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How the Jesuits helped to build a country.

THE AMERICAN JESUITS: A HISTORY By Raymond A. Schroth New York University Press, Z68 pages, $29.95

What area of American life have Jesuits not touched? Education, the arts, journalism, politics, science, architecture, activism, social work--oh, and ministry, just to name a few.


Jesuit missionaries helped explore the American continent in the 17th century and developed an extensive and respected education system in the 19th and 20th. Jesuits have educated presidents as well as slaves and protested wars. Graduates of Jesuit schools helped build Hollywood and wear down Soviet communism. The Jesuit Volunteer Corps annually sends out college graduates to work with the poor and marginalized. On the other hand, one of my childhood mentors backhandedly complimented Jesuit "astuteness" upon learning I would attend the Jesuits' St. Louis University.

How to make sense of all the achievement? The Society of Jesus has long been the largest men's order in the American Catholic church, yet we lack a comprehensive view of the order's success. Raymond Schroth's The American Jesuits more than fills this void, offering a perspective of the order that by turns reveals, inspires and consternates. It also achieves that elusive goal of combining comprehensiveness with brevity.

Fr. Schroth, a Jesuit himself and a familiar NCR contributor, proceeds chronologically with 15 chapters spread across four sections. Founded in 1534, recognized by papal bull in 1540, the Society sent missionaries from Rome to North America and around the world. The Society's European origins provide spiritual and historical foundations for its American expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries. The final chapter includes a sobering assessment of the Jesuits' graying (median age 67.6 years) and dwindling membership. Fr. Schroth suggests the U.S. order might have only 1,100 members by 2050, down from 8,338 in 1960. Before that, though, comes a rollicking good story.

In founding the society, Inigo Lopez de Loyola, who only later became "Ignatius," exchanged the monastic vow of stability with another expressing willingness to go wherever the pope wished. This new mobility and vow of papal loyalty required that they be excused from monastic practice of communally reciting the Divine Office, a development Fr. Schroth sees as crucial for what was to come: "They meditated, said Mass, examined their consciences, and read their breviaries every day; but they were too busy finding God on the streets to spend another four or five hours a day in church." This pragmatic spirit pervades Fr. Schroth's history as well as his own narrative voice. From their founder's first decisions, the Jesuits would be different.


That difference provoked several centuries of inventive Jesuit activity in North America. Fr. Schroth details in celebratory language the early missions in Maryland, upstate New York, and California, highlighting martyred Jesuits Isaac Jogues and Jean de Brebeuf. The founding of Woodstock, the legendary Jesuit novitiate in rural Maryland, and the weekly publication America also receive concerted attention. Fr. Schroth's pride in his order shines brightly in his discussion of mid-20th century Jesuit theological innovation and involvement at the Second Vatican Council (1962-65).

He details the work of weil-known Jesuits and consistently draws attention to neglected members such as Confederate chaplain Louis-Hippolyte Gache; poet Leonard Feeney, excommunicated for defending strict interpretation of the doctrine "outside the church there is no salvation"; and Fr. Edmund Walsh, founder of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. The stories of John Corriden, the priest who fought organized crime and corruption on the New York waterfront, and Fr. Walter Ciszek, a Polish-American known for his clandestine missionary work in the Soviet Union between 1941 and 1963, are particularly moving.

Fr. Schroth nevertheless reminds us that as "a general rule there have been few great and famous Jesuits."

Some minor quibbles do emerge. The book lacks any photographs or illustrations. Fr. Schroth does not mention Joseph Husslein, who edited the 200-volume "University in Print" series published in the 1930s and '40s. More recently, the scintillating historical-theological work of Fordham's Mark Massa could have merited a passing reference. Questions of historical perspective, if not "objectivity," surface occasionally. Fr. Schroth gracefully and repeatedly captures the effusive confidence mid-20th century American Catholics, including the Jesuits, felt and often wrestled to hold back.

Nevertheless, celebrating the '60s "for those who lived or marched through them" as "exhilarating freedom and matchless pain" perpetuates a certain generational elitism. Jesuits involved in seemingly quixotic or conservative ventures (for example, sodality leader and Hollywood moralist Daniel Lord) appear retrograde and out of touch. This disjuncture leaves Fr. Schroth's account of moral theologian John C. Ford's opposition to both artificial birth control and obliteration bombing somewhat disconnected. It's as if Fr. Schroth wishes to maintain Loyola's emphasis on mobility minus that loyalty vow to the papacy.

Overall, though, The American Jesuits offers an enthralling celebration of the Jesuits' presence in American Catholic life, masterfully testifying to the society's achievements. It should also serve as a much-needed blueprint for similar histories of other influential orders in American Catholic life. Fr. Schroth has set the standard.

[Jeffrey Marlett teaches at the College of St. Rose in Albany, N.Y.]
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Title Annotation:The America Jesuit: A History
Author:Marlett, Jeffrey
Publication:National Catholic Reporter
Article Type:Book review
Date:May 2, 2008
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