On a Mission from God: The Jesuits

Martin Scorsese’s 2016 film, Silence, tells the story of Jesuit priests caught in the thick of Japanese shogun persecution of Catholic Christians, in the early 17th century. This critically acclaimed film is based on a book, of the same name, by Shūsaku Endō.

While 16th century Reformation Europe was embattled with conflict between Roman Catholics and Protestants (and at times, between Protestants and other Protestants), the growth of Christianity exploded across the “New World,” with missionary enterprises extending from the Americas, to the far corners of Asia.

With only a few exceptions, Protestants were generally too preoccupied by their conflicts with Rome, and their own internal conflicts, to be fully engaged in this world missions effort, at that present time. Instead, the Roman Catholic church, following the discoveries of new trade routes and new lands, sent missionaries out in great numbers, to bring the message of Christianity to the world.

One of the main engines behind this missionary zeal was due to the founding of the Society of Jesus, otherwise known as the Jesuits, in the 16th century. In 1521, the same year as Luther’s famous appearance before the emperor Charles V, at the Diet of Worms, a Spanish soldier was severely wounded in the legs, thus ending his military career. Ignatius of Loyola spent months in recovery, where he had access to a theological library, to bide his time, while he was on the mend. It was here where he underwent a spiritual conversion, and developed the Spiritual Exercises, a manual for Christian growth.

Ignatius went onto study theology in France, which was just then enveloped in turmoil, due to the Reformation, causing another student, John Calvin, a few years later, to flea the country, to Geneva, Switzerland. But Ignatius was suspicious of the Reformation, with its emphasis on private Bible interpretation, and held to Roman Catholic ideals. Nevertheless, Ignatius was bothered that so few priests and members of existing monastic orders had very little in the way of theological education. Along with a group of friends, Ignatius found favor with the Pope to form the Society of Jesus, in 1540, as a new monastic order, that aimed at combining advanced theological education, with Christian mission.

The Jesuits have been known to be very loyal in their service of the papacy. In some cases, their loyalty has proved to be overzealous. The 16th century Roman Catholic Queen of England, Mary, has been known as “Bloody Mary” among Protestants, to this day, due to her execution of some 300-400 Protestant leaders, in her efforts to force England back into Roman Catholicism. However, in later years, Protestant Queen Elizabeth I, of England, exceeded the brutality of her half-sister, Mary. What is often not known, is that Elizabeth had perhaps 1,000 Roman Catholics executed, during her reign. Many of those executed were members of the Jesuit order, as some of those Jesuits had been involved in assassination attempts against Elizabeth’s life, thus encouraging the Queen to crack down on the presence of Jesuits in England.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola. 1491-1556. (Credit: Wikipedia)

However, the Society of Jesus, in the 16th century, was mainly known for their extensive missionary efforts across the world. Frances Xavier, one of Ignatius’s friends, baptized thousands, all across Asia, in the name of the Christian faith. The missionary strategy of the Jesuits was quite remarkable: If you focus your energies on reaching the leaders of a nation, or ethnic group, and they become Catholic, then the rest of their people, under the leader’s authority, will follow in their footsteps. This is why Roman Catholicism continues to be the dominant Christian faith across the world, from Latin America to the Philippines.

The strategy proved effective across much of Asia. But it backfired tragically in Japan. Jesuit missionaries made efforts to reach leading families of shogun elite in Japan, as early Portuguese traders made their way into the western Pacific. Thousands received Christian baptism. But when in-fighting began among these shogun families, the missionary efforts of the Jesuits came under suspicion. The situation was not helped by the growing presence of newer Franciscan missions, that took a different strategy, focusing their efforts on reaching the poor, and thus encouraging those poor to rise up above their oppressive situations. On top of that, Dutch and English Protestants warned the Japanese leaders about reported subversive tendencies of the Jesuits. Little did the Dutch and English know that the Japanese understood nothing of the distinctions between Protestant and Roman Catholic, and soon, all of Christianity in Japan was under attack.

By the early 17th century, and within a fairly short period of time, all Christian missionaries were banned, thus ending the Western Christian missionary enterprise in Japan. The new Japanese leadership embarked on the most severe and brutal campaign of Christian persecution, nearly wiping out all of the new professing Christians, with literally thousands and thousands of crucifixions, mocking the central feature of Christian faith: Jesus’ death on the cross.

The tiny, surviving Christian community went underground after that, only re-emerging when the American military made contact with Japan, in the mid-19th century. Today, the nation of Japan is one of the least open cultures to the Gospel, with less than 2% Christians, and Japan is sometimes called “the graveyard of Christian missions.”

Nevertheless, church planting efforts in Japan today are starting to show fruit, through God’s providence. But the work is often slow, and the workers are few.

The vibrant era of Jesuit missionary work in the 16th century, across the world, highlights the significance of what historians now call the “Catholic Reformation.” Previous historians, mainly Protestant, have called this the “Catholic Counter-Reformation” instead, thus indicating that the growth of movements like the Society of Jesus were a response to Protestantism. There is some truth to this. But this designation takes away from the fact that there were efforts, with varying levels of degrees, and varying levels of success, that tried to reform the medieval Roman Catholic Church from within.

As my longtime high school friend, Virginia Woodward, recently blogged, Ignatius of Loyola leaves us an enduring legacy. Here are some of Virginia’s favorite quotes from Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits:

“Go forth and set the world on fire.”
“Laugh and grow strong.”
“He who carries God in his heart bears heaven with him wherever he goes..”


Here is the trailer to the Martin Scorsese move, Silence:

About Clarke Morledge

Clarke Morledge -- Computer Network Engineer, College of William and Mary... I hiked the Mount of the Holy Cross, one of the famous Colorado Fourteeners, with some friends in July, 2012. My buddy, Mike Scott, snapped this photo of me on the summit. View all posts by Clarke Morledge

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