Jesuit Historiography Online

Historiography of Jesuit Spirituality
(7,749 words)

Rob Faesen, S.J.
Last modified: October 2018

The historiography of Jesuit spirituality is a very complex subject. Indeed, the vast majority of studies and publications on the history of the order contain some reflections on its spirituality, including the studies that treat specifically chronological or geographic questions. A good example of such a study is John W. O’Malley’s famous book The First Jesuits,1 which provides an important analysis and description of the spirituality of the first Jesuits. It is thus impossible to provide a comprehensive survey of the entire historiography of Jesuit spirituality.

In the majority of cases, however, scholars base their research into this matter on a limited number of fundamental publications, and in this sense, one might say that the historiography of Jesuit spirituality is a relatively straightforward affair. Indeed, the number of specific studies focused on the historiography of the spirituality of the order as such is relatively limited, but these works are exceptionally informative. The present article will thus be limited to this second group of studies.

1. Older Surveys

Almost all the older historiographies of the order devote attention to its spirituality. The most famous example is of course the Imago primi saeculi, which explicitly treats the spirituality of the order’s first century. The book purpose’s is far broader, however, than a simple overview of the historiography of the order’s spirituality. The same is true of the older bibliographic works, such as Antonio Possevino’s (1533/34–1611) impressive bibliographic encyclopaedia Apparatus sacer, published in 1608.2


An exception is the Iubilum seculare by the Amsterdam Jesuit Max van der Sandt (Maximilianus Sandaeus, 1578–1656),3 the focus of which is very specifically on spirituality, and especially mystical spirituality. He seeks to show that various aspects of the mystical life can be found in Ignatius of Loyola and many other Jesuits: Francisco de Xavier (1506–52), Pierre Favre (1506–46), Francisco de Borja (1510–72), Diego Laínez (1502–65), Baltasar Álvarez (1534–80), Luis de la Puente (Ludovicus de Ponte, 1554–1624), Diego Álvarez da Paz (1560–1620), Bernardino Rossignoli (1547–1613), etc. He proceeds by connecting aspects from the life and works of these Jesuits to major authors from the mystical tradition, such as John of Ruusbroec (1293–1381), Hendrik Herp (Henricus Harphius, c.1410–77/78), Johannes Tauler (c.1300–61), Hendrik Seuse (Henricus Suso, 1295–1366), Ludovicus Blosius (1506–66) and Teresa of Ávila (1515–82). This book appeared among many other publications celebrating the centenary of the order, and it was Sandaeus’s clear intention to contradict those who were of the opinion that the order’s identity was not contemplative:

I myself would dare to declare that, even though it does not belong to the task of the Society to dwell in the solitude, which is the dwelling place of the mystics, yet there have been not a few men in the Society during the first century—and there are still now—of exceptional contemplation, men who cultivate the hidden wisdom with much care, who have excelled the best in the knowledge of that experience, who have contributed much about it in holy erudition, and who have been eminent in each [i.e. experience or erudition] or in both, as far as they can be connected mutually.4

Sandaeus’s Societas Iesv amatrix, cultrix, imitatrix, Christi crvcifixi shows a different perspective on the spirituality of the order. At the beginning of the book, Sandaeus provides a few pages of information concerning the general history of the order. After the dedication to Vincent Carrafa (1585–1649), the newly elected superior general of the order, Sandaeus addresses the fathers and brothers of the order—the book is clearly meant to be read by Jesuits. Then, after some introductory chapters, the book presents the history and the identity of the order according to the spiritual theme of the amator crucifixi (lover of the cross), in chapters which are clustered in groups of ten. This overview begins with a decas about Ignatius and Francis Xavier, and then discusses this spiritual dimension further in the life of  superiors general: Claudio Acquaviva (1543–1615), Muzio Vitelleschi (1563–1645); of saints: Robert Bellarmine (1542–1621), Luigi Gonzaga (1568–91), Robert Southwell (1561–95), Jan Berchmans (1599–1621), but also that of Jesuits such as Leonard Leys (Leonardus Lessius, 1554–1623), Kasper Berse (Gaspar Barzaeus, 1515–53), Philippe Hannotel (1600–37), Carlos Scribani (1561–1629), or of lay brothers like Alfonso Rodrígez (1531(?)–1617), Gulielmus Sattamochius (sutor [cobbler]) and Petrus Fernandus (faber lignarius [carpenter]). He occasionally discusses entire groups (doctores theologiae [theology doctors], patres Transilvani [fathers from Transylvania], Japonum instructores [intructors in Japan). All this is presented as an overview of the affectus et opera erga Christum crucifixum Societatis Jesu (affection and works of the Society of Jesus for crucified Christ). Sandaeus concludes each chapter with a list of his sources.


