September 26, 2014


When the Jesuits were suppressed

History buffs like to note anniversaries. 2014, for example, is the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 50th anniversary of Pope Paul VI’s visit to the Holy Land and his meeting there with the Orthodox Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, and the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I.

It is also the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) by Pope Pius VII. We missed the actual date—on Aug. 7, 1814—but after 200 years, we’re close enough.

As we learned more than a year ago, our Holy Father, Pope Francis, was ordained a Jesuit priest in 1969.

The Jesuits were out of business for 41 years, after Pope Clement XIV suppressed the society in 1773. Why, you might ask, would a pope do such a thing since the Jesuits had been the strongest champions of the papacy since their founding by St. Ignatius of Loyola in 1534?

Needless to say, it was all politics. And the pope’s worst political enemies were among the Catholic rulers of Europe—the Bourbon family. It was precisely because the Jesuits were such staunch supporters of the pope that the Bourbons wanted to get rid of them. They demanded that the pope suppress the society.

In Spain, King Charles III ordered that some 6,000 Jesuits be rounded up and shipped to the papal states in present-day Italy in 1767.

Arguments over the “Jesuit question” were responsible for the papal conclave of 1769 lasting from February to May before Clement XIV was elected. He tried to smooth out difficulties with the countries ruled by the Bourbons, but succumbed to pressure and signed the brief Dominus ac Redemptor in 1773, suppressing the Jesuits throughout the world.

The Jesuits had played important roles in the Church in the United States. The North American Martyrs, killed by the Iroquois Indians, were led by Jesuit priests, St. Jean de Brebeuf and St. Isaac Jogues. Father John Carroll, who would become our country’s first bishop and archbishop, was a Jesuit priest when the society was suppressed.

Things changed in Europe after the Jesuits were suppressed. There was the French Revolution, followed by Napoleon’s reign and his wars against other countries. He thought he could destroy the papacy when he took Pope Pius VI prisoner. The pope died in the citadel at Valence, France on July 13, 1799. Since Napoleon occupied the papal states, he thought that the cardinals would be unable to elect a new pope.

However, Pope Pius VI had left instructions for holding the next conclave in emergency conditions. In 1800, the cardinals met in Venice, which was under Austrian protection, and elected Luigi Chiaramonte, who took the name Pope Pius VII. He tried to get along with Napoleon, even traveling to Paris in 1804 for his coronation.

Those efforts failed, though, and in 1809 Napoleon again occupied Rome and annexed what was left of the papal states. The pope was taken as a prisoner to France where he remained for almost five years until his release early in 1814, when Napoleon was defeated and exiled to Elba.

Pope Pius VII restored the Jesuits soon after his release from prison. That there was anything left to restore is thanks, ironically enough, to Empress Catherine II of Russia. She was not a friend of the Catholic Church, but she refused to allow the publication of Pope Clement’s brief of suppression and ordered that the Jesuits in Russia were to continue in existence. They continued to function in Byelorussia (now Belarus) and maintained their corporate existence there.

In 1990, the 500th anniversary of the birth of St. Ignatius of Loyola and the 450th anniversary of the approval of the Society of Jesus, St. John Paul II wrote an apostolic letter in which he mentioned the suppression of the society. Then, he said, “However, by the wonderful plan of Providence, the society survived in Byelorussia, and it was to rise again thanks to the decision of Pius VII of happy memory who thought … that the severely storm-tossed barque of Peter should no longer be deprived of the valiant aid of such skilled oarsmen.”

Today, the Jesuits are the largest single religious order of priests and brothers, with 17,200 members, although they are outnumbered by the three major Franciscan orders. We pray that the Jesuits—and all religious communities—continue to be beacons of faith eager to spread the Gospel throughout the world.

—John F. Fink

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