After its founding in 1540, the Society of Jesus grew rapidly and assumed an important role in the renewal of the Catholic Church. Jesuits were educators, scholars, and missionaries throughout the world. They were also preachers and catechists who devoted themselves to the young, the sick, prisoners, prostitutes, and soldiers. They were often called upon to be confessors to the ruling families of Europe.
By the time of Ignatius’s death in 1556, there were about a thousand Jesuits. One century later, there were over fifteen thousand; near the end of the following century, almost twenty-three thousand.
As time passed, because of the high visibility of the Jesuits among religious orders, their strong defense of the papacy, their work in the missions on behalf of the indigenous peoples, their apparent power at royal courts and in the Church as well as because of their own pride and occasional failings in judgment, they aroused the hostility of many lay and clerical adversaries.
In 1773, bowing to heavy pressure from the courts of France, Spain, Portugal, and Naples, Clement XIV issued a document suppressing the Society of Jesus. He noted that he did so to maintain peace and tranquility within the Church. He listed the charges against the Society, but made no judgment about their accuracy, and avoided making any condemnation of the Society itself.
Jesuit houses and colleges everywhere were seized by the local authorities. Some Jesuits were imprisoned; some were driven into exile. The superior general of the Society, Lorenzo Ricci, was imprisoned in Castel Sant’Angelo where he died two years later.
The Jesuits maintained their corporate identity only in Russia where the Empress Catherine, for her own political reasons, would not allow the papal decree to have its full effect. In the early nineteenth century, novices were admitted to the Society in various parts of the world, including the United States, through affiliation with the Society in Russia.
On August 7, 1814, Pope Pius VII, responding to the desires of those who wished the Jesuits to resume work in education and in the foreign missions, restored the Society throughout the world. By the end of the century Jesuit schools and missions were as numerous as before 1773.
Today, the Society of Jesus has nearly twenty-five thousand members world-wide. Its members dedicate themselves to the service of the Church under their superior general, Very Rev. Peter-Hans Kolvenbach. Through its missions, its parishes, and its educational institutions, it lives out a world-affirming commitment to the service of faith and the promotion of justice.