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The Suppression and Restoration of the Jesuits

  • Why Was the Society of Jesus Suppressed?

  • Superiors General of the Restored Society of Jesus

  • The year 2005 will mark the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus in the United States. While the occasion will obviously be one of considerable significance for American Jesuits, some friends of the Society may be puzzled about just what occurred back in 1805 that is still a cause for celebration. As remote preparation for the anniversary this brief essay will try to foresee some of their questions and to provide a few general answers.

    Why was the Society of Jesus suppressed? The Society of Jesus, founded by St. Ignatius Loyola and his companions, was formally approved by Pope Paul III in the Bull Regimini militantis ecclesiae on September 27, 1540. Over the course of the next two centuries the Jesuits, through their schools and missions, played a major role in the history of the Church in Europe and the areas of the world just opening to European penetration. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, the Catholic monarchies of Portugal, Spain and France had grown increasingly hostile toward the Society. The loss of governmental favor can be partially explained by the rise to power of royal ministers who had been influenced by the Enlightenment and who were consequently unsympathetic toward organized religion and opposed in principle to schools conducted by priests. In addition, the activity of Jesuit missionaries, especially in gathering South American tribes into self-governing, defensible communities called reductions, was seen as an intolerable obstacle to the exploitative plans of mercantilist colonial governments. By 1770 the Jesuits had been expelled under the most brutal conditions from the domains of all the Catholic colonial powers. Finally, faced with a united front of the Catholic monarchs, Pope Clement XIV by the Brief Dominus ac redemptor on August 16, 1773 formally dissolved the Society of Jesus throughout the universal church.

    Why was the suppression of the Society never total? Because of unyielding opposition from several non-Catholic monarchs the papal brief could not be implemented in every European country. Czarina Catherine of Russia in particular was adamant in her refusal to allow its proclamation within her dominions and commanded her Jesuit subjects to continue their school work. Although suffering some qualms of conscience, the 200 or so Jesuits in the Polish and White Russian provinces of the Russian Empire had little option but to obey. By 1780 the Czarina had further managed to extort from Pius VI, Clement’s successor, approval of the opening of a novitiate and three years later she won verbal approval of the continued existence of the Society in Russia. To provide governance for this remnant of the old Society the Russian Jesuits elected three successive vicar-generals, Fr. Stanislaus Czerniewicz (1782-85), Fr. Gabriel Lenkiewicz (1785-98) and Fr. Franciszek Kareu (1799-1802). All three were Lithuanian.
    Czarina Catherine of Russia

    When was formal papal approval given to the Society in Russia? While the surviving Jesuits soldiered on in the schools of the Russian Empire, in western Europe the political world was being totally transformed by the French Revolution and the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte. On August 29, 1799 Pius VI had died in prison at Valence in France. His death was followed by the longest interregnum in modern papal history. Ten months passed before the cardinals were able to gather on the island of San Giorgio in the Venetian lagoon and elect a new pope, a Benedictine monk who took the name Pius VII. From the start he expressed to his advisors a determination eventually to restore the Society of Jesus. He first directed Fr. Kareu and his successors to take the title of superior general and then, on March 7, 1801, he issued the brief Catholicae fidei giving formal papal approval to the existence of the Society in Russia. Thus on the death of Fr. Kareu an Austrian, Fr. Gabriel Gruber, was elected General. Unfortunately in 1805 he died tragically in a fire in St. Petersburg. A Polish Jesuit Fr. Tadeusz Brzozowski was then elected to succeed him.

    John Carroll
    Archbishop John Carroll
    When did The Society return to America? Even before revolution and war swept over Europe the political and religious situation in America had been totally transformed. The success of the American War of Independence had forced the papacy to create an American hierarchy independent of British jurisdiction. Its first two bishops were ex-Jesuits, John Carroll and Leonard Neale. Bishop Carroll, moreover, was one of the first to recognize the favorable situation which the removal of British penal law and the religious freedom guaranteed by the new constitution offered the Church. Although he had been troubled by confused accounts of the canonical position of the Russian Jesuits, what he heard about the brief Catholicae Fidei raised his hopes that the Society might be resurrected in America and that he could with its help solve some of the problems of his own diocese. Unhappily his attempts to find out what had actually happened in Rome and Russia were frustrated for years by the complete unreliability of trans-Atlantic correspondence in that period. By the time he had established contact with Fr. Gruber in Russia, the Jesuits had already returned to much of Italy and to Britain.

