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Ten things you probably didn’t know about the Jesuits

AP Photo/Mary Godleski
Thank the Jesuits for the deep-fried Japanese favorite, tempura.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For the first time in the 473-year history of the Society of Jesus, a priest from this religious order of the Catholic church has been elected as Pope. Pope Francis I, formerly Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a chemist by training, was ordained as a Jesuit priest in 1969.

This is just the first of many accomplishments for the Society of Jesus, or Jesuits, an organization that has continuously played a pivotal role not just in the church but in education, government, arts, sciences, and some good, old-fashioned persecution.

Here are ten cool facts about the Jesuits you can flaunt at your next Papal-themed cocktail party.

1. Parisian origins

The six students of the University of Paris, who later went on to establish the Society of Jesus, first met in the crypt of a church called the Saint Pierre de Montmartre, outside Paris. This happened on Aug. 15, 1534, the feast of the Assumption of Mary. Many historians believe that at the time the six had no intention of establishing a religious order; they merely wished to become priests and serve the Pope.

2. Church loyalists

Later, when the society was formed, members were expected to follow a set of rules written by the founder, an ex-soldier called Ignatius Loyola. Called the “Rules for Thinking with the Church,” the directives stated with stunning unambiguity, the Society’s obedience to the church. Rule number 9 says that members will do whatever it takes to “uphold the precepts of the Church.” The oft-quoted rule 13 is even stricter: “If the Church have defined anything to be black, which to our eyes appears to be white, we ought in like manner to pronounce it to be black.”

3. Head of the class

The Jesuits are well known for establishing a chain of educational institutions all over the world from Washington to Tokyo. In 1599, the society released a document called the Ratio Studiorum that outlined how these Jesuit institutions would be run. These doctrines went on to have a lasting influence in the way modern, especially Western, educational institutions have evolved. Over four centuries later, the Ratio Studiorum still reads like a modern document. The fifth “Rules for Written Exainations” reads: “Seat-mates must be careful not to copy from one another; for if two compositions are found to be identical of even alike, both will be open to suspicion, since it will be impossible to discover which one was copied from the other.”

4. Bento box

For around a decade, from 1580 the city of Nagasaki in Japan was a Jesuit colony with administrative control exercised by the Society of Jesus. A port had been established in Nagasaki around 1571 and soon became an entry point for goods shipped by Portuguese Jesuits. It is believed that during this period the Jesuits introduced the Japanese to their tradition of eating deep-fried, battered vegetables and fish. This was particularly popular during the fasting seasons or “tempora” when the Jesuits abstained from meat. The Japanese called it “tempura.”

5. Indian Inquisition

Francis Xavier, a saint and one of the founding members of the society, established an Inquisition in Goa, India in 1545. Like the more popular and well-documented inquisitions in Europe, the idea was to stamp out heresy and heretics. The inquisition in this Portuguese colony persisted for almost three centuries before being called off in 1812.

6. Fusion art

In 1579, the Mughal Emperor Akbar sent a delegation to Goa asking the Jesuits to send him two priests who were to bring with them the Christian scriptures. Three men, Rudolpho Acquaviva, Francisco Henriques, and Antonio Monserrate, arrived in Akbar’s capital in 1580. They then spent three years in frequent religious debate and discussion. Ultimately, their hopes of converting the emperor to Christianity were dashed. However, this intermingling of cultures led to a curious fusion of Christian iconography in Mughal art.

7. Scandinavian ban

After the Sonderbund civil war in Switzerland in 1847, the Jesuits were banned from the country. This ban was only lifted in 1973 after a constitutional referendum. Norway had a similar ban on Jews, Jesuits, and other monastic orders in the constitution. The ban on Jews was lifted in 1897 but the Jesuits had to wait till 1956 to be allowed in Norway.

8. Conspiracy theory

The Monita Secreta is believed to be a secret set of instructions issued to Jesuits by Claudio Acquaviva, the head of the society, sometime in the early 17th century. The Secreta, now widely believed to have been a hoax created to tarnish the Jesuit movement, contains methods for Jesuits to acquire great power, wealth, and political influence within the church and its governments. This includes things like befriending rich widows, cozying up to gullible heads of state, and some gentle blackmail. The Monita Secreta continues to be popular amongst conspiracy theorists.

9. Holocaust helpers

The role played by the Catholic Church during the Holocaust has always been a topic of heated debate. Nonetheless, fourteen Jesuits can be found in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial’s “Righteous Among The Nations,” a list of non-Jews who saved Jews during the Holocaust. Twelve of them were priests.

10. Photographer on the Titanic

On April 10, 1912, a young Irishman studying to become a Jesuit priest, Francis Browne, boarded the RMS Titanic at Southampton. Browne had been gifted the ticket by an uncle, and his voyage would only take him on the first portion of the Titanic’s maiden voyage—from Southampton to Cherbourg, and then on to Queenstown in Ireland. A prolific photographer, Browne took some of the last known photographs of several passengers and crew. On board, a wealthy American couple offered to pay for Browne’s onward journey to America, but his superiors refused, and Browne disembarked in Ireland.

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