Earlier this fall, I enjoyed breakfast with my predecessor and dear friend, Steve Hayner. At the end of the meal, I casually inquired about any good books he had read lately. Without hesitation, he recommended i>Heroic Leadership by Chris Lowney. Little did I realize at the time just what a fortuitous piece of advice this would be.
Lowney’s book recounts the history of the early Jesuits. Inauspiciously founded in 1540 by ten college students in Paris, the Society of Jesus grew to become not only the largest religious order in the world, but the largest higher-education network as well.
Lowney describes four traits that set the Jesuits apart.
The order’s first “general,” Ignatius Loyola, required each recruit to spend 30 days engaged in “spiritual exercises.” This entailed solitude, Scripture reading, and critical self-reflection. Each day was arranged around four one-hour mediations. In subsequent years, Jesuits examined themselves twice daily and set aside one week per year for deeper reflection.
By being so intentional about matters such as repentance, self-assessment, and personal accountability, early Jesuits were shaped to be both contemplative and activistic.
Jesuit training was designed to facilitate adaptability, imagination, and flexibility. Loyola described the ideal Jesuit as “living with one foot raised.” By this phrase, he expressed a strong action bias. To set this process in motion, fresh recruits — after completing the spiritual exercises — were sent on month-long pilgrimages without funds, food, or lodging.
After his initial training was completed, Jesuit Christopher Clavius felt called to become a professor of astronomy and mathematics. In this role at a leading university for 48 years, he trained two generations of Europe’s elite scientists. It is estimated that the Jesuits educated 20% of all university students in Europe at that time.
Among Clavius’ students was Matteo Ricci. Ricci would spend the bulk of his life as a missionary to China, becoming a Confucian scholar who dressed in traditional Mandarin garb. Honored as the first Westerner to be buried within the imperial walls at his death in 1610, he personally led 2,500 Chinese into the Christian faith.
Jesuits were also trained to love each other and those they served. As the first missionary to Japan in 1549, Francis Xavier drew energy from mere scraps of paper that bore the signatures of his nine fellow Jesuits in Paris. Within a century, nearly half a million Japanese had converted.
The Jesuits were truly a multiethnic community. While all other religious orders rejected converted Jews – labeling them marrano (swine) – the Jesuits welcomed them with open arms. Hence, it is no surprise that Loyola’s successor, Diego Lainez, was a Jewish Christian.
Love for the disenfranchised was also central to the Jesuit vision. As portrayed in the movie, i>The Mission, Jesuits established native settlements in South America and fought injustice. As a result of their stand against slavery, they suffered severe persecution.
Finally, each Jesuit was encouraged to lead “an uninterrupted life of heroic deeds and heroic virtues.” Their Latin word motto – magis – simply means more. Believing that God had called upon them to accomplish great things for Him, they were the first Europeans to visit Tibet, boat down the Blue Nile, and explore the head waters of the Mississippi River.
It was in this spirit that Alexandre de Rhodes went to Vietnam in 1627. Within 30 years, he witnessed over 300,000 new believers. The call to do more likewise led Roberto de Nobili, a noble’s son, to serve as a missionary to India. Eventually, he wrote twenty books in Sanskrit. Fifty years after his death in 1656, some 200,000 Indians had joined the faith.
Lessons for Us
As InterVarsity staff, what can we learn from the early Jesuits? How might these four traits impact our ministry on American campuses today?
First, each of us must develop regular time and space for reflection. Too often, we head off to “do ministry” without engaging intimately with the Lord. At our own peril do we ignore His invitation to come and dine. Daily quiet times and periodic extended blocks of reflection and prayer are essential. As I travel, I am encouraged by the growing hunger I see – from Southern California to New England – for a deeper spiritual walk.
Second, we must always be reinventing the way we do ministry. The enemy of ingenuity is not stupidity but tradition. An evangelistic method that worked five years ago may not be as appropriate now. A group of students that we didn’t notice two years ago now may loom large on our screens. While truth remains constant, we must conscientiously adapt our methodology to reach this generation of students and faculty.
Third, we are called to care for and support one another. Since InterVarsity’s purpose is to “establish and advance witnessing communities,” we must not walk alone. Like Xavier, we should feel supported even if we are not in geographical proximity with each other. This love should then extend to the diverse communities of students, faculty, and campuses we serve.
Finally, as we contemplate the early Jesuits’ heroic deeds, let us be inspired to fulfill God’s mission in the communities where we serve. Currently, the Fellowship has staff on only about one-quarter of American campuses, and we are reaching only a fraction of the 17 million college students and faculty with the gospel. Let us be too heroic, not permitting any barriers to stand in our way.
Vladimir Lenin — Russian revolutionary and certainly no friend of the Jesuits — reflected that with only a dozen cadres as talented and dedicated as the Jesuits, his Communist movement would sweep the world.
The question before us is simple. As a movement, do we have the spiritual discipline, missionary ardor, and love to change the world? This is my prayer.
Alec Hill is the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA