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
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.