A Jesuit Call To Arms

Avery Cardinal Dulles in his Fall 2006 Laurence J. McGinley lecture compared the challenges Jesuits faced during their birth in the sixteenth century with the challenges they face now in the twenty-first. In concluding his lecture, Cardinal Dulles calls on his fellow Jesuits to regain the holy zeal for Christ and His Church that was theirs in centuries past. Quoted from Church and Society (Fordham University Press 2008):

The challenges of our day are certainly different from those of the sixteenth century, but they are, I bleieve, analogous, and for this reason, I would contend, the Society is well positioned to deal with them. Its charism is by no means outdated…

The sixteenth century, like our own, was a time of rapid and radical cultural change. That time witnessed the rise of anthropocentric humanism, the birth of the secular State, and the autonomy of the social and physical sciences. Jesuits who have studied their own tradition have stellar examples of scholars who equipped themselves to enter into these new fields and show the coherence between the new learning and the Catholic heritage of faith…

The sixteenth century, as the age of great discovery, had early experiences of globalization. Eager to evangelize the whole world, Jesuits were leaders in the missionary apostolate to the Americas, to parts of Africa, to India and the Far East. They not only sent missionaries but also trained them to present the gospel in a manner suited to the cultures of various peoples. Francis Xavier is the most famous, but he was by no means alone…

Proclamation in an accommodated style is not less needed today than in the past. The fields are white for the harvest, but the laborers are few. Who can better fill the urgent demand for priests to proclaim the gospel and administer the sacraments in continents like Africa, where conversions to Christianity are so numerous and rapid? Indigenous Jesuits in the young churches, if they are well trained, can take up the task left to them by foreign missionaries…

The sixteenth century saw the division of Western Christianity between the Protestant nations of northern Europe and the Catholic nations of the south. The Jesuits, few though they were in number, accomplished great things by their energy and heroism. Peter Faber did extraordinary work to stem the tide of heresy in Germany and the Low Countries. He inspired Peter Canisius and a host of others to go forward in his footsteps. One wonders what the Jesuits of those days would do if they were alive today to see the defection of so many Latino Catholics from the Church in the United States and in Central and South America. The need is evident; the principles are clear, but there are all too few talented candidates to take up the task…

A great weakness of the Church in Europe of Saint Ignatius’ day was ignorance of the faith. Many priests were barely literate, and the laity in some countries did not know the basic elements of the creed. Rather than complain and denounce, Ignatius preferred to build. Popular education, he perceived, was on the rise. Taking advantage of the new desire for learning, Ignatius quickly set about founding schools, colleges, and seminaries. The pedagogical efforts of the Jesuits in the past count among their greatest services to the Church. Their educational institutions, I believe, are still among the major blessings that the Society of Jesus offers to the Church and to the culture at large.

Jesuits in the past have entered deeply into the intellectual apostolate. Many were leaders in practical sciences such as political theory… The Church needs loyal and devoted scholars who will carry this kind of reflection further, in view of new and developing situations. Here again the Society has much to contribute if sufficient numbers will hear the call…

The Society can be abreast of the times if it adheres to its original purpose and ideals. The term Jesuit is often misunderstood. Not to mention enemies for whom Jesuit is a term of opprobrium, friends of the Society sometimes identify the term with independence of thought and corporate pride, both of which Saint Ignatius deplored. Others reduce the Jesuit trademark to a matter of educational techniques, such as the personal care of students, concern for the whole person, rigor in thought, and eloquence of expression. These qualities are estimable and have a basis in the teaching of Saint Ignatius. But they omit any consideration of the fact that the Society of Jesus is an order of vowed religious in the Catholic Church. They are bound by special allegiance to the pope, the bishop of Rome. And above all, it needs to be mentioned that the Society of Jesus is primarily about a person: Jesus, the Redeemer of the world. If the Society were to lose its special devotion to the Lord (which, I firmly trust, will never happen) it would indeed be obsolete. It would be like salt that had lost its savor.

The greatest need of the Society of Jesus, I believe, is to be able to project a clearer vision of its purpose. Its members are engaged in such diverse activities that its unity is obscured. In this respect the recent popes have rendered great assistance. Paul VI helpfully reminded Jesuits that they are a religious order, not a secular institute; that they are a priestly order, not a lay association; that they are apostolic, not monastic, and that they are bound to obedience to the pope, not wholly self-directed.

Pope John Paul II, in directing Jesuits to engage in the new evangelization, identified a focus that perfectly matches the founding idea of the Society. Ignatius was adamant in insisting that it be named for Jesus, its true head. The Spiritual Exercises are centered on the Gospels. Evangelization is exactly what the first Jesuits did as they conducted missions in the towns of Italy. They lived lives of evangelical poverty. Evangelization was the sum and substance of what Saint Francis Xavier accomplished in his arduous missionary journeys. And evangelization is at the heart of all Jesuit apostolates in teaching, in research, in spirituality, and in the social apostolate. Evangelization, moreover, is what the world most sorely needs today. The figure of Jesus Christ in the Gospels has not lost its attraction. Who should be better qualified to present that figure today than members of the Society that bears his name?


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