In the modern era, the initiative of the Monumenta Historica Societatis Jesu is evidently of great importance for the historiography of the order’s spirituality. This series of critical editions of historical sources, which was launched in Madrid in 1894 and was continued under the supervision of the Jesuit Historical Institute in Rome from 1930, edited a series of documents concerning the beginnings of the order and the first Jesuits, among other important sources.5 In the first half of the twentieth century, a number of interesting instruments were published for the study of the history of the order’s spirituality, based on the sources. We may mention the relatively short overview written by Hugo Rahner (1900–68) in 1922 concerning “the ascetic texts in the MHSI” (“die aszetischen Schriften in den MHSI”). The book was intended for his younger confreres, to make the spiritual sources of the order that had been published in the critical editions of the Monumenta Historica more accessible. In 1925, the overview was supplemented by his brother Karl Rahner (1904–84), but this addition was only published in 1986.6


The project of Jean-François Gilmont7 was in many respects similar, though the work dates from several decades after that of the Rahner brothers (Gilmont had completed his work in 1955, but it was only published in 1961), and is entitled Inventaire commenté.8 Gilmont writes that many sources of Ignatian spirituality had been published by the Historical Institute in Rome, and that he intends to provide an orientation for the study of these sources. We must immediately note that he limits his presentation to the order’s earliest spirituality, namely Ignatius, his companions in Paris, and the first generation of members who joined the order. The book contains more than a mere inventory, however. Gilmont provides useful historical orientations to each of the sections of the book, and he adds brief annotations to each of the works listed in his inventory (with a bibliography). In other words, the book is far more than a simply inventory: it is a fascinating history of the spiritual writings of the first Jesuits. In the first section, Gilmont surveys the biographical texts about the life of Ignatius, the various editions of the Exercises, directories and apologies of the Exercises, the Constitutions, and Ignatius’s spiritual diary and correspondence. In the second section, he discusses the writings of Ignatius’ companions during the Parisian period: Favre, Xavier, Simão Rodrigues (1510–79), Diego Laínez, Alonso Salmerón (1515–85), Nicolás de Bobadilla (1509–90), and Claude Jay (1500–52). Finally, the third part treats the first recruits to the order: Francisco de Borja, Diego Miró (1516–90), Juan Alfonso de Polanco (1517–76), Peter Kanis (Petrus Canisius, 1521–97), Jerónimo Nadal (1507–80), Éverard Lardinois (Everard Mercurian, 1514–80), Cristóbal Sánchez de Madrid (1503–73), Gaspar Loarte (c. 1498–1578), Pedro de Ribadeneyra (1526–1611), Olivier Mannaerts (1523–1614), Paul Hoffaeus (c.1530–1608), Juan Alonso de Vitoria (c.1530–78), Fulvio Androzzi (1523–75), Émond Auger (1530–91), Frans De Costere (1532–1619), Adriaan De Witte (1529–58), and Dirk Geraerts (1531–58). In a useful appendix, Gilmont provides a chronological list of the first editions of all the works discussed in the book.


The overview by Pierre Bouvier, which was published in 1924, is also worthy of note.9 This survey article was written for a reference work, so it is necessarily concise. But Bouvier’s perspective is telling. He discusses the principles, practices, and characteristics of Jesuit spirituality. He then treats its influence and the criticisms and accusations that were levelled against it. The article is not so much historiographical as it is systematic, even though the Dictionnaire de théologie catholique generally offers historical and well-documented entries. Nevertheless, Bouvier indicates a number of elements that are of interest for our concerns.

