Absolute Role Models: What Role did the Jesuits Play in the
Reformation of the Catholic Church?

Throughout its history, the Catholic church faced innumerable queries in the way it went about its business, both organizationally and spiritually. But the challenges of the late 15th and early 16th centuries were of such magnitude that the survival of the Catholic church itself may have been at stake. This period came to be known as the Reformation—a time of protracted questioning of certain church practices and many of its fundamental teachings. It was during the middle of the 16th century that a religious order, the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, came into being. As strong believers that the Catholic church was the church of God, and firmly grounded in their vows of absolute obedience to the Pope, what better tool was there than the Jesuits to counter these “demands for change”, possibly leading to the dissolution of their beloved church? In order to understand the role played by the Jesuits in this scenario, there must be an understanding of the Jesuits’ formation, along with their beliefs and mission, the reformers’ major concerns and results of their actions, and lastly, the accomplishments of the Jesuits in countering this reform.

The crux of Jesuit belief and mission is revealed through the life and teachings of its founder, Ignatius Loyola, who “was born most probably in 1491. He came into a nation about to enter into its period of characteristic greatness, for the year 1492 in Spain saw such notable events as the surrender of Granada to the Catholic Kings, the expulsion of the Jews, and Columbus’s discovery of the new world” (Foss 61). These events are mentioned to emphasize that this historical setting was rife for fostering liberal risk-taking. On the other hand, a catholic may have cared little about worldly events, especially if these events were not thought to be in furtherance of spiritual life.

The Jesuit leader Loyola’s path in life, however, seemed to have followed both of these theoretical assumptions, for he was a gallivanting, overbearing, chivalrous man in his youth, and a righteous, disciplined man dedicated to serving God in his maturity. In describing Ignatius Loyola’s life as a young man, Michael Foss wrote:

The document known as his Confessions, which he dedicated in the severe
third person to Gonzales de Camara after 1553, dismisses his early years in
one sentence: ‘Up to twenty-six years of age he was a man given to the
vanities of the world and his chief delight was in martial exercises with a
great and vain desire to gain honour’(qtd. in Foss 64).

It was during his later years upon committing himself to follow a spiritual and holy life, that he began formation of the Jesuits. At first, Ignatius had a small following comprised of a few men willing to follow his example and instructions. He penned his “Principle and Foundations” theory which began, “Man was created to praise, do reverence to and serve God Our Lord, and thereby to save his soul” (Foss 93). So that his followers would understand the main premise of “serving the Lord” and also to remind them of their responsibility and accountability for spreading the word of the Lord.

It was this type of thinking that may have lead Ignatius Loyola to write the Spiritual Exercises, “. . . a book of instructions on prayer and the life of the spirit” (Dwyer 265). In order to participate in the Exercises, one had to take a vow of obedience. Furthermore, the Exercises included physical rituals, occasionally harsh but necessary, so that the participant could personalize true suffering. Without a doubt, this served further to inculcate upon the individual’s mind never to forget the vow of absolute obedience and allegiance to God. Loyola surely utilized Exercises also to strengthen the hold or bond of these like-thinkers. Later, after some early followers began to fall away, Ignatius, according to Foss, “learned to make the Exercises both an encouragement towards the spiritual life, and test of aptitude for the particular kind of religious activity that Ignatius wanted” (Foss 92).

Not only was Loyola’s plan for the Jesuits to serve God, but since he considered man a “server at the divine feast, and as a server he is called upon to accept orders”, he demanded that his followers “receive direction from the Church, a human agency but divinely inspired” (Foss 98). This mandate was taken from his belief that “the Church held an extraordinary exalted position, and therefore its authority was limitless and absolute” (Foss 98). At the end of the Exercises were a series of rules, the “Rules of Thinking”, which helped the Jesuits to reinforce the concept of absoluteness. The one rule that could not be breached if the Jesuits were to succeed against the reformers, was the ninth rule: “to praise in fine all precepts of the church, holding the mind ready to find reasons in her defense and nowise in her offence”(Foss 98). This was a Jesuit’s raison d’ être.

As Jesuit membership grew, the rapidly changing times brought forth Church reformist concerns, now being expressed even more vehemently. It was Papal indifference to the reform movement that fanned the flames of reformer thought. According to Martin P. Harney, S.J., in The Jesuits in History, Dr. Pastor, historian of the Papacy, was correct when he said “With the exception of the period which witnessed the transformation of the pagan into the Christian world, the history of mankind hardly offers one more striking than that of the transition from the Middle Ages to modern times” (qtd. in Harney 1). This period saw the waning of feudal life and the beginning of a more mobile, urban society. This transitional period was also a time of rapid intellectual enlightenment for anyone inclined and may have given impetus to those who sought to reform the Catholic Church’s status quo.

