In an ‘Ignatian Year’ Jesuits Look to Founder’s ‘Cannonball Moment’ as Paradigm for Renewal

PART I: Some embrace the Society of Jesus’ recent difficulties as an opportunity for conversion and drawing more deeply from their roots.

‘Vision of Ignatius of Loyola’
‘Vision of Ignatius of Loyola’ (photo: public domain)

Editor's Note: This is Part I of an analysis of the current state of the Jesuits. Part II, covering some Jesuits’ quest for renewal and the significant roadblocks they face, is available here.

Ignatius of Loyola was an ambitious soldier with big plans for worldly fame and glory — until a cannonball fired at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521 nearly blasted his leg off. Forced into a long recovery with nothing to read but books on the saints and Christ, the Spaniard experienced a radical conversion, devoted his life to God, and went on to found one of the most influential organizations in the Church’s history — the Society of Jesus.

Five hundred years later, many Jesuits are pointing to their founder’s humbling, plan-shattering “cannonball moment” as a fitting image of their present-day status — and a compelling call to institutional renewal for a religious order that has suffered its fair share of wounds in recent decades, stemming from liturgical, theological and communal abuses after the Second Vatican Council.

“After he was wounded, Ignatius had a lot of time to think and pray, to go back to what was most fundamental,” said Jesuit Father Anthony Lusvardi, who teaches sacramental theology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. “In a lot of ways, I see the Society as being at that kind of point right now.” 

Thus, while the Jesuits have launched an “Ignatian Year” to celebrate the anniversary of their founder’s dramatic conversion and promote it as a relatable source of spiritual inspiration today, especially in the wake of a year more volatile than most, many in their ranks readily acknowledge that they might be the audience most in need of drawing from Ignatius’ experience.

“I think the Society feels called to situate ourselves with Ignatius on his sickbed,” said Bill McCormick, a Jesuit in formation for the priesthood and a contributing editor of the U.S. Jesuits’ America magazine. “To recover what it meant for him to turn his life over to Christ in such a radical way, asking God to show us how he wants us to follow.” 


Diminished Ranks, Self-Inflicted Wounds

Perhaps the greatest indication of the Society of Jesus’ infirmed status is the precipitous decline in membership it has experienced since the 1960s. While still the largest male religious order in the world, the number of Jesuits has been more than halved over the past 56 years, falling from 36,000 to 16,000, with a significant number of departures from the priesthood in the decade immediately after the Second Vatican Council. 

While membership has stabilized and even increased in places like Africa and South Asia, it has continued to drop in North America and today stands at 2,179, a mere quarter of what it was at the close of the Council. By comparison, the total number of U.S. priests, both religious and diocesan, has fallen by less than half since Vatican II, from 60,000 in 1965 to about 37,000 today.

With the decline in numbers has come a decline in institutional representation in the United States. 

For one thing, the Society of Jesus has had to consolidate its 10 U.S. provinces into four: USA East, USA West, USA South Central, and USA Midwest. Additionally, while several national universities, from Georgetown to Gonzaga, maintain a Jesuit affiliation, members of the Society of Jesus now make up fewer than 6% of faculty and staff at educational institutions that bear their name. In many cases, Jesuits no longer have juridical control of their own colleges and universities.

Of course, the crisis of religious vocations is a crisis that has affected the entirety of the contemporary Church, spurred in large part by increased secularization and other widespread societal factors beyond any religious order’s control.

However, many of the wounds the Society has suffered have been self-inflicted. Always somewhat of a maverick religious order, with an emphasis on applying the Gospel to new frontiers both geographical and cultural, the post-conciliar Jesuits became largely characterized by what some members who lived through the era describe as a disposition of “dissent,” a kind of counterculture poised not against worldly principalities and powers, but the hierarchical Church. 

Liturgical “innovations” rooted in misreadings of the conciliar constitution on the sacred liturgy, Sacrosanctum Concilium, such as lay preaching during the Mass, replacement of the Liturgy of the Hours with “experimental” forms of prayer, and invalid substitutions of the Eucharistic offerings, were the norm in Jesuit houses of formation after Vatican II, which one Jesuit as recently as 2006 described as “think tanks” more concerned with generating new theories than the forming of future priests through the orthodox transmission of the faith. 

