Far Before Pope Francis, Jesuits Were Repressed By Some Roman Catholic Leaders

Mar 15, 2013
Originally published on July 16, 2014 5:32 pm

Pope Francis' status as the first Jesuit marks a momentous milestone in history. Relations between Jesuits and the Vatican have seen deep crises in the 479 years since the order was founded as humble missionaries.

Their growing power and monopoly over education generated suspicion and hostility around Europe.

In the 18th century, Jesuits were repressed by some of Europe's Catholic super-powers — Portugal, Spain, France. Emaciated, ragged Jesuit priests began roaming Europe, looking for refuge. Pressured by temporal powers, Pope Clement 14th jailed the Jesuits' leader, banned the order, closed their premises, and shared out their wine collection among his cardinals.

There were further tensions in the 20th century in Latin America, between the Polish anti-Soviet Pope John II and Jesuits in Latin America, who were seen as too doctrinally close to Marxists opposing military dictatorships there.

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And I'm Melissa Block. Much has been said about the fact that the new leader of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis, is the first from Latin America. We've also noted that Francis is the first Jesuit pope. In the U.S., Jesuits are well known for their schools and colleges. In Europe, though, they have sometimes had a rough ride. From Rome, NPR's Philip Reeves reports on Jesuits in history and what it means to them now to finally have their own man in the Vatican.

PHILIP REEVES, BYLINE: In the Chiesa del Gesu, visitors wander around, gazing up in hushed awe at the glorious frescoed ceilings. People have always flocked here. It's Rome's first Baroque church. Now, they have another reason. This is the mother church of the Jesuits, whose ranks now include a pope. Angelo Petrungaro, a local shopkeeper, is sitting on the church steps outside, relaxing during his lunch hour. He's delighted with Pope Francis.

Jesuits place great store on standing up for the poor and dispossessed. Petrungaro thinks in Italy these days, with turmoil in the church and government, that counts for something.

ANGELO PETRUNGARO: (Through Translator) I was incredibly happy when I saw the pope. I didn't expect it to be him, but I was really, really happy and...

REEVES: The Jesuits were founded in the 16th century as a humble order of missionaries. They were supposed to not seek top jobs in the Roman Catholic Church.

FATHER GERRY WHELAN: We take a vow not to ambition for ecclesiastical honors, so the pope has to intervene directly for a Jesuit to become a bishop.

REEVES: Father Gerry Whelan teaches theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, which was founded by Jesuits.

WHELAN: We always see ourselves as the kind of ancillary, sort of consultancy service. We're supposed to be able to try to help represent the Catholic Church on the frontiers of the church.

REEVES: That's not always been easy. A few centuries back, the Jesuits were actually suppressed by the Vatican. In 1773, Pope Clement XIV locked up their leader and banned the order. The pontiff did so under pressure from some of Europe's Catholic superpowers. Portugal, Spain and France at first persecuted, then banished Jesuits, leaving hordes of emaciated, bedraggled Jesuit priests wandering Europe in search of refuge.

John Julius Norwich, author of a history of the popes, believes this was deeply unfair to the Jesuits.

JOHN JULIUS NORWICH: There was sort of theory that they were a huge international operation, completely unscrupulous, hypocritical. They just became the general scapegoat. And I don't think there was any logical reason for it at all.

REEVES: Norwich says for a while, every atrocity seemed to be blamed on the Jesuits. The English accused them of masterminding their Gunpowder Plot, a failed attempt to blow up Parliament and kill King James I. Even today, for some Britons, the word Jesuit has a negative tinge.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: And I know somebody was making the point that actually the word's become synonymous through centuries with scheming. What is it, do you think? Is it a fear of Jesuits and why would that be?

FATHER MICHAEL HOLMAN: I don't think it's a fear of Jesuits. I think the press, the media like to polarize things and perhaps put a...

REEVES: That's Father Michael Holman, a Jesuit priest being interviewed by the BBC after Pope Francis was elected. A few decades back, the Jesuits' relations with the Vatican again ran into trouble. It was over the Jesuits' embrace, in Latin America, of liberation theology, a movement struggling for social justice in the face of repressive military dictatorships. Pope John Paul II feared this was Marxism by another name.

WHELAN: These were dramatic and painful times.

REEVES: Father Gerry Whelan says John Paul's views where shaped by his experience in his Polish homeland. Catholics there suffered greatly at the hands of Soviet Communism.

POPE FRANCIS: (Foreign language spoken)

REEVES: When Cardinal Jorge Bergoglia walked out onto the balcony as pope and addressed the multitude in St. Peter's Square, Jesuits were stunned and delighted.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Well, just personally, there's a joy, just at the style of his first few words. I feel we can recognize ourselves in that.

REEVES: Jesuits are hoping history will now be kinder to them, but the Roman Catholic Church is in crisis. Jesuits, too, have been badly tainted by child abuse scandals. Their first pope has a lot on his hands. Philip Reeves, NPR News, Rome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.