Gerard F. Kennedy Writer

non-fiction / 1996

A Mystical Odyssey

This is my review of ‘The Jesuit Mystique’, by Douglas Letson & Michael Higgins, published by Harper Collins, 1996.  This review first appeared in ‘The Cork Examiner’ in 1996.

A Mystical Odyssey

‘You were not born to live as a mere brute does/but for the pursuit of knowledge and good’.  For his humanism Ulysses is condemned to death as a thief and must suffer in hell.  So reveals Dante’s 14th Century poem ‘Inferno’ as Ulysses, celebrating the dignity of man, speaks to his sailors.  The God of the ‘Inferno’ has precious little compassion and no forgiveness.

The Society if Jesus was founded, we are told, by St Ignatius of Loyola in 1540 and since that date the Society has contributed, unstintingly and in the face of adversity, to education, literature, academic life, and spirituality on a world stage.  During the sixteenth century Christian society, as well as being torn by military conflict and political strife, was marked by huge discrepancies between rich and poor, the learned and the educated, the powerful and the week.  It would seem that very little has changed in the last three hundred years.
Ignatius’s Society was deeply religious.  This must have been challenging given that scandals involving priests and indeed popes were rife.  Against this background The Society of Jesus was formed and set out to ‘help souls’ and ‘to minister to the total well-being of the human individual through the spiritual and corporal works of the mercy evident in the life of Christ and in the apostolic tradition.’

Ignatius was born in the Basque region of Northern Spain in 1491.   He discarded his wealthy and prestigious birthright to embark upon a spiritual pilgrimage, following in the footsteps of Christ, with Jerusalem as his ultimate destination.  It was during this journey, at Manresa, that he had a series of apparitions.  As a result he wrote his ‘Spiritual Exercises’, a handbook on spirituality which is still used as a standard text.

The Society colonised Paraguay in 1588 and managed to convert the Guarani Indians.  By 1767 thirty missions had been built with a total population if 100,000.  This episode formed the basis of the film ‘The Mission’.  Some of the ruins of the vast buildings constructed by the Jesuits are preserved at Trinidad outside Enarnacion.

Closer to home the Jesuits has played, and continues to play, a major role in the Irish education system.  In 1883 the Society took over the Catholic University in Dublin.  This establishment was presided over by, reputedly, one of the most effective Catholic educators in Ireland, Fr William Delany.  In 1879 the Universities Bill provided for support of ‘University College’, the name by which it is known today.  Another influential Jesuit, Gerard Manley Hopkins, held the Chair of Classics.  James Joyce, although he rejected their teachings, retained his conviction of the skill of his ‘Jesuit Masters’.  Joyce is recorded as saying, “I don’t think you will easily find anyone to equal them.”  His father John described the Jesuits as ‘the gentlemen of Catholic education’, and the Christian Brothers ‘its drones’.

The Jesuits education establishment, renowned worldwide, encouraged and promoted ‘debate, disputation and public defence of contentious theses’.  With their formidable oratorical style, public discourse and debate developed into a dramatic idiom and the ‘Jesuit Productions’, usually performed in Latin, attracted even royalty.  From their monthly debates the dramas progressed to encompass Classical Aristotelian liberation; ‘drama could not only inculcate self-confidence and style in the orator (be he twelve or twenty), but could move the frequently teary-eyed audiences to avoid vice and to encourage virtue’.

The Society of Jesus will celebrate its five hundredth anniversary in the year 2040 that is if it survives the pressures and assaults of the modern world and the profound changes in the attitudes to religion and ‘The Church’ in general.  From a membership of 36,000 in 1968 we are informed that the order has experienced a dramatic reduction in numbers to 23,000 in 1995.  It has been predicted that, based upon the current intake of novices and allowing for natural depletion of an ageing confraternity, the membership will have fallen to 14,800 by the year of its anniversary.  Although it a time of crisis for The Society we are told that the future is not bleak.  After all The Society has experienced more exacting periods in its long existence.  Its ability to survive may well be its saving grace.

The text is presented in six chapters with a comprehensive source list and index.  Chapter IV – Jesuit as Modern Servant – provides an account of how the modern-day-Jesuit is confronting issues such as AIDS and how he is dealing with issues, currently being raised by cosmologists, concerning the physical universe.

From the evidence of this work Letson and Higgins have a challenging future.  The authors have collaborated on a number of previous publications including ‘Women and the Church: A source book’.

The book is recommended as a well-researched and detailed thesis on The Society of Jesus.  The text, whilst academic, is accessible.  The authors have written a fascinating and revealing account of one of the most influential religious orders within the Catholic Church.

‘Behold the face of the Jesuit; behold the mystique.’