According to James Hitchcock, historian emeritus at the Jesuit-run Saint Louis University and author of The Pope and the Jesuits, it even became common to disparage the Society before the Council — presumably including its founder — as “inhumane and narrow,” with the widespread belief that the true meaning of Christianity was only discovered at Vatican II.

Communal life in the Society also suffered dramatically, undergirded by a crisis of priestly identity, as many members no longer saw the significance nor import of ordained and consecrated life. Many Jesuits chose to live on their own, and the norms of celibacy were openly flouted as its logic was widely dismissed.

“None of the men I know cares about being a priest,” a Jesuit in charge of theological formation is quoted as saying in the 2003 book Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits.

The book’s authors, an Arizona State political scientist and an Emory University professor of religion, also linked the crisis of priestly identity to the development of a decisively homosexual subculture among younger Jesuits at the time, which fostered a “bourgeois lifestyle” rather than one of discipline and missionary zeal.

In a review of the book, entitled “Are the Jesuits Catholic?”, Jesuit Father Paul Shaughnessy even suggested that the Society at the time prioritized the recruitment of men identifying as gay and that a homosexual group referred to as the “Gallery Owners,” characterized by “complete apathy toward religion in all its forms,” enjoyed disproportionate placement in leadership at Jesuit institutions.

The dynamic of rupture also played out in theology, as magisterial teachings that prohibit artificial contraception, same-sex sexual relations and women’s ordination were regularly and publicly disparaged by Jesuit priests in the Council’s aftermath.

“Statements by Jesuits critical of official Church leadership and teaching, sometimes with a cutting and strident edge, could be cited almost endlessly,” wrote Hitchcock. 

In a particularly scandalous episode of dissent, Jesuit Father Robert Drinan was allowed to serve as a pro-abortion U.S. congressman from Massachusetts for a decade, with no correction from his superiors, only stepping down after Pope John Paul II banned all priests from holding elected office in 1980.

But John Paul’s intervention into Jesuit affairs the following year was even more dramatic. 

Citing “regrettable shortcomings” and “secularizing tendencies” within the Society, the Holy Father stepped in after the stroke and resignation of Superior General Pedro Arrupe, overruling the Jesuits’ selection of the U.S.-born Father Vincent O’Keefe and installing his own successor, Father Paolo Dezza. 

Father Dezza, a former teacher of the Polish pope, oversaw the Society for the next two years. Characterized by some as a “mini-suppression,” the move created even more division between the papacy and many in the religious order whose members, ironically, take a fourth vow of “special obedience to the sovereign pontiff.”

In subsequent decades, several Jesuit theologians came into conflict over liberation theology with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, appointed by John Paul II to serve as the prefect for the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1981. Another future pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio, struggled against liberalizing tendencies among the Jesuits in Argentina as provincial for six years. Conflicts between the Jesuits and the Church hierarchy continued, and in the early 2000s, Cardinal Ratzinger even considered censoring America magazine for consistently publishing articles that dissented from established moral teaching on issues like marriage and embryonic stem-cell research. 

As Pope Benedict XVI, the German gently delivered some pointed words to the Society of Jesus in 2008 at the 35th General Congregation, an assembly during which Jesuit delegates elect the order’s next superior general. The Pontiff asked the Society for a “renewed commitment to promoting and defending Catholic doctrine,” especially themes under attack in secular society, and to maintain “harmony with the Magisterium, which avoids confusion and dismay among the People of God.” Benedict also invited the Jesuits to “rediscover the fullest meaning” of their vow of obedience to the pope “in the most genuine Ignatian spirit of ‘feeling with the Church and in the Church.’”


From Cannonballs to Conversion

To be clear, as many Jesuits pointed out to the Register, the problems the Society has faced since the Council have played out in other corners of the Church, as well. 

