Peace Corps Writers
Other books by Peter McDonough

Passionate Uncertainty
Inside the American Jesuits
by Peter McDonough (East Pakistan/Bangladesh 1961–63)
and Eugene C. Bianchi
University of California Press, $29.95
380 pages
March 2002
Read an interview with the author
Peter Mcdonough

(Buy this book)

Passionate Uncertainty
  Reviewed by M. Susan Hundt-Bergan (Ethiopia 1966–68)
   ON THE DAY I FINISHED READING this book, the first scriptural reading at Mass was from the Second Letter of Paul to Timothy. St. Paul charges Timothy to . . .Printer friendly version

    . . . preach the word, to stay with this task whether convenient or inconvenient . . .constantly teaching and never losing patience. For the time will come when people will not tolerate sound doctrine, but, following their own desires, will surround themselves with teachers who tickle their ears. They will stop listening to the truth and will wander off to fables. As for you, be steady and self-possessed; put up with hardship, perform your work as an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.

Paul goes on to speak of his own ministry

    The time of my dissolution is near. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

St. Paul’s unflinching words struck me as a touchstone for the testimony of the Jesuit priests who were interviewed for Peter McDonough and Eugene Bianchi’s book. In Passionate Uncertainty: Inside the American Jesuits, the authors evaluate the last forty years of the order’s history through personal interviews and written statements from 430 men, divided equally between active Jesuits and former Jesuits. The interviews reveal the lack of a common mission, purpose and identity and reveal ambivalence about essential theological and doctrinal beliefs. The American Jesuits are in a steep decline. One wants to place St. Paul’s bracing words before them and say, “Straighten up! Love God, pray, serve his Church and his people faithfully and the rest will take care of itself!” Membership in the order is less than half what it was in 1965. What has happened to the Jesuits in America and what are the prospects for their future? To try to answer that question and understand what’s at stake, it’s useful to step back and a get a broader picture.

The broader picture
The Jesuits are an “order,” which in the Christian tradition can be defined as “an association of men or women who seek to lead a life of prayer and pious practices and who are often devoted to some specific form of service.” In the Catholic Church there are several types of these associations, including monastic orders such as the Benedictines and mendicant orders or friars, such as the Franciscans or Dominicans. The Jesuits are an example of “clerks regular,” a society of priests “who make vows and are joined together for the purpose of priestly ministry.” Some orders, such as the Franciscans, Dominicans and Jesuits, have a worldwide presence. The majority of priests in the United States diocesan, answer to the local bishop and generally spend their years of ministry serving the Catholics of a specific diocese, usually in a parish setting. (As of the year 2000, in the United States there were 30,940 diocesan priests and 15,465 order/religious priests.) Most nuns or sisters belong to an order.
     All of the great orders of the Church were born of a passionate love of Christ and the desire to serve him and his people. St. Benedict, St. Francis, St. Clare, St. Dominic and Mother Teresa all started orders that met the needs of the Church, the people of God, at a specific time and place in human history.

 Ignatius Loyola founds the Jesuits — the Society of Jesus
Ignatius Loyola, a Spaniard born the 12th and final child of a noble Basque family, founded the Society of Jesus in 1540. Ignatius’ youthful military career came to an end when a French cannon ball smashed into his legs. During his long convalescence the only reading material available to him was a life of Christ and a book on the saints. Reading and rereading these, he experienced a profound change of heart that called him to a course of prayer, pilgrimage, and years of study that opened both the spiritual and material world to him. During this period he began writing what would become his great work, The Spiritual Exercises. This transformative period culminated in his founding, with ten companions, the Company of Jesus. Ignatius and his friends took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience — obedience to the superior general (Ignatius was the first elected to this office.) and to the Holy Father. They vowed to go wherever the Pope should send them for the salvation of souls. Ignatius, who was elected the first Superior General of the order, told his followers, “Be all things to all men . . . Go and set the world ablaze.”
     Ignatius and his company went out into the world Ad majorem dei Gloria — for the greater glory of God. The Jesuits were a new breed of congregation. They were fully engaged in evangelizing and teaching, not set apart in the quiet of a monastery. Their history has often been a tumultuous and dramatic one. The Society of Jesus grew quickly into a significant force within the church, sending their members to Japan and China and the New World, establishing schools and advising kings. Their influence within and without the Church grew until 1773, when — in response to the demands of vexed rulers and jealous churchmen — the pope suppressed the Society of Jesus. Forty years later, in 1814, the suppression was lifted so that the Jesuits could help the papacy counteract the aftershock of the French Revolution. In the decades between 1814 and Vatican Council II (1962–65), the Jesuits thrived, mostly associated with conservative heads of state in Europe.

The Jesuits in the U.S.
In the New World, Jesuits in the United States flourished as they ministered to Catholic immigrants and their children. Much of their effort in this country was devoted to establishing and staffing a network of high schools, colleges and universities, including Saint Louis University, Georgetown University, and Loyola University in Chicago. By 1940, the American Jesuits, confident and successful, were the largest national contingent in the order. The American Jesuits peaked in 1965 with about 8,500 members out of about 35,000 worldwide. Since then, the order has declined in numbers, until today there are about 16,500 worldwide, with about 3,000 in the U.S.

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