When the news of the final suppression of the Society of Jesus in 1773 reached young Fr. John Carroll in Bruges, Belgium, he was crushed. He wrote home, "The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God, would be immediate death."
The suppression was no surprise. For 15 years, the society's enemies, charging heresy, malign influence and lax moral theology, had persecuted the society in Spain, Portugal and France. Finally, the monarchies had convinced Pope Clement XIV to "put out of existence" the Society of Jesus.
Carroll could not have foreseen that this was God writing straight with crooked lines. As an ex-Jesuit, Carroll became the first American bishop, and held both the American remnant of the society together and adapted European Catholicism to American democracy.
From the beginning, Jesuits were trained to accept a form of death, either in sacrificing one's will through the vow of obedience or as martyred missionaries. Of the 22,500 Jesuits in 1773, at most 600 were on hand for the restoration, an event that saw its 200th anniversary this year.
By the time the society was restored in 1814, many Jesuits had died, others had become diocesan priests or joined one of the orders founded to absorb them, while others had left the priesthood. About 200 had continued as Jesuits in Russia, where Catherine the Great had refused to publish the pope's edict.
But a lot of tradition fades in 40 years, and although the membership soared to 8,000 within 50 years of its restoration and peaked at 36,000 in 1964, the society, following great losses, had to reform itself.
Both the restored Jesuits and the Vatican were slow to grasp what had changed with the American and French revolutions. The new middle class replaced the old landed aristocracy. "The papacy longed for the old feudal monarchical system, where governing was by 'divine right,' and where they were spiritual and political overlords," said a July article in The New Leader, a Catholic publication based in India.
Meanwhile persecutions continued, as European Jesuits from Italy, France, Germany and Belgium fled to America throughout the 19th century. The 20 Jesuits of pre-suppression Maryland were 500 by 1860. Loyola University Chicago opened in 1870 with a staff of 20, including one American.
This, to a degree, solved the manpower shortage, but immigrant professors usually want to teach what they have been taught. As late as 1907, at Canisius College in Buffalo, N.Y., heart of the German mission, Fr. John LaFarge taught English, Greek and Latin there. But tension was high. German Jesuits wanted to plant German culture on the American frontier, while Anglo-American Irish Jesuits wanted to adapt to republican values in American culture and teach science.
Meanwhile, Jesuit immigrants were slow to master English, and the schools had to hire lay professors. Despite this, in 1892 the Jesuit journal Woodstock Letters depicts two young Jesuits imagining a future when Jesuits are 100 percent of the staff.
Jesuit zeal to replicate the pre-suppression system in new soil shut the society off from the booming culture around it. By then, public education had divided into eight years of grammar school, four of high school, four of college, and then onto graduate school and a doctorate. The typical Jesuit curriculum went seven years, heavy on Latin, Greek, rhetoric and philosophy, plus one more for a master's, and they imagined their 13-year seminary course qualified them to be college professors. It was the 1950s before Fordham University, for example, had Jesuits with Ivy League doctoral degrees.
In 1936, Jesuit Fr. Samuel Wilson, president of Loyola University Chicago, wrote in Manners magazine, "The Jesuits are not modern at all." The society was restored, "but no man brought back from the grave ever completely forgets the agony of death, and the corporate body of the Jesuits has never quite forgotten the suppression. It is more cautious and conservative ... than the average corporate group which has existed several centuries."
The French historian Jean Lacouture in Jesuits: A Multibiography, wrote, "Vatican II rescued it from its 19th-century spinelessness."
In a typical American event, the turning point was the 1967 Land O'Lakes conference committing Catholic universities to academic freedom and establishing the principle of separate incorporation, in which lay trustees, not the religious order, owned the institution.
Next, Jesuit houses of formation moved to their university campuses; novices went from two years of isolation to experiments in Latin America.
With some debate about the legal implications, the society in Rome approved the transformation.
Occasionally, the ghost of the suppression reappeared. In 1981, after refusing to allow the ailing Superior General Pedro Arrupe to resign, the misinformed Pope John Paul II short-circuited the election of a successor and appointed his personal choice to rule the society. John Paul had been told that a third of the Jesuits would quit. In fact, they rolled with the punches, until, 18 months later, the pope allowed the society to call the 33rd General Congregation.
Arrupe had told the society that some would die if they were serious in their commitment to the poor. By 1980, 800 religious had been killed in Latin America. Nine years later, at the University of Central America in San Salvador, El Salvador, army troops dragged six Jesuits, their housekeeper and her daughter into the night and blew their brains out. At a memorial Mass, Jesuit Fr. Joseph O'Hare, defending the martyrs' political involvement, said political criticism is "most certainly the nature of a Catholic university. No university can isolate itself from the society in which it lives."
Today, the Society of Jesus has about 16,000 men. It combines provinces and cuts some projects, but expands into new works like the Jesuit Volunteer Corps, Jesuit Refugee Service, and the Cristo Rey high schools for poor neighborhoods. As fear falls, courage rises, and so does hope.
[Jesuit Fr. Raymond A. Schroth is literary editor of America and author of Bob Drinan: The Controversial Life of the First Catholic Priest Elected to Congress.]