But the Society of Jesus is not just any corner of the Church. They’re “God’s marines,” a company of men that includes zealous missionaries like St. Francis Xavier, heroic martyrs like Blessed Miguel Pro, and influential recent theologians, such as Cardinals Henri  de Lubac and Avery Dulles. Given the prestige, influence and illustrious history of the Jesuits, it’s something of a scandal in and of itself to see the order Ignatius founded knocked considerably off course.

But if renewal is the goal, perhaps there’s no better place to be.

“Whenever we get displaced or decentered, that’s the beginning of the possibility of great conversion,” said Jesuit Father Chris Collins, vice president for mission at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, speaking generally.

Many in the Society are hopeful that such a conversion is underway. 

Jesuit Father David Paternostro, for instance, says there is a “great sense of renewal and optimism in the Society” today. In fact, the young priest cites Benedict XVI’s 2008 address to the Jesuits as a source of confidence that the order still has a place in the Church and a vital mission moving forward, as the Pope reiterated that “the Church needs you, relies on you, and continues to turn to you with trust,” especially with regards to reaching those far from God and the Catholic faith with the Gospel.

Father Paternostro says the silver lining of the setbacks the Society has experienced in recent decades is that the members can see more clearly “what bears fruit and what doesn’t.” In terms of the former, he emphasizes the importance of Jesuit fathers serving as a “priestly presence,” helping people to pray and grow closer to God. As an example of this kind of fruitfulness, he pointed to a recent Eucharistic procession organized by the Jesuits at Saint Louis University, where he’s in doctoral studies. More than 100 students took part.

Jesuits interviewed for this story shared many other examples of fruitful ministries, such as Jesuit High School in Tampa Bay under the leadership of Jesuit Father Richard Hermes, where 22 students were just received into the Church, and the Cristo Rey Network of schools, which offers students from economically disadvantaged families a college-prep education and work experience in professional settings.

“What’s bearing fruit is where our focus should be given,” said Father Paternostro, who added that tensions between Jesuits of different generations or pastoral approaches are soothed when both parties recognize a shared desire to help people follow God.

In fact, this desire has emerged as the Society’s top priority going forward. In 2019, Superior General Arturo Sosa published the Jesuits’ “Universal Apostolic Preferences,” priorities to direct the order’s work over the next decade. The result of a consultative process with Jesuits around the world, the preferences included serving the poor and marginalized, accompanying the young, and environmental stewardship, with “show[ing] the way to God through the Spiritual Exercises and discernment” listed as “Priority A.”

Commenting on the preferences, Pope Francis called this focus on the Spiritual Exercisesa compilation of prayers and contemplative practices first developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola — “crucial,” because “it presupposes as a basic condition the Jesuit’s relationship with the Lord in a personal and communal life of discernment,” adding that “without this prayerful attitude the other preferences will not bear fruit.”

Father Lusvardi says there’s an excitement within the Society, especially among younger Jesuits, about the call to root their lives more deeply in the Exercises and to in turn give them to others. He sees the Exercises as a vital source of stability and identity for the Jesuits moving forward and an essential tool in their mission to evangelize an increasingly secular world.

“Given all the changes the Society and the world have gone through, we don’t know exactly what the future holds,” said Father Lusvardi. “But we need to base what we do on the Spiritual Exercises and on the graces we receive from doing and giving them.”

An uncertain future and the likely continued loss of institutional responsibilities may also provide the Society of Jesus with the opportunity to be more like the nimble, missionary “light cavalry” they were founded to be, instead of the “heavy artillery of the Church” they’ve become. This kind of Ignatian ressourcement is a common theme among Jesuits today, according to Jesuit Father David Meconi, a patristics scholar and director of Saint Louis University’s Catholic Studies Center, as there is a growing conviction that grounding themselves more deeply and authentically in the spirituality and charism of St. Ignatius of Loyola will best prepare his successors to creatively and faithfully live out their mission today.

“We’re rediscovering that our charism needs to be rooted in the hermeneutic of continuity in order to draw life from the branches,” said Father Meconi, referring to a term coined by Benedict XVI to describe renewal that synergizes with the Tradition of the Church. 

But not every Jesuit is convinced that recovery from the wounds sustained over the past 50 years is possible. 


Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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