The First Jesuits
Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint
Jésuites: Une Multibiographie, Vol. 1: Les conquérants, Vol. 2: Les revenants from Pantheon/Bessie Books, winter 1995)
Deep in Peru, late in the sixteenth century, a Jesuit missionary wrote of his experiences during an expedition to the Chunchos. As he surveyed the jungles of the Amazon from a mountain-top, he felt that he could see as far as the Caribbean. His greatest desire was to visit the unknown peoples between, supported only by the hand of God and a companion, and bring them to Christianity. Clearly, he thought that a faithful Jesuit could penetrate any society, however strange. At the same time, at another border of the Christian world, another Jesuit was in fact moving steadily toward the heart of the greatest of all gentile kingdoms. Dressed in Chinese silks and reading the Chinese classics, Matteo Ricci would soon be the first Christian mandarin. His legendary mastery of Western cartography and written and spoken Chinese would win him imperial favor, enabling him to spend his last years in Peking itself. There he explored the rich and virtuous classics of Chinese philosophy and tried with occasional success to convince literati that the Christianity he taught represented not a rejection but the completion of their grand tradition.
At the margins of the expanding Christian universe, in other words, some Jesuits showed a startling openness to other peoples and forms of society and belief. True, their passionate interest in Andean religion was motivated by a crusading zeal to stamp out its vestiges, and they rejected Buddhism as forcefully as they embraced Confucianism. But their undeniable faith in the unique value of a single Western message should not obscure their equally undeniable intellectual courage. They underwent transformations and felt their way over distances then unknown and now probably unimaginable.
Other Jesuits inhabited the center rather than the peripheries of the Catholic world, and dreamed less of finding common ground with the best pagans than of cleansing the earth of the worst heretics, inside and outside Europe. The influential Jesuit Antonio Possevino was almost as cosmopolitan as Ricci; his career as a diplomat and polemicist took him as far from Italy as the Russia of Ivan Grozny and the Poland of Stephan Bathory, between whom he tried to make peace. Though his efforts as an ambassador failed, he became one of the first Westerners to describe Muscovite Russia from first-hand knowledge. But he saw the new worlds that Europeans had discovered in 1492 and after as a haunt of devils and their worshipers.
Even worse, they had become a source of corruption for Christendom. True, the conquistadors had destroyed the natives’ temples and codices, and missionaries now preached the word of God in new lands. But Satan had responded by attacking Christian worship in its European home. One of his chief tools took the form of high Renaissance scholarship and art. The tempting nude bodies portrayed by the pagan sculptors whose works were recovered and collected in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and, worse still, by the Christian painters who imitated them defiled the walls of the churches they decorated. The …
This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:
Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.
Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.