The order of the Jesuits (society of Jesus, societas Jesu, SJ) was founded by Ignatius de Loyola in 1540 and has been proved by many popes at different times.
The order did never belong to the “classical monastic-orders”, because Ignatius looked at the people of his time and asked the question: What will help them more to live a life of faith?
He came to the conclusion, that the people needed educated and, at the same time, poor (which means: independent, free) priests, who would travel to the people, wherever they may be. Priests, who are prepared to be sent all over the world, and, accustomed to given cultural circumstances,to preach the Gospel – or, as Ignatius would have said: “adiuvare animas”, to help the souls. Today we would say: To help the people to reach their final target.
That is why the members of this society would have been hindered by monastic habits, by chanting the divine office daily ("Jesuita non cantat" = Jesuits do not sing) and, of course, the lifelong stay in a monastery. That is why the Jesuits are no monks, they lack these three classical features.
The order was growing fast – what Ignatius considered to be a problem – and was sent all over the world by popes and worldly rulers, who demanded their help.
The order is not, however, an order of the “anti-reformation” as is still believed widely, today – this was just the “natural”, the normal main task in northern Europe, and the Church as well as catholic kings and other royalties asked the help of the order of the Jesuits. This was a new order, who followed the demands of kings and bishops all over the world, mainly to solve critical situations and give education to everyone, who wanted it.
The Jesuits just realised what was missing in society: education! That is why they became famous for their higher schools of humanistic education. In 1556, the year Ignatius died, there were 24 colleges, where 300 Jesuits (out of a total of 1.000!) gave lessons to pupils.
In 1580, there were 5.000 Jesuits offering pastoral services all over Europe, in Japan, India, Africa and Latin America. There were 144 colleges, with about 10 to 15 “patres” teaching at each of them. Only 50 years later the number of colleges had grown to 444. When the order was banned by the Pope in 1773, there were 869 institutions of education closed down, which had served education in many ways.
There were some missionaries of the society of Jesus, which have become famous. E.g. Franz Xaver, who travelled already in 1541 from Lisbon to India, reaching Japan, but never made it to China. Three years after his death (1552) the first Jesuit stepped on Chinese soil. His most famous descendant is Matteo Ricci SJ (1552 – 1610), who was employed at the court of the Chinese Emperor thanks to his high qualifications in maths and astronomy. Like Ricci and Adam Schall von Bell SJ in China, Robert de Nobili SJ worked in India and Alexandre de Rhodes SJ in what today is known as Vietnam and Cambodia. Because of an internal Church conflict about rites, these promising missions came to an end. The VAT II did accept many of the pastoral methods then.
The “State of the Jesuits” in Latin America, the so called “Reductions of Paraguay”, existed for 170 years – 100 years longer than the Bolshevistic communism! In it there were 70 villages, in which around 200.000 Indians lived in inner peace and enormous prosperity. These villages were large agricultural communities, with a transition from Stone Age to the Baroque – they were singing splendid choirs, were playing the matching instruments and were building baroque churches. The Jesuits were speaking the language of the Indians. The end of it came from outside …
Enforced by the “catholic powers” Portugal, Spain, France and Naples the order was banned in 1773 by the Pope. As the king of Prussia and the russian Tsarina did not publish this decree, the order continued to live in these territories. In 1814, the order was revived again by the pope. Its tight connection to the papacy has given the order much opposition (“Kulturkampf”, in Switzerland, Norway, and others).
Jesuits have always worked in many areas of both church and society: in spirituality, in literature, in architecture, in theatre and music, in theology and philosophy, in social sciences, in history and natural science, and, of course, in the education system: In 1990 there were 6.000 Jesuits teaching in more than 700 schools, colleges and universities in 65 countries.
Today, the Jesuits have declined from its peak (36.000 around 1963) to 19.000 members. They take part in the common condition of the Church. They are engaged with all areas of social work (fugitive service, social postulate, migration service), with education (schools, universities, natural sciences), with media (film, television), and with dialogue between the religions (orthodox, Islam, Hinduism), and much more.
Today, there are 126 Jesuit provinces (regional districts). In Germany there is only one eine Jesuit Province , its central is located in Munich. The Father Provincial is R. P. Stefan Dartmann SJ. There are 36 houses/colleges/schools in this province, plus three in Denmark and two in Sweden. The German province as far as possible also supervises the missions in Japan, Indonesia and Zimbabwe.
The General Superior of the Society is R.R.P. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach SJ. The General Office of the order is in Rome
Literature about the Jesuits:
André Ravier SJ, Echter Verlag, Würzburg 1982 „Ignatius von Loyola gründet die Gesellschaft Jesu“
Peter Dinzelbacher / James Lester Hogg (Hrsg) „Kulturgeschichte der christlichen Orden“ (Artikel von Falkner SJ), Kröner Verlag Suttgart, 1997
James Brodrick SJ „Abenteurer Gottes, Leben u Fahrten des hl.Franz Xaver“ G. Kilpper Verlag Stuttgart, 1954
Christoph Wrembek SJ „Jesuiten in Estland“, Vortrag zum 400. Todestag von Joh.Esto SJ, gehalten am 30.8.2003 in Tartu.