    Finally, in a letter from St. Petersburg, dated March 12, 1804, Fr. Gruber granted the request of Bishop Carroll to readmit to the Society any former Jesuits in the United States who wished to return and to admit new members as well. The General also gave the Bishop authority to appoint a Jesuit superior for the United States. On June 21, 1805 he named as superior a former member of the Old Society Fr. Robert Molyneux. On August 18th in the old Jesuit parish church at St. Thomas’ Manor in Port Tobacco, MD Fr. Molyneux and Fr. Charles Sewall renewed the first vows which they had taken as scholastics in the Old Society. On that same day Fr. Charles Neale who had been a novice in Ghent at the Suppression pronounced vows for the first time. Fr. Molyneux with this act became the superior of the reconstituted Society in America and August 18th is generally accepted as that of the official restoration. Finally in October 1806 with the permission of Fr. General Brzozowski a novitiate with ten novices was opened at Georgetown. One of the Novices, Francis Neale, was named novice-master.

    When was the Society restored throughout the world? By 1805 it was clear that the suppression would eventually be undone. Yet no thought could be given to reconstruction of any kind while the Napoleonic Wars absorbed the energies of every country and left Europe devastated from Moscow to Lisbon. The Pope himself was forced once again into exile from Rome and imprisoned for two years at Fontainebleau. His return to Rome in 1814 after the fall of Napoleon was triumphant and one of his first acts on arrival was to restore at long last the Society throughout the universal Church. On August 7, 1814, almost exactly forty-one years to the day since Clement XIV’s brief suppressing the Society, Pius VII celebrated mass in the Gesú, the most famous Church of the old Society in Rome and then formally promulgated the bull of restoration, Sollicitudo omnium ecclesiarum. Pius VII
    Pope Pius VII

    Fr. Bangert in his History of the Society notes that Charles IV, the exiled former King of Spain, visited the Gesú several days after the promulgation of the Bull of restoration. His father’s government had been the principal architect of the suppression and Spanish treatment of the Jesuits had been the cruelest. In a gesture of reconciliation, however, the Spanish Jesuits in Rome greeted the elderly exile at the door of the Church. Fr. Bangert tells us, the king wept. At Georgetown overlooking the smoking ruins of the capital recently burned by the British the celebration was more low key. Fr. McElroy noted in his diary: [Some of the documents mentioned here were collected by Fr. Devitt and published in vols XXXIII and XXXIV (1904-5) of the Woodstock Letters.]

    Superiors General of the Restored Society of Jesus

    On August 7, 1814 Pope Pius VII, on returning to Rome from imprisonment in France, issued the bull, Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum, restoring the Society of Jesus. The list of modern General Superiors of the Society thus begins as of that date.

    Thaddeus Brzozowski Luigi Fortis Jan Roothaan
    Thaddeus Brzozowski
    8/7/1814 - 2/5/1820
    Luigi Fortis
    10/18/1820 - 1/27/1829
    Jan Roothaan
    7/9/1829 - 5/8/1853


    Pieter Beckx Anton Anderledy Luis Martín Franz Xaver Wernz
    Pieter Beckx
    8/2/1853 - 3/4/1887
    Anton Anderledy
    3/4/1887 - 1/18/1892
    Luis Martín
    10/2/1892 - 4/18/1906
    Franz Xaver Wernz
    9/8/1906 - 8/19/1914


    Wlodmir Ledochowski
    Jan Baptist Janssens
    Pedro Arrupe
    Peter-Hans Kolvenbach
    Wlodmir Ledochowski
    2/11/1915 - 12/13/1942
    Jan Baptist Janssens
    9/15/1946 - 10/5/1964
    Pedro Arrupe
    5/22/1965 - 9/13/1983
    Peter-Hans Kolvenbach
    9/13/1983 - present

    For biographies of the Superiors General, click here.

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