The fact that Bouvier employs a specifically historiographic perspective is clear from the beginning of the text:

The present work is relatively easy because the entire spirituality of the Society of Jesus is to be found in a condensed way in the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius. It is there that, on the formal recommendation of the master, the ascetic and mystic authors of the order came, one after the other—with only a few exceptions—to seek their principal inspiration. Without limiting our study to the Exercises, which would be certainly be challenged enough, it is of course to the Exercises that our attention will primarily be drawn.

Bouvier here articulates a very popular view, and one which has continued to be prevalent in popular publications, namely that the spirituality of the Jesuits coincides with that of Ignatius and specifically as it is articulated in the Exercises. In other words, this is an ahistorical perspective, whereby no attention whatsoever is paid to the many different spiritualities in the order over the course of the centuries.

Bouvier’s discussion of Jesuit spirituality according to his interpretation of the Exercises covers their basic principles (the honor of God, indifference, and the imitation of Jesus Christ), procedures (detachment, the complete devotion of the human person, Christocentrism), practices (meditation, the examination of conscience, etc.), and characteristics (précision, largeur d’esprit, éminemment pratique, convient à toutes les âmes, tire parti de toutes les ressources, sûreté [precision, generosity of spirit, exceptionally practical, fitting for all souls, profiting from all sources, accuracy]). The historical dimension only comes to the fore in his treatment of the influence of this spirituality, and specifically on the influence of spiritual practices. He notes that daily meditation, the examination of conscience, and annual retreats have become common practices in the church, while they were uncommon before Jesuit spirituality emphasized them in the sixteenth century. He also discusses how some popes underscored the importance of the Spiritual Exercises for the universal church. Finally, he discusses how, in the development of religious life, communal prayer was considered essential until daily meditation, the examination of conscience, and the annual retreat became increasingly accepted, and the quality of prayer life for a religious community was seen not to depend necessarily on communal prayer.

From a historical point of view, Bouvier’s exposition contains an interesting description of the accusations against Jesuit spirituality:

A spirituality which thus avoided well-trodden paths, which broke with many secular habits and which exerted a real influence in the Church, could not fail to provoke contradictions and even accusations. They occurred, indeed, they occasionally arose in the least expected quarters, and at times they manifested unheard-of violence.10

Bouvier writes that the most important accusations levelled against Jesuit spirituality were that it is formalistic, anti-liturgical, individualistic, and innovative. Although he barely develops this historical data, it is interesting that he highlights external perceptions of Jesuit spirituality.

In the final section of his work, concerning mysticism in the spirituality of the order, Bouvier again limits his discussion to this aspect in Ignatius’s Spiritual Exercises, and a number of clarifications written by Achille Gagliardi (1537–1607), Jerónimo Nadal, Francisco Suárez (1548–1617), Ignace Diertins (1626–1700), and Pierre Ferrusola (1705–71). He writes that a century after the publication of the Exercises, various members of the order had written about mysticism but without developing any particular doctrine. He rightly adds that the section in the bibliography by Sommervogel, entitled “théologie ascétique,” numbers more than 220 columns (10:coll. 342–563).11


In the first half of the twentieth century, the ex–Jesuit Henri Bremond12 made important contributions to the study of Jesuit spirituality in his monumental Histoire du sentiment religieux en France. His discussion of the (French) Jesuits is part of the much broader perspective of his work, but he nevertheless contributed to the fact that developments in the spirituality of the order were brought to the attention of scholars and were taken seriously. His remarks concerning the letter that was issued by Superior General Everard Mercurian, prohibiting members of the order from reading a series of mystical authors without special permission, are now well-known: “It is an event, in the strict sense of the word, one of those great experiences that is charged with meaning, so to speak, of which the history of ideas only witnesses the birth from afar over the course of centuries.”13

Bremond notes in this regard that we see here the clear separation of ascetic and mystical spirituality—a division that would have consequences for centuries to come. Indeed, Mercurian stated the following in his letter: “We must think that Ignatius rightly described our vocation as a war [...] (and that) the spirit of the Society requires the sovereign perfection of solid virtues.”14 This led Bremond to formulate the following critical judgement:

