Jesuits and Jesuitesses
Giancarlo Rocca*

The influence of St Ignatius' ideas on the birth of religious institutes in Europe and Latin America

A conference on men and women's religious institutes in Europe and Latin America which in various ways refer to the Society of Jesus was held recently at the Catholic University of Leuven/Louvain, Belgium. To tell the truth it is known that Ignatius of Loyola after several experiences which he perceived as negative in meetings with women committed to the Society — like those of so many of the medieval orders which had seen fit to create a women's branch alongside the men's branch — decided not to accept women. Further, in 1547 he obtained from Pope Paul III that the Society never be obliged to take on the spiritual care of women who wished to be associated with them in some way.

In spite of this prohibition women's religious institutes that accepted the guidelines of the Society of Jesus abound: about 250 exist. Approximately 20 of them date back to the period from the Society's foundation until its suppression in 1773; about 15 to the period of the suppression, from 1773 to 1814; and more than 200 from 1814 to our day.

This interest of religious institutes in adopting certain rules of the Society of Jesus — in the apostolic, spiritual, or institutional dimension — is clearly linked to the fact that it represented a new form of religious life open to all forms of the apostolate. Although there were no problems in founding — with the help of the Jesuits — individual women's houses dedicated to the education of girls and not bound by the cloister, this was not so in the case of the Englishwoman Mary Ward. She gave life to the so-called "English ladies" (later known as "Jesuitesses", as if by antonomasia, who wore the so-called "Jesuit" habit).

Not only did she wish her institute to carry out an apostolate, but she also wanted it to be modeled on the Society of Jesus: hence centralized, with a Superior General and with daughter houses and, obviously, not cloistered.

The beginnings were promising. Ward succeeded in opening various houses, even one in Rome in 1622. However in the end her application was rejected. Her institute was suppressed in 1631. She herself, at that time in Germany seeking to encourage her sisters, was accused of rebelling against the Holy See. Charged with heresy by the Court of the Inquisition, she was sentenced to imprisonment in Munich, Bavaria, in a.monastery of the Poor Clares.

What the convent and monastery prisons in use then — and until the French Revolution — were like is well known. Released after a little more than two months, Mary Ward was summoned to Rome and obliged to stay there, her movements constantly monitored. It was only in 1637, that she could return — already ill — to Belgium and to England.

However the Conference especially addressed the male and female institutes that sprung up during the period of the Society's suppression. In other words its intention was to examine how well the Jesuit model resisted in the absence of the Society of Jesus. It was thus possible to note that the model did in fact have a long and vigorous life which extends far beyond the Society's rebirth in 1814. At the Conference it was noted that the Ignatian spiritual exercises in Argentina were still continued in the beaterio of Buenos Aires; that the Society of the Faith of Jesus or Paccanist Fathers — from the name of the founder, Niccolò Paccanari, was founded in Rome in 1797 with the intention of reviving the Society of Jesus; that in France in 1800 Madeleine-Sophie Barat succeeded in bringing the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus into being with a Superior General (by then this model had been accepted by the Church) for the education of young women, with the help of Fr Joseph Varin, Superior of the Society of the Faith; that two institutes, the Priests of the Sacred Heart and the Daughters of the Heart of Mary were founded, again in France, by Adelaide de Cicé and Pierre de Clorivière. Obviously, moreover, given the particular period which was followed by the French Revolution several institutes were inclined to keep quiet about their features. The period subsequent to 1814 was illustrated by references to Spanish, Italian, Belgian and English institutes. They included the Faithful Companions of Jesus, the Sisters of the Holy Family, the Sisters of the Cenacle, the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Society of the Holy Child Jesus, besides the attempt by Jesuit missionaries to found an institute of indigenous sisters in Canada. Lastly, there was also an examination of how the "women Jesuits" were perceived in the novels by Lady Morgan.

As can be seen many both women's and men's institutes sought an apostolate, making their own one of the fundamental characteristics of the Society of Jesus. The Leuwen/Louvain Conference, however, shed light on how they also adopted the Jesuit spirituality, or at least the spirituality focused on the spiritual exercises and on the Sacred Heart — many institutes chose to include it in their title — as well as knowledge of the Bible, used in the formation of women religious.

One element of this "appropriation", however, gave rise to difficulties: namely, the so-called "examination of conscience" of an institutional kind, which the Conference also treated. It is known that the "examination of conscience" is of Ignatian origin and that St Ignatius was well aware that with it he was introducing an innovation into religious life. The innovations he introduced may essentially be reduced to three.

Firstly, the obligatory examination of conscience made in the presence of the superior, whereas in monasticism it was made — but with no obligation — before the abbot or before someone else whom the religious deemed more qualified. These examinations of conscience then aimed at effective of apostolic works, entrusted to the guidance of the superior who, acquainted with the various situations, could judge with greater clarity the various issues for the good of the whole community. Thirdly, the examination of conscience was imposed at regular intervals. The advantages of this kind of examination of conscience were instantly noted by a great number of men and women's institutes and also among those established without any direct reference to the Jesuits. The examination of conscience nevertheless found a place in their Constitutions.

However, certain practices which bound women religious to reveal their soul weekly, on their knees, to the superior, and those who were distant to do so in writing once or twice a month, with the risk of confusing the examination of conscience with confession — among other things the superior arrogated to herself the right of granting the faculty of receiving the Eucharist to the religious — caused the Sacred Congregation for Bishops and Regulars to intervene once and for all in 1890, specifying that there did not have to be a written examination of conscience, that the examination of conscience must be optional and only on account of omissions external to the Rule.

Interestingly, as the Leuven/Louvain Conference noted, the Sacred Congregation was impelled to intervene at a general level following a "vote" submitted by one of its consultors, in 1877, which condemned the abuse that seemed to have taken place in the Institute of the Daughters of the Sacred Heart of Jesus in Bergamo. This institute was clearly patterned on the Ignatian model, both with regard to the examination of conscience and to the government of the institute that was strongly hierarchical. The consultor had pointed out that the "appropriation" by the superior of the religious in question had overreached all limits. Furthermore, the risks might be greater if, in addition, the person "dictating" to a woman was another woman, her superior. And this orientation was incorporated into the 1917 edition of the Code of Canon Law.

As can be seen abuses had prompted the Holy See's intervention as well as prompting a motion of low regard for the examination of conscience. If the approval of the apostolic motivation and of certain aspects of Ignatian spirituality did not create any problem that of the examination of conscience, more structured, had given rise to difficulties. Thus — for fear that this low esteem might spread to the Jesuits themselves — in 1923 the Society of Jesus asked and obtained a rescript from Pius XI. On the basis of this document the Society was dispensed from the observance of all the prescriptions promulgated by the new Code of Canon Law of 1917 and was permitted to continue its life as it had been organized by St Ignatius.

*Member of the Society of St Paul, Editor of the "Dizionario degli istituti di perfezione", 1974


L'Osservatore Romano
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7-14 August 2013, page 6

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