Jesuit Martyrs, Old and New

As we are seeing it played out in the Society of Jesus, social reform cannot be separated from the proclamation of the gospel.

A ray of sunlight shines on the emblematic Jesuit Christogram over the main altar of the Church of the Gesù during a Mass offered by the newly-elected Jesuit Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, Oct. 15, 2016, in Rome.
A ray of sunlight shines on the emblematic Jesuit Christogram over the main altar of the Church of the Gesù during a Mass offered by the newly-elected Jesuit Father Arturo Sosa Abascal, Oct. 15, 2016, in Rome. (photo: Franco Origlia/Getty Images)

Last week in Rome there was a full-on all-stops-pulled celebration of the Jesuits, organized by the Jesuits. Both Pope Francis and Father Arturo Sosa, the superior general, took part.

It was a clarifying moment for those who might wonder at the various curiosities offered by the Society of Jesus in these past years under the first Jesuit pope.

Consider Father Sosa himself, who apparently denies two key doctrines of the faith: the historical accuracy of the gospels and the personal existence of the devil.

There is Father Antonio Spadaro, editor of La Civiltà Cattolica, and unofficial spokesman for the Holy Father. He accuses U.S. Christians of practicing an “ecumenism of hate” and is himself famous for asserting that in theology “2 plus 2 can equal 5,” a rather remarkable undoing of the reasonableness of the faith.

Then there is Father James Martin, the highest-profile Jesuit in the United States, whose efforts to “build a bridge” to the gay community have led him to reject the language, if not the teaching, of the Catechism.

In relation to the movie Silence he proposed the idea that Jesus may positively want his disciples, facing persecution, to deny him and collaborate with the persecutors of the Church — a rather novel commentary on the history of martyrdom.

What is more remarkable still is that no one is really surprised by any of this. The father general of the Jesuits denies the historicity of the gospels? Doesn’t believe that the devil exists? No big deal. He and the Holy Father, who certainly does believe that the devil exists, happily celebrate together the greatness of the Jesuits.

The particular greatness being celebrated last week was the 50th anniversary of the Secretariat for Social Justice and Ecology, established by Jesuit Father Pedro Arrupe in 1969, and emblematic of the shifting of Jesuit priorities toward advocating for justice in the social order. The secretariat, first called the Secretariat for Socio-Economic Development, has become the hub of similar regional secretariats throughout the Jesuit world.

 “Our spirituality cannot be understood without the social dimension,” said the current secretary, Indian Jesuit Father Xavier Jeyaraj. “[We] celebrate God’s faithfulness in our 50-year journey and also to celebrate our faithfulness to his call, [including those who] sacrificed their lives in the struggle for justice and equality.”

The social justice secretariat was instituted when the Jesuits were just beginning a steep decline in numbers.

In 1965 there were 36,038 Jesuits in the world, up from 16,295 in 1910. It was their historic peak. From 1965 to 1975 there was a massive exodus, so that nearly one in six Jesuits left the society. Today there are about 15,000 Jesuits in the world, and Father Sosa expects that number to fall by another third, to 10,000, by 2034.

Did the establishment of the social justice secretariat cause the remarkable shrinking of the Society of Jesus? Clearly not. Many other factors were at play, and the 1960s and 1970s included an exodus from the priesthood and religious life across the board. But the social justice turn did not appreciably arrest the decline in numbers.

The golden jubilee of the secretariat does indicate that precisely at a time when the Jesuits were experiencing a massive crisis in identity, fidelity and vocations, it was social justice that captured their attention and energy. And over five decades, it has remained that way, with the Society of Jesus apparently devoting more of its energy and resources to reform of the social order than to the primary proclamation of the gospel. Indeed, at the anniversary celebrations the two were often conflated, namely that evangelization consists of working for social justice.

The two cannot be separated of course, as the Epistle of James and Matthew 25 makes clear. But there are matters of emphasis, and the Jesuits celebrated last week that their emphasis for 50 years has shifted from categories that were explicitly Christian to those that are more worldly, understood not in a negative sense but in relation to social reform.

An emphasis on social reform becomes a slippery thing, as the preferred means of social reform — political action — can displace the gospel itself. Consider Father Sosa, who is from Venezuela. Venezuela’s Maduro regime is the leading violator of human rights in Latin America, the cause of starvation levels of poverty in what should be a rich country, and the largest producer of refugees in the world. Yet Father Sosa is largely silent about all of this, embracing instead a politics that prefers not to criticize leftist regimes. Politics here trumps social justice.

Consider a thought experiment: Would it be easier to imagine a Jesuit, whether the superior general or a professor at Georgetown, denying a paragraph of the Catechism, or dissenting from the United Nations political consensus on climate change? Would it be easier to find a Jesuit who denies an article of the Apostles Creed than it would be one who defends “extractivist” industries in the Amazon?

Or consider this: Would the Jesuits be holding a big celebration to mark another apostolate, say, geared toward primary evangelization?

At the center of the jubilee celebrations, as reported by the Jesuit America magazine, were the martyrs: After the projection of a photo and brief biographical details of each of the 57 Jesuits who have been killed in the ongoing fight for justice and the protection of our common home over the past 50 years … they concelebrated Mass in their honor. The memory of these Jesuit “martyrs” (in quotes because the Catholic Church has not yet recognized them as such) is contained in a book published for the occasion. But, as Father Sosa told journalists later in the day, the book does not tell the whole story because “many, many more lay men and women companions” have also been killed in this same faith struggle for justice and reconciliation.

No doubt the “martyrs” for justice and reconciliation are admirable and praiseworthy; one thinks of St. Óscar Romero or Blessed Jerzy Popiełuszko as examples of that. But it is of passing interest that the Jesuits have lost interest in their earlier martyrs, the Jesuits who came to evangelize North America.

Last Oct. 19, a feast of Jesuit martyrs, there was a celebration at the Shrine of the North American Martyrs in Auriesville, New York. But it was organized and led by an association of the lay faithful, the Jesuits having withdrawn from the shrine some years ago.

Auriesville is about a three-hour drive from where Fordham University and America magazine house dozens of Jesuits. Not one can be found to make the trip to offer Holy Mass at the shrine on regular basis, so the good lay faithful of the region enlist some retired priests to come. Mass is no longer offered every day at the shrine as a result of the Jesuit withdrawal, steps away from where their brothers were martyred.

The Jesuits have held on to the cemetery there, where generations of Jesuits are buried, and are still being buried. Visiting the cemetery, as I do each year, is a bit distracting now. The Jesuits sold the adjacent property to a Buddhist association, which has converted the building into a large temple. Auriesville thus represents both the Jesuits bringing the faith to the local area, and facilitating its withdrawal.

That Auriesville withers while the social justice secretariat is feted indicates rather a lot about the Society of Jesus. What might the Auriesville martyrs have said about the celebrations in Rome last week?


Father Raymond J. de Souza is the editor in chief of Convivium magazine.