by Kaitlyn McCarthy
The author Mark Twain once said, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it rhymes.”
While this may not have been the official theme of the “History of Jesuits Coming to North America Institute”, it could have aptly served as one. Organized by the National Jesuit Brothers Committee, the Institute, held over four days at Santa Clara University, illustrated a contrast; both the commonalities and the differences within the Society’s North American history.
Common themes such as missionary spirit, the frontiers and adaptation to local cultures were threaded throughout the talks, but the specific applications were varied and unique. The historical tales and themes ‘rhymed’ with the challenges Jesuits face today, but the frontiers in which they work now are very different.
The presentations were geographically segmented, and often illustrated by focusing either on specific Jesuits and their works or particular missions within the region.
Fr. Raymond Schroth (NYK), in his overview of Jesuits Coming to North America, shared with attendees the missionary outreach techniques of Fr. Eusebio Francisco Kino, and how Kino both earned the trust of the indigenous peoples and improved their lives.
“Kino developed the stock raising industry we know today, not just for Jesuit profit,” commented Schroth, “but to help the local people to eat and learn a trade. He was a tough, but humble man. He would weep while reading the breviary, he would angrily reprimand sinners, but absorb all criticism of himself. Sometimes he would spend the night in the chapel and have himself whipped. He would take his food without salt or seasoning so that it would taste bad, he took no tobacco, no snuff, and no wine. He slept not in a bed, but on a horse blanket with his saddle for a pillow. Sick with a fever for days, he would get up only to say Mass, then go back to bed.”
Not to be outdone by their western counterparts, the Jesuits in the southern parts of the United States faced the similar struggle of earning the trust of the native peoples. The Jesuits were working against rumors and stereotype. The Indians worried that the Jesuits would treat them much the same way the Spanish Conquistadors did. Plus, there was the added complication of a reputation the Huguenots had credited the Jesuits with; the French warned the Indians of devils in black robes who had come to steal their souls.
The frontiers faced by the Jesuits in New Spain, or present day Mexico, involved ministering to the indigenous people, but also, quelling internal conflict within their own ranks.
According to Fr. Allan Deck (CFN), “Rome would alternate the provincial in Mexico between Spaniards; a Spaniard born in Spain and then a Spaniard born in Mexico to keep the peace between those two sets of Jesuits. There was a delicate balance between those two groups.”
Despite this unsteady balance, the Jesuits of New Spain were very successful in their work and ministry.
“Jesuits became the second largest owner of land in New Spain. They primarily owned sugar plantations, mostly run by the brothers, and operated with thousands of slaves. They developed the cattle industry and agriculture in Mexico, and many of the standards in today’s industry were pioneered by these missionaries,” said Deck. “The Jesuits of New Spain were very successful with the native people because of their baroque style of ministry; they were required to learn at least one native language in addition to Latin and Greek. They met the local people where they were at, much as we do today.”
Conference presenters also invited attendees to reflect on those moments in history where the Society has fallen short of its ideals. Jesuits are men of God but that has never meant the Society was immune to temporal divisions of the day. While many things can influence a Jesuit’s work, whether secular or spiritual, personal affiliation and loyalty have potential to cloud decision and opinion, as seen in the Civil War.
“Now, during the Civil War, it would be pleasant to report that the American Jesuits were more enlightened than their contemporaries, and were opposed to slavery and thus supported the Union cause — far from it. The Maryland Jesuits, as you know, owned slaves, [which] split up families,” commented Schroth. “At Boston College, which was then a Scholasticate for 46 Scholastics and 8 Brothers from all over the World, including France, Germany, England and Ireland, the Rector, Fr. John Bapst, wrote ‘when Lincoln was inaugurated in March 1861, we are at this moment sitting on a volcano.’ The community was made up of men from everywhere, which meant their opinions matched where they came from … community members were forbidden to talk about slavery, or the war,” as fights were prone to break out.
Many of the presentations discussed the physical, tangible connections between Jesuits of the past, and those of today; the missions founded by Italian Jesuits on the West Coast, the influence on cattle and agriculture industries throughout the continent, the foundation of numerous schools and universities, all of which have lasted through time, and continue to affect countless lives. Yet, the special connection between the history and present day became particularly evident in Fr. David Suwalsky’s (MIS) presentation about the Jesuits in Missouri and the Midwest.
“To symbolize the connection between Jesuits of today and those of the past, the chalice of the last French Jesuits working in the Missouri Province before the suppression, which was used by the Pope in 1999, is used and presented by the bishop to the Jesuit ordinandi at their ordination,” said Suwalsky.
But perhaps the most poignant juxtaposition of Jesuit mission history meeting present day was found in Br. Jim Boynton’s (DET) presentation on New France.
“The reason that I was originally directed toward the Society of Jesus was the men I am going to talk about today, and the reason I am going to stay is people like yourself,” commented Boynton. “However, I would like to point out that right here I am holding my tribal membership card to the Sioux-Saint Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. I am a member of the Indian tribe by blood through my mother.”
Despite the Society’s immense historical breadth, vast like the North American continent itself, the commonality of the missionary spirit became manifest throughout the Institute. While the differences between Jesuits and the regions profiled were evident; be it culturally, geographically or generationally; they were connected through their Jesuit identity, and their desire to better the world they knew, for the greater glory of God.
Kaitlyn McCarthy is a communications specialist for the Jesuit Conference in Washington, D.C.