Initially, the question of the church’s abuse of wealth loomed largely as the most important factor in the reformist movement. In terms of wealth, the distance between the upper and lower classes was widening. This more than anything, magnified the opulence in which the papacy was operating and likely exaggerated the abuse itself. Since the already wealthy church, due in large part to its immense land holdings, “particularly in the German Empire” (Harney 6), ending the abuses, those centered on the practices of awarding indulgences and benefices, became a prime issue with the reformist.

The selling of indulgences by the church was the practice of “offering to those who had performed some good work a remission in whole or in part of the pains of purgatory which remained to be paid after death” (Dwyer 210). This tradition slowly evolved into a monetary contribution to the church in substitution for the actual performance of some good work.

Benefices, on the other hand, were large monetary stipends, given to select churchmen which were to be used for supporting their church work. The initial intent of benefices was the equal distribution of money by bishops among their priests for use in teaching about the spiritual life. However, by hiring lay people to perform priestly duties for a fraction of these disbursed funds, many church administrators kept the remaining money, thereby accumulating great wealth. Unfortunately, these lay priests were often unfamiliar with church doctrine and scripture; this resulted in inferior religious teachings to Catholics.

The lack of bonafide, knowledgeable clergy only served to impact a more important issue—the need to fill effectively the religious void being felt in the church. Harney describes this void by stating, “While it must be admitted there were evils and abuses in some religious houses, it can also be established that vigorous efforts were made during the period to restore primitive observance and discipline” (3). Many scholars and theologians of the period not only began challenging the practice of indulgences and the abuse of them, but also seemed to center their enthusiasm on changes in church function. How this change might affect the status of the empire was of little importance, since “the empire itself was beset with the self-consciousness of rising ethnic and national feelings” (Dillenberger xi).

One theologian totally disenchanted with the church’s direction was the German, Martin Luther, who felt, according to Dillenberger in Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings (1962), that “the declared views of the church had to be taken seriously or consciously modified” (xvi). Although there were other well-known reformers during this period, Martin Luther had the greatest impact on the Catholic Church.

It was the posting of Luther’s Ninety-five Theses “on the Castle church door in 1517, in the hope of precipitating a debate on the system of indulgences” (Dillenberger xix), that gave him the necessary catalyst for reform. What Luther had not counted on but may have rejoiced in, was the invention of the printing press; this resulted in a wider distribution of his Theses. As a consequence of these mass printings, those who had held similar beliefs without voicing them, joined Luther in establishing a strong opposition to the church. This opposition, coupled with the ongoing efforts of other reformers, subsequently led to the creation of the Protestant movement, and later, the Lutheran church.

Martin Luther’s movement eventually was credited with causing the rift in the Catholic Church, but there were other reformist groups led by John Wyclif, Vincent Ferrer, Savonrola, Huldrych Zwingle, John Calvin, and John Knox, to name a few, who effected catholic reform in most of northern Europe. In England, France, Ireland, Scotland, Switzerland, and the German lands, the Reformation had manifested itself in different ways, but “the form which it took and the way in which it developed reflected the unique religious and political history of each country” (Dwyer 259).

The papacy throughout this time did not listen to the cries of the reformers. Too many church leaders had miscalculated the seriousness of the reformist movement. Some were just adamantly opposed to change. Whatever the case may have been, it was too late—the damage had been done. Because of the church’s enormous following throughout all European lands, there was still hope. The papacy had decided to use its only remaining options to counter these reformists. In order to recover lost ground, the Catholic Church had to launch a counter-attack against the reformers and their preachings. The church would have to show the world that it was still Peter’s church. therefore, the true church.

A visual sign that some effort was being made to restore the church’s supremacy was the increase in the number of cathedrals being erected as testimony to the “power of the Catholic Church” (Harney 3). Harney describes the construction of these cathedrals or churches as, “one manifestation of religious fervor.” He continues by stating, “As regards the religious spirit of the people, great zeal manifested in the performance of religious devotions. All life was permeated by an atmosphere of devotion and profound piety” (3).

In addition to constructing great churches and cathedrals at that time, but certainly not by plan, was the construction of the “charitable institutions, hospitals, orphanages,
. . .” (Harney 4). The building of these institutions dedicated to caring for the sick, lame, or unwanted was another manifestation of religion. This was clear testimony of man’s compassion for his fellow man as each progressed through this restoration of spiritual life.

Obviously, opulent cathedrals and charitable institutions were not enough to bring back those who had left the church or for that matter, to cause a gain in new converts. There had to be a stronger influence, both personal and institutional. The church was now in dire need of help if it was going to stop the ever-increasing exodus from its portals. It was at this crucial time that Paul III, the incumbent Pope, decided to enlist the help of the Jesuits for a twofold reason: to stop the reformists and to regain lost territory.

