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The Jesuits: From Ignatius of Loyola to Pope Francis by Michael Walsh

13 January 2023

Lavinia Byrne reflects on the Jesuits’ record

MICHAEL WALSH’s book begins with a fascinating promise: he wants to write a history, hence his overarching title, but a history with a twist, namely an account of how Jesuits think and have thought over the past four centuries. He is ideally placed to embark on such a project, both as a former Jesuit himself and, above all, as former librarian of the largest theological library in Europe, namely, the collection held at Heythrop College in its glory days in London.

The first chapter explains what formed Ignatius and his own thought. His early influences — as a Spanish aristocrat, wounded war hero, wandering pilgrim, and student in Paris — gave rise to the Spiritual Exercises and, indeed, inspired all the texts that emerged as foundational, such as the Jesuit Constitutions.

Walsh offers a lucid map of the spread of the Society as it expanded into the Far East and the New World, and became consolidated in Europe. This expansion was not without controversy as the Jesuits negotiated their status as individuals, as well as that of their universities and schools, their teaching, and their social apostolate. Crunch time came when the Society was suppressed and subsequently reinstated.

Walsh motors through his material with skill and erudition, never more so than in his final chapter, “Thinking with the Church”. This is where he most deliberately delivers on his promise to examine how Jesuits think. This title is taken from the Spiritual Exercises, where Ignatius had laid out a series of Rules for such thinking. During the Counter-Reformation “thinking with” was never the problem that it was to become. Orthodoxy was held and defended from within the Church, and often formulated by Jesuit theologians in the service of church Councils.

Come the 20th century, and all sorts of problems arise. Modernism raises issues that mean that the enemy no longer lurks outside, but moves within. Thinking with the Church becomes a can of worms when the Church endorses anti-Semitism or the rise of fascism. Arguably, some of the greatest Roman Catholic thinkers of the second half of the century were Jesuits: Karl Rahner, Henri de Lubac, and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin come to mind; and the Church saw fit to rein them in. How timely, then, that the emergence of a Jesuit pope offers temporary respite and something of a truce.

This is a terrific book, never more so than when it defends Michael Walsh’s principal insight about the centrality of the Spiritual Exercises in shaping Jesuit thought. This held true in the cell that harboured Edmund Campion and in the reductions of Latin America, as well as in the universities of Fordham, Loyola, and, dare I say it, Heythrop College.

Lavinia Byrne is a writer and broadcaster.


The Jesuits: From Ignatius of Loyola to Pope Francis
Michael Walsh
Canterbury Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.69

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