April 1, 2020 — In 1767, due to a global panic over which they had little control, a group of Spanish Jesuits found themselves forced to abandon their places of work, hassled at international borders and, ultimately, driven into a prolonged period of isolation and uncertainty. Huddled within 13 ships, some 5,000 Jesuits were jostled from one Italian port to the next, until, finally, more than a year later — and with much politicking between the Spanish monarch and Pope Clement XIII — they found some respite within the Papal States. The elderly and ailing Jesuits were particularly vulnerable during this long journey amid poor conditions.
It must be said that there are only so many parallels that can and should be drawn between the early days of the suppression of the Society of Jesus — when the Jesuits ceased existing as a religious order by papal decree — and the current global pandemic. But our church is one that is built on the lives and faith of those who have come before. What can we learn for this moment from the Jesuits and their collaborators of the past?
St. Joseph Pignatelli, SJ, a man of noble blood, had not even been ordained a priest for five years when King Charles III expelled the Jesuits from Spanish soil. A humble priest, preoccupied with the tasks of pastoral ministry and education, he was suddenly forced to make a hard choice.
Would he join his brother Jesuits in exile, effectively abandoning all he had known and built? Or, would he lean on his noble birth to stay in Spain, leaving the Society behind?
Joseph chose the Jesuits. Two elderly Jesuit superiors — foreseeing the hardships ahead — passed on their authority to the much younger Joseph. The eventual saint not only remained with his brother Jesuits but became the superior to nearly 600 of them.
A toxic mix of political machinations by both absolute monarchs and churchmen alike, as well as 18th-century fake news (the Jesuits did not try to assassinate Louis XV of France, nor Joseph I of Portugal) eventually forced Clement XIV to issue Dominus ac Redemptor in 1773, which suppressed — or, eliminated — the Society of Jesus worldwide.
Joseph Pignatelli and his fellow Jesuits were now ex-Jesuit priests. But not forever.
The seeds that would regrow the Society of Jesus took root in Russia where — because Catherine the Great ignored the papal brief — the Jesuits never actually ceased to exist. Joseph, now in Bologna, spent more than two decades corresponding with both the Jesuit diaspora and the Jesuits in Russia. The fruits of his persistent communication led to his again pronouncing vows as a Jesuit in Parma in 1797 at the age of 60. He became novice master of the only Jesuit novitiate in Western Europe in 1799, and later Provincial in Italy, though the Society was still formally suppressed in much of the country.
Under the new Pope Pius VII — and with the monarch of Europe preoccupied with the Napoleonic Wars — the Society of Jesus was formally reestablished in 1813. Joseph Pignatelli, though, would not live to see the day he longed for — and long expected. He died in 1811.
Nevertheless, St. Joseph Pignatelli, SJ, is known as the second founder of the Society of Jesus for the role he played in shepherding the Jesuits through the 40 years of suppression.
- Joseph Pignatelli faced a choice. He chose for the common good of the Society of Jesus to go into isolation. His choice, in many ways, mirrors this moment in our own time. How do the choices we make today advance the common good?
- Persistent communication enabled the Jesuits to survive, despite exile, great distances and general uncertainty. What tool of communication can we use today to support our communities, even if we can’t meet in person?
Eric Clayton is the Senior Communications Manager for Ignatian Spirituality and Vocation Promotion at the Jesuit Conference. He is an adjunct professor of Mass Communication at Towson University, and has worked with numerous faith-based organizations, including Catholic Relief Services, Maryknoll Lay Missioners and the Sisters of Bon Secours.