a spiritual pilgrimage that would prove central to his life.4 During his pilgrimage Loyola developed a concise set of spiritual exercises that would establish the Jesuit approach. In Rome, Loyola and his disciples initiated high Church officials to the exercises. The converts then championed this rigorous spiritual regimen to the pope in light of the many challenges to the Church's authority. Consequently, in 1540 Pope Paul III issued the bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae that established the Society of Jesus. Loyola became the first Superior General of the order in 1541. Some members of the Church hierarchy opposed the establishment of the Jesuits, thus laying the foundation for controversies for generations to come.5 In addition to the controversies Loyola ignited, he would also be revered after his death, becoming a source of religious relics and acceding to sainthood, along with other Jesuits, such as Francis Xavier.

Although the original Jesuit purpose was not focused on counterreformation, historian Wright points out that the order's mandate expanded in 1550 from the "propagation of the faith" to the" defense and propagation of the faith. …

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