What could the Jesuits do to restore the damage already done by the Reformation and to begin the reconciliation process throughout Europe? They could use their training, faith, and devotion to initiate their first bout with the opposition. It was with great forethought that Ignatius Loyola had established an organizational structure within the Jesuit order which lent itself to the work still ahead. Loyola established Jesuit provinces in each country experiencing the effects of the Reformation. Each province was overseen by a Jesuit priest, who had proven his worth as an organizer and a teacher, but more importantly, a servant of God.

Loyola sent Peter Canasius to the German lands, Francis Borgia to Spain, Maldonatus to France, and Alonso Salmeron to Italy.. These men were well-respected by the imperial nobility, theologians, and by scholars alike. This strategic move of Loyola’s was brilliant in that a strong Jesuit was poised directly in the midst of the reformist homefront, where he could challenge directly the voices of the heretics. Later on Loyola would send Jesuits into other areas including England, Ireland, Portugal, and Scotland.
All the while, these Jesuits exemplified true Christian living by the example they set in their service to God, caring for the poor, and ministering to the unfaithful. This certainly made it easier for the Jesuits to convert new disciples to the Catholic Church and to bring back many of those who had left!

Loyola always believed that if the church was to survive it would have to raise the literacy level of the masses. In order to accomplish this, the Jesuits continued to recruit men not only willing to accept the vows of the order, but also men of extraordinary intellectual background. The Jesuits founded their own schools and colleges to ensure that this educational focus would be maintained. They also wanted to have a steady influx of reinforcements to continue the great tradition.

Another Jesuit tactic to counter the Reformation was the deliberate gaining of favor with the nobility; they used this to their full advantage. Jesuits, greatly admired by many, were asked to be the confessors of the elite, thus gaining their confidence and friendship. As an example, Harney claims that the French king, “Henry III made him [Edmund Auger] his confessor” (134). After solidifying the trust of the monarchy, it was easy for Jesuits to accomplish their work without fear of retribution. This gaining of favor with the elite also ensured an unending flow of resources for the Jesuits to establish more schools.

The Jesuits also found favor with many popes. Harney cites one such example of pontifical partiality: “The Pontiff [Pius V] bestowed many favors on the order . . .[he] endowed the fathers with the right to teach at Universities and to confer degrees, sanctioned their exemption from capitular government, and declared the Society a mendicant order with the consequent privileges” (124). This meant that the order was free to beg for alms and to use these monies as they wished. Even the upper class were approached by the Jesuits for monetary contributions. The Jesuits often utilized these monies to travel from town to town, always spreading the gospel and doing charitable works which often resulted in recruiting more converts.

This apostolic approach to spreading the teachings of Catholicism was further enhanced when a Belgian Jesuit, Jean Leunis, founded the first sodality. A sodality was a lay society or community formed for devotional and mutual aid purposes. By forming these sodalities throughout Europe, the Jesuits had unwittingly developed a special “tool” to perpetrate the spread of Catholicism with minimum effort. Martin Harney acknowledges the influence of sodalities in this excerpt:

Wherever the Jesuits went, in the schools and parishes, they organized sodalities; which received a warm welcome from the people. Such was the growth of these organizations that within 13 years there were 30,000 sodalities; in some cities the various sodalities of students, laborers, merchants, professional men and priests numbered from seven to twenty” (129).

This concept was exactly what the church needed to counter the Reformation. The Jesuit shepherds had labored tirelessly and were bringing the sheep back to the fold. The tide was even turning against the “heretic” reformers.

Although the Reformation had taken its toll on the Catholic Church, the church had survived. The Jesuits truly played a vital role in this survival. At times the road they traveled in this pursuit was a rough one. These “soldiers of God” were often victims of jealous competing religious orders, targets of the reformists, and despite their absolute obedience to the Holy See, even the recipients of persecution by some of the same Popes who had employed them. Despite many obstacles, the Jesuits exceeded Loyola’s expectations for his humble order. Noteworthy Jesuits with descriptions of their significant accomplishments are too numerous to mention in this composition. Suffice it to say that with perseverance, intellect, and faith, the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, played a critical role in helping to stem the tide of the opposition during the Reformation of the Catholic Church.

In short, the much-maligned, challenged, and divided Church had gained enough time for healing and recovery.

Works Cited

Dillenberger, John. Martin Luther: Selections From His Writings. New York:
Anchor Books/Doubleday, 1962.
Dwyer, John C. Church History: Twenty Centuries of Catholic Christianity. New York:
Paulist Press, 1985.
Foss, Michael. The Founding of the Jesuits. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1969
Harney, Martin P., S. J. The Jesuits in History. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1962.
















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