Everyone knows that we Jesuits have had a rocky history. We were fabulously successful in educating the European elite for quite some time. Things went off the rails badly in the eighteenth century. We lost out to the Vatican Curia over the dispute about accommodating some Confucian and Hindu traditional rites in prayer and liturgy on the missions in China and India. We fell out of favour with the imperial court in Portugal, then in France, and then in 1767 in Spain. By then many Jesuits were on the run throughout Europe. The Portuguese were particularly upset with our defence of the locals living on the Reductions in South America. We had some sort of notion that the locals owned the place, not their colonisers. Ultimately the courts of Europe prevailed on Pope Clement XIV who published the brief Dominus ac Redemptor on 21 July 1773. Having listed the many shortcomings of the Society of Jesus, he decreed:
“From sure knowledge and fullness of apostolic power, we abolish and suppress the oft-mentioned Society. We take away and abrogate each and every one of its offices, ministries, administrations, houses, schools, colleges, retreats, farms, and any properties in whatsoever province, realm, and jurisdiction and in whatever way pertaining to the Society. We do away with the statutes, customs, usages, decrees, Constitutions, even those confirmed by oath, by apostolic approval, or by other means.”
In much the same way that recent popes have decreed that we can never again talk about women’s ordination and that it would never be possible anyway, Clement purported to wipe out the Jesuits not just for the present, but forever. In his mind, there could never be a restoration of the Jesuits. He decreed:
“The letter is not to be subjected to terms of the law nor are remedies to be sought in law, fact, favor, or justice. No one is to seek concessions or favors whether in court or outside the court. But we want the same present letter to be always and for ever valid, firm, and efficacious, and that it be allotted and maintain its full and entire effects and that it be inviolably observed by each and every person to whom it pertains or will in some way pertain in the future.”
Bishop Bill Morris had it good, compared with us back in those days. No such thing as due process back then. There was one huge loophole. The brief needed to be promulgated by the ruler in every jurisdiction where the Jesuits were. The good old Tsarina Catherine II, the Orthodox Empress of Russia (God bless her), had her own reasons for wanting to maintain the presence of the Jesuits in White Russia. She refused to promulgate the brief and the Jesuits were happy to provide their services especially when the Russians took over part of East Poland with a lot of Catholics. Clement died a year after he published his decree. His successor was the long-reigning Pius VI who had been educated by the Jesuits and who was known to be sympathetic to the restoration of the Society. But he was not able to stand up to Spain. In 1801 shortly after his election as Pope, Pius VII formally approved the ongoing existence of the Society of Jesus in Poland. Then ultimately on 7 August 1814, he issued the papal bull Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum restoring the Society of Jesus throughout the world.
Pius VII decreed: “We concede and grant to our beloved son and priest Tadeusz Brzozowski, current superior general of the Society of Jesus, and to others legitimately deputed by him, all necessary and appropriate faculties at our pleasure and that of the Apostolic See, so that in all said states and jurisdictions, they may licitly and freely admit and accept all who seek to be admitted and incorporated into the regular order of the Society of Jesus”. The show was back on the road everywhere. Our present superior General, Fr Adolfo Nicolas, has said: “All the crises of history enclose a hidden wisdom that needs to be fathomed. For us, Jesuits, this is the commemoration of our greatest crisis. It is, therefore, important that we should learn from the events themselves, that we should discover the good and the bad in our behaviour in order to revive those great desires the Pope spoke of and continue the work of evangelisation, refining our brotherhood and deepening our love.”
This Thursday we mark the 200th anniversary of this Restoration. Last Thursday the Church’s first Jesuit pope Francis came to lunch at the Jesuit curia to celebrate the feast of St Ignatius Loyola, our founder. He came on an hour’s notice. He came in his Ford Focus. He sat down to lunch with the Jesuit community and there was hardly a clerical collar in sight. Also present were the seven siblings of Fr dall’Oglio SJ who was abducted in Syria a year ago.
We Jesuits still espouse the land rights of indigenous peoples. We still think it important to take seriously local cultures and spiritualities when evangelizing. We still educate all sorts of people, including some who are rich and powerful. Many politicians still think we are meddling priests. And we still get into trouble occasionally. But for the moment both the white and black popes are one of us. Now that is a turn-up for the books. And no one any longer talks about Clement’s ludicrous claim that his decree was “always and for ever valid”. So please do raise a glass to the Jesuits on Thursday, and don’t hold us responsible for everything done by our alumni who occupy the modern equivalents of the imperial courts.