Jesuits evangelize the world

Anton Günther Gheringh: Interior of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, 1665

Peter Paul Rubens: The Miracles of St Francis Xavier, 1617/1618

The first missionaries go out into the world and bring tales of faraway countries back to Europe.

Anton Günther Gheringh: Interior of the Jesuit church in Antwerp, 1665

Peter Paul Rubens: The Miracles of St Francis Xavier, 1617/1618

In most European cities many new Catholic orders, churches, monasteries, and educational institutions were founded to serve as instruments of the Counter-Reformation. Probably the most influential order during the phase of re-Catholicization was that of the Jesuits. Founded in 1534 by Ignatius von Loyola and his consorts, the Society of Jesus was recognized as a Holy Order by the Pope in 1540. One of its duties was absolute and unconditional obedience to the Pope, and its members were chosen after close observation according to their dedication in the performance of spiritual exercises. Soon there were Jesuit foundations in most European cities. Apart from providing spiritual guidance, the Jesuits were especially concerned with the education of the young, founding a large number of schools and universities or reforming existing institutions in keeping with Jesuit doctrines. In 1552 Ferdinand I summoned them to Vienna and soon afterwards to Graz, putting university education in their hands. During the sixteenth century, Jesuit universities became among the best in Europe. Jesuit confessors were part of many European dynastic households, such as that of the Habsburgs, and their political influence could no longer be overlooked. In contrast to the Lutherans, the Jesuits celebrated high Church feast days with lavish and costly processions and spectacles in order to strengthen the religiosity of the common people and to increase their loyalty to the Roman Catholic Church. As promoters of Baroque art, the Jesuits commissioned many buildings, and with Jesuit theatre established their own specific tradition of counter-reformatory propaganda. As well as disseminating Catholic doctrine at home, they also undertook missionary journeys overseas. Sent by the colonial powers of Spain, Portugal and France, they spread their teachings in Japan, China, India, and America. The Jesuit missionary Francis Xavier was the first to bring information on Japan back to Europe around 1550.

Frequently Jesuits disagreed on the nature of their missionary duties, and a great deal of criticism came from their own ranks – the Bishop of Puebla, for instance, disapproved of the profit-seeking attitude of many missionaries. In the eighteenth century, the Jesuits were thrown out of Paraguay by Spain as they had been impeding its colonial ambitions there.

Anita Winkler