The Society of Jesus, more commonly known as the Jesuits, is a society within the Roman Catholic Church that was founded by Ignatius of Loyola and instituted by Pope Paul III. The Jesuit society demands four vows of its members: poverty, chastity, obedience to Christ, and obedience to the Pope. The purpose of the Jesuits is the propagation of the Catholic faith by any means possible.
Ignatius of Loyola was a Spanish nobleman and intended to have a career as a professional soldier. A cannonball shattered his leg in 1521, and his career was shattered with it. During his long recovery at the castle of Loyola, he spent much time reading religious books, fasting and praying. As a result of these studies, Ignatius decided to become a soldier of Christ, and hung up his sword at the altar of Mary in Montserrat. From 1522 to 1534, Loyola traveled to monasteries and schools, studying and praying in preparation for a life consecrated to Christ. Toward the end of his graduate studies at the University of Paris, he and six friends who had been meeting for times of extended prayer and meditation vowed to continue their companionship after graduation by living in evangelical poverty and traveling as missionaries to Jerusalem. When war between the Turks and Venice prevented their passage to Jerusalem, they determined to work in the cities of northern Italy. Loyola presented his plan for service to the Vatican and received a papal commission from Pope Paul III in 1540, with Loyola receiving a lifetime appointment as General.
With the threat of Islam spreading across the Mediterranean region, the Jesuits’ first focus was the conversion of Muslims. Shortly after the founding of the order, their focus shifted to counteracting the spread of Protestantism. The Counter-Reformation in the 16th and 17th centuries was largely due to the Jesuits. With their vows of total obedience to the Pope and their strict, military-style training, the Jesuits became feared across Europe as the “storm troopers” of the Catholic Church, and they led armies which recaptured large areas for the Roman Catholic Church. Along with the military actions, their work centered on education and missionary expansion, and by the end of Loyola’s life in 1556, there were Jesuits in Japan, Brazil, Ethiopia, and most parts of Europe. Many of the explorers of that period were accompanied by Jesuit priests, eager to bring Catholicism to new lands.
The Jesuits are still active in the world today, though the military actions of those early years have been left behind. The goal of spreading the Catholic faith is still their primary objective, and they do it through missionary work and education. As for their beliefs, they hold to the historic teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The practice of “Ignatian spirituality” follows the spiritual exercises of Ignatius Loyola and forms the foundation of their daily lives. The goal of these practices is to conquer and regulate the inner personal life so as to be submissive to God. One of the key practices is separation from all friends and acquaintances, in order to attend Mass and Vespers daily without interference. Another practice is deep and constant meditation on the sins that have been committed, so as to rouse intense sorrow for sins. To address all of their exercises would take far more space than this article allows.
As is the case with the Catholic Church in general, there is certainly an appearance of godliness and spirituality that is readily seen in the Jesuits. When we compare their beliefs and practices with the Bible, however, it would appear that they have “a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof” (2 Timothy 3:5, KJV). The difference between Roman Catholic belief and the biblical presentation of the gospel has been well phrased in a question “do or done?” What must I do to get to heaven (Catholicism), or what has Christ done to get me to heaven (biblical Christianity)?