There is only one definition [...] of prayer, and Mercurian seems to rebuke it, or at least to ignore it, since he imagines that there is a distinction between virtue and prayer, whereas any true prayer is essentially an act of love, and therefore of virtue, of the most solid virtue, of that indeed which ensures the solidity of all the others. We see here the dawn, and in an official document, of the fundamental opposition between prayer and virtue, the straight arrow of the ascetics [...] and this is likewise the dawn of the concept—no less strange—of a distinct prayer, sui generis, that has no framework and is proper to the religious of the Society, and which is linked to the essence of the Institute. Let us not be afraid to repeat ourselves: this is, in the history of spiritual doctrines, a prodigious novelty, a complete reversal of values, a genuine coup d’état.15

The position Bremond articulates here was certainly controversial, but it stimulated historians of spirituality to research the various developments and the diversity of the order’s spirituality in more detail.

2. The First Standard Work: de Guibert

In 1953, the Historical Institute of the Society of Jesus in Rome published a first real standard work on the history of Jesuit spirituality, La spiritualité de la Compagnie de Jésus: Esquisse historique, written by the French Jesuit Joseph de Guibert.16 The book was published posthumously, and the editor Edmond Lamalle (1900–89) describes its remarkable genesis in his introduction. In preparation for the celebrations of the fourth centenary of the founding of the Society of Jesus (1540–1940), the then general superior, Włodzimierz Ledóchowski (1868–1942), gathered a small group of specialists together in 1935 with the question of what sort of publication would best redress an existing lacuna. Various suggestions were given, including that of a comprehensive study of the history of the order’s spirituality. The group soon agreed that the existing studies were inadequate to be able to write a synthesis in a short time, and that an extensive inventory of the sources, authors, and themes in the history of the order’s spirituality would be required. Ledóchowski entrusted this work to de Guibert. Although de Guibert was occupied with various other projects, he nevertheless devoted himself to this new task. It took until 1941 when he was able to present the manuscript to Ledóchowski, who was so convinced of the importance of the project that he wanted to read the manuscript personally and communicate his reflections to de Guibert. This never happened, because de Guibert died suddenly in 1942. Ledóchowski was apparently somewhat disappointed because he thought the book was too historical—although that had been his original instruction. He would have preferred the historical aspect to be treated in a brief introduction, followed by a more systematic exposition on the order’s spiritual doctrine. After Ledóchowski’s death, however, his successor Jean-Baptiste Janssens (1889–1964) gave permission for the book to be published as it was.

This extensive book of more than 650 pages is divided into three parts.17 The first part consists of a detailed study of the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola: his inner life, the formation of Ignatius’s disciples, the spiritual writings of Ignatius, the sources of his spirituality (namely Ludolph of Saxony’s Flos sanctorum, and Thomas à Kempis’s Imitatio Christi), and its specific characteristics.

In the second part, he discusses the historical development of the order’s spirituality, in eight chapters. He begins with the first generation (1556–81). Xavier, Favre, Borja, and Canisius are of course of primary importance here, though de Guibert also discusses Ignatius’s confidantes Polanco, Nadal, and Laínez. He then surveys the first spiritual writers of the order: Jean Rheitt (Rhetius, 1532–74), Pierre Michael Brillmacher (Pierre Michaelis, 1542–95), Cristóbal de Madrid (1503–73), Fulvio Androzzio (1523–75), Gaspar Loarte (1498–1578), Juan Bonifacio (d.1606), and Adriaan Adriaensens (d.1580), including a number of unpublished texts. He provides a very informative list of recommended authors, as well as some difficulties and controversies, such as that with Simão Rodrigues during Ignatius’s own life, and with Baltasar Álvarez during the generalate of Mercurian. The following chapter treats the generalate of Claudio Acquaviva (1581–1615), and de Guibert devotes considerable attention to the man and his administration, and particularly the attention that he devoted to the renovatio spiritus (the renovation of the spirit). This same period witnessed a number of the great saints of the order, such as Bellarmine, Gonzaga, brother Alfonso Rodríguez, de la Puente, José de Anchieta (1534–95), the martyrs of Japan, Edmund Campion (1540–81), Southwell, and Richard Walpole (1564–1607). Among the spiritual authors, de Guