Founding of the Jesuit Order Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Society of Jesus, popularly known as the Jesuits, was formed as a new monastic order largely in response to influence of the Reformation. It became one of the major institutions of the Catholic Counter-Reformation and sent missionaries to Asia, Africa, and the Americas.

Summary of Event

In the spring of 1521, war broke out between France and Spain over the disputed kingdom of Navarre in the Pyrenees. On May 20, at the Battle of Pamplona, Pamplona, Battle of (1521) a Spanish knight named Iñigo de Oñaz y Loyola (known as Ignacio or Ignatius since 1537), who was about thirty years old, had his right leg shattered by a cannonball. The French subsequently seized the city and sent Ignatius to physicians who made several unsuccessful attempts to set the leg properly. Ignatius was left with a right leg deformed and shorter than the left. Though a second operation corrected the deformity, it still left him with a limp and consequently ended his military career. Jesuits Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Xavier, Saint Francis Faber, Peter Rodríguez, Simao Laínez, Diego Salmerón, Alphonse Bobadilla, Nicholas Borgia, Saint Francis Canisius, Saint Peter Cano, Melchor Contarini, Gasparo Paul III Paul IV Ricci, Matteo Ignatius of Loyola, Saint Jiménez de Cisneros, Francisco Xavier, Saint Francis Faber, Peter Rodríguez, Simao Laínez, Diego Salmerón, Alphonse Bobadilla, Nicholas Paul III Contarini, Gasparo Borgia, Saint Francis Canisius, Saint Peter Cano, Melchor Paul IV Anchieta, José de Ricci, Matteo

The Jesuits formed after the first companions of Saint Ignatius of Loyola took vows of poverty and chastity in an abandoned church in Montmarte in 1534.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

During the long convalescence that followed, the man who would become known as Saint Ignatius of Loyola withdrew to his family castle near Loyola in the Basque provinces of northern Spain. There, he read the few popular works of romance and adventure that were available at the time and out of boredom also took to reading religious literature. In addition to the Scriptures, Ignatius read the German Carthusian Ludolph of Saxony’s Vita Christi (wr. fourteenth century, pb. 1474; life of Christ) and Jacopo de Voragine’s hagiography, Legenda aurea (c. 1260, pb. 1470; The Golden Legend, 1483).

Until the time of his injury in 1521, Ignatius relates that his life had been wholly worldly and self-seeking. He had been brought up at the court of a great nobleman, where he received little formal education, but where he was thoroughly trained in the military arts, at that time his sole interest. In 1515, he was arrested for brawling. His readings at home in 1521 awakened in him an unfamiliar religious interest.

Toward the end of his convalescence, Ignatius experienced a vision of the Virgin and the Christ child and, by early March, 1522, resolved to go on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as penance for past sins. He spent some time in retreat at the great Benedictine abbey of Monserrat, and then he went to the town of Manresa near Barcelona, existing as a virtual hermit, begging his daily food, and living in a cell of the Dominican priory or, occasionally, in a cave. He had new mystical experiences and began to sketch out his basic ideas about the religious life, which would by 1548 become the highly influential book Ejercicios espirituales (1522-1548; The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, 1736).

Ignatius left Manresa for Rome sometime in late February, 1523, with a view to obtaining papal approval for his trip to the Holy Land. On July 24, he set sail on a Venetian ship and, on September 3, arrived at Jerusalem, only to be persuaded by the Franciscans in charge of the shrines there that no worthwhile work could be accomplished because of the Turks.

He returned home and decided to educate himself. He went to Barcelona, where for two years he attended classes in elementary subjects with the children of the city. In 1526, he enrolled at the University of Alcalá founded by Cardinal Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros. By now, he had acquired three followers who came with him to Alcalá from Barcelona. Although a layperson, Ignatius began to give spiritual advice to those who sought it, and this action aroused the suspicions of the Inquisition, which imprisoned him for a time but did not convict him of heresy.

He was, however, forbidden to teach. To escape this stricture, Ignatius went to the University of Salamanca in July, 1527, where the Inquisition again imprisoned him and again forbade him to teach but acknowledged his orthodoxy. After his release, he walked to Paris, where, in 1528, he enrolled in the University of Paris, first at the Collège de Montaigu and then at the Collège Sainte Barbe. He was desperately poor in Paris and begged for his daily living. He made an extended begging tour of the Netherlands and England to accumulate enough funding for an entire academic year. He received the licentiate in theology in 1534 and an M.A. in 1535. At Sainte Barbe, Ignatius acquired two roommates: Francis Xavier, a fellow Basque, and Peter Faber, a Savoyard. They were to become, with Ignatius himself, the first Jesuits.

By 1534, Ignatius had six followers in Paris: Xavier, Faber, Simao Rodríguez, Diego Laínez, Alphonse Salmerón, and Nicolas Bobadilla. On August 15, the group met in an abandoned church in Montmartre and took vows of poverty and chastity, as members of religious orders customarily did; they also vowed to go to the Holy Land within a year or, if that were not possible, to place themselves in the hands of the pope for whatever purpose he might choose. This meeting is commonly considered to be the moment at which the Jesuit Order was founded, although it did not yet have a name.

Taken gravely ill a few months later, Ignatius returned to Spain and then traveled to Italy, where he settled at Venice to await his companions. Through incredible difficulties, the little group walked from Paris to Venice. A delegation was sent to Rome, where Pope Paul III blessed their pilgrimage, but war between Venice and the Turks made the journey impossible. In 1537, by papal permission, all those in the group who were not yet priests, including Ignatius, were ordained at Venice. At that time they also chose as their title “the Society of Jesus,” which is still the official name for the Jesuit Order.

At Rome, where he had gone to obtain Paul III’s approval for the new order, Ignatius became immensely popular as a spiritual adviser, but he also attracted animosity for his attacks on a popular preacher of the Augustinian order, whom he accused of preaching Lutheran doctrine. The Inquisition once again investigated Ignatius’s case, but again he was acquitted.

The small group at Rome and the others elsewhere in Italy had already embarked on the work of preaching, teaching religion to children, and operating charitable houses. Ignatius and his companions at Rome gave regular theological lectures to Paul III, who came to hold them in high regard.

In 1539, the Jesuits began to draw up their rule, the Formula Instituti, which was adopted by a vote of the members. Vows were to be taken and were to be binding under pain of sin, but all members were to have a voice in important policy decisions. There was to be absolute obedience to the pope, but a Jesuit was to deal with the pope only indirectly through his own superiors. Except for houses of study, neither any individual Jesuit nor the order as a whole was to own any property or money beyond what was necessary for immediate needs.

In an important divergence from the practice of all other religious orders, the Jesuits decided that their members would not be required to have communal prayers at specified times of the day, lest this practice interfere with their work in the world. Each Jesuit was instead to pray privately. There was to be no distinctive dress for the order, and no rigorous fasts or penances would be observed, lest such practices undermine the energy that was needed for work in the world.

Despite powerful opposition by two cardinals, the new order was championed by the most important prelate at the Vatican, Cardinal Gasparo Contarini, and Pope Paul III officially approved it by his bull Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae (Paul III) (for the rule of the Church militant) on September 27, 1540. The bull limited the group to sixty members, but this barrier was quickly lifted, and within fifteen years the new order had more than one thousand members. Ignatius was unanimously elected the first general of the order, holding the post until his death on July 31, 1556. He was later proclaimed a saint of the Church. At all times, the order remained faithful to the pope.

From the beginning, the Jesuits were among the leading scholars of Europe, and Alphonse Salmerón and Diego Laínez, early members of the order, were two of the leading theologians of the Council of Trent Trent, Council of (1545-1563) to argue for taking a strict attitude toward the Protestants, in contrast to the more moderate attitude advocated by the Augustinians and others. Although the Jesuits worked primarily with children and the poor, their high intellectual caliber appealed to the elite. By the end of the sixteenth century, the order had become identified with the education of aristocratic youth at secondary and university levels.

Individual Jesuits also became highly influential as private tutors and confessors to important laymen. Yet, it is important to note that the early Jesuits were slow to become involved in university work because of Ignatius’s belief that they should be ready to go on any mission assigned to them and should not be tied to institutions. Their first college for lay students was in the duchy of Gandia in Spain, opened reluctantly at the behest of Duke Francis Borgia, who himself became a Jesuit priest after the death of his wife in 1546 and was eventually made general of the order.


The Jesuits soon emerged as powerful opponents of the Protestants. Peter Canisius led a group of Jesuits who were successful in reconverting certain parts of Lutheran Germany to the Catholic Church, and another small group, at great personal risk, was largely responsible for keeping Roman Catholicism alive in Elizabethan England. Protestantism;Jesuits and The order continued to make enemies, including the noted Spanish Dominican theologian Melchor Cano, with whom Laínez once had a bitter quarrel. Pope Paul IV was also unfriendly to the society, although it continued to grow during his pontificate. A protracted quarrel developed between Dominican and Jesuit theologians on the issue of human free will, with the Jesuits placing greater stress than the Dominicans on the human ability to choose freely their spiritual destiny. Jesuit moralists gained a reputation for laxity in that they usually sought to interpret moral laws in a sense favorable to worldly men.

The phenomenal growth of the Society of Jesus was helped by the period of European expansion, opening up a vast opportunity for accomplishing Christ’s commission to “go into all the world and preach the gospel.” Because of their early influence on King John III of Portugal, the Jesuits under Father José de Anchieta achieved tremendous success in Brazil and also in Paraguay. Missions;Jesuits in South America They confronted some initial problems, however, in Asia, where there were more complex ancient cultures with established higher religions having their own scriptures and developed religious philosophies. Missions;Jesuits in Asia Yet, even in Asia, the initial efforts of Francis Xavier bore fruit in India, Ceylon, Malaya, Melaka, and Japan. The Chinese mission was continued by Father Matteo Ricci. Jesuit missionaries’ reports back home—the so-called relations—brought a wealth of reliable information about Asia, Africa, and the Americas to Europe.

By the seventeenth century, the order was one of the largest in the Church and was engaged in virtually every kind of religious activity as well as numerous secular activities. The name of the order became a byword in Europe and America. As Father William Bangert has observed, “apostolic action, Christian Humanism, and the interior ideal of being with Jesus—in order to serve—may help to explicate the singular identity that the Society of Jesus has preserved through over four centuries of history.” Humanism;Jesuits and

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bangert, William V. A History of the Society of Jesus. 2d ed., rev. and updated. St. Louis, Mo.: The Institute of Jesuit Resources, 1986. A comprehensive yet concise and reliable history of the society.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Brodrick, James. The Origin of the Jesuits. New York: Longmans, Green, 1940. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1971. Though somewhat dated, this remains a good guide to the early history of the Jesuits.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Conwell, Joseph F. Impelling Spirit: Revisiting a Founding Experience, 1539. Chicago: Loyola Press, 1997. Extensive study of the visceral theological experience of the foundation of the Jesuits, based on the founders’ proposed papal letter approving the society. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Donnelly, John Patrick. Ignatius of Loyola: Founder of the Jesuits. New York: Longman, 2004. A thorough survey of Ignatius’s life, work, and ideas; some chapters deal with biographical events, while others focus on Ignatius’s thought on a particular issue, such as education or women. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, glossary, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dudon, Paul. St. Ignatius of Loyola. Translated by William J. Young. Milwaukee, Wis.: Bruce, 1949. A magisterial biography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lonsdale, David. Eyes to See, Ears to Hear: An Introduction to Ignatian Spirituality. Rev. ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 2000. This classic introduction to Ignatius’s spiritual theology and its applicability to contemporary life has been expanded to include a more thorough discussion of gender and a consideration of the nature and meaning of Ignatius’s renewed popularity in current society. Includes bibliographic references and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Meissner, W. W. The Psychology of a Saint: Ignatius of Loyola. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1992. A pioneering study of the inner life of Ignatius—his transformation from Iñigo the hidalgo to Ignatius the saint—in his gradual identification with Christ through an internalization of the teachings and values of Jesus Christ.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">O’Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993. Based squarely on Latin and Spanish sources, a solid scholarly study of the organization of the Society of Jesus.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ravier, André, Ignatius Loyola and the Founding of the Society of Jesus. Translated by Joan Maura and Carson Daly. San Francisco, Calif.: Ignatian Press, 1987. An interpretation of Ignatius and his society. Begins with a chronology of Ignatius and his followers’ activities; ends with an analysis of the message and mission of Ignatius. Based on Ignatius’s correspondence and his autobiography, letters of some of his close collaborators, and several volumes of the Monumenta Historica Societatis Jesus. Contains a bibliography (primarily French sources) and an index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, William J., ed. and trans. Letters of St. Ignatius of Loyola. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1959. Valuable primary material containing 441 letters written by Ignatius between 1524 and 1556.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Young, William J., trans. St. Ignatius’ Own Story as Told to Luis González de Cámara with a Sampling of His Letters. Reprint. Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1980. First published in 1958, this work is an important primary source on the society and its founder. Ignatius’s eleven letters reproduced here are a mine of information.

Nov. 1, 1478: Establishment of the Spanish Inquisition

Beginning c. 1495: Reform of the Spanish Church

1500-1530’s: Portugal Begins to Colonize Brazil

1511-c. 1515: Melaka Falls to the Portuguese

Oct. 31, 1517: Luther Posts His Ninety-five Theses

Aug., 1523: Franciscan Missionaries Arrive in Mexico

July, 1535-Mar., 1540: Henry VIII Dissolves the Monasteries

Mar., 1536: Calvin Publishes Institutes of the Christian Religion

1545-1563: Council of Trent

1549-1552: Father Xavier Introduces Christianity to Japan

1550’s-c. 1600: Educational Reforms in Europe

1558-1603: Reign of Elizabeth I

July 21, 1582: Battle of the Tobol River

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