In addition to the edicts and councils convened by the popes, the Catholic Reformation benefited from a resurgence of Catholic religious orders. The most important new religious order, by far, was the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. The Jesuits were founded by Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556), a kind of Catholic counterpart to Luther or Calvin, in 1540. A Spanish knight, Loyola was injured in battle. During his recovery, Loyola read books on the life of Christ and the saints, which inspired him to give up his possessions and take a pilgrimage across Spain and Italy. He soon attracted a following and was even briefly imprisoned on suspicion of heresy, since he claimed to offer “spiritual conversion” to those who would follow his teachings.
Loyola wrote a book, the Spiritual Exercises, that encouraged a mystic veneration of the Church and a single-minded devotion to its institutions. The Exercises were based on an imaginary recreation of the persecution and death of Christ that, when followed, led many new members of the Jesuits to experience an emotional and spiritual awakening. That awakening was explicitly focused on what he described as the “Church Hierarchical”: not just a worldly institution that offered guidance to Christians, but the sole path to salvation, imbued by God Himself with spiritual authority.
As a former soldier, he founded the Jesuits to be “faithful soldiers of the pope.” The purpose of the Jesuits was to fight Protestantism and heresy, forming a militant arm of scholar-soldiers available to the pope. What made the Jesuits distinct from the other religious orders was that they were responsible to the pope, not to kings. They came to live and work in kingdoms all over Europe, but they bypassed royal authority and took their orders directly from Rome – this did not endear them to many kings in the long run.
By Loyola’s death in 1556, there were about 1,000 Jesuits; that number rapidly increased by the end of the century. Many became influential advisors to kings across Europe, ensuring that Catholic monarchs would actively persecute and root out heresy (including, of course, Protestantism). They also began a missionary campaign that sought to rekindle an emotional connection to the Church through its use of passionate sermons.
Ultimately, the most important undertaking of the Jesuits was the creation of numerous schools. The Jesuits themselves were required to undergo an eleven-year period of training and education before they were full members, and they insisted on the highest quality of rigor and scholarship in their training and in the education they provided others. They raised young men, often nobles or rich members of the non-noble classes, with both an excellent humanist education and a fierce devotion to the Church. By 1600 there were 250,000 students in Jesuit schools across continental Europe. The schools were noteworthy for being free, funded by the Church and private gifts. Students had to apply for admittance, and the Jesuits working at the schools were far closer to their students than were the very aloof professors at traditional universities at the time. The products of Jesuit schools were thus young men who had received both an excellent education and a deep indoctrination in Catholic belief and opposition to Protestantism. Those young men, drawn as they were from families of social elites, often went on to positions of considerable political and commercial power.
Jesuits were also active missionaries, soon traveling all over the known world. Unlike many other orders of missionaries, the Jesuits distinguished themselves by not only learning the native languages of the people they ministered to, but of adopting their customs as well. They were the first successful missionaries in East Asia, founding Christian communities in Japan (in 1549) and China (in 1552). In the Chinese case, the Jesuits failed to make many converts, but they did bring back an enormous amount of information about China itself. The most noteworthy Jesuit missionary, Matteo Ricci, lived in the court of the Chinese emperor, was fluent in Chinese, and served as a court astrologer. It was Jesuits who brought back the puzzling (to Europeans) reports of a highly sophisticated, rich, ancient culture that had achieved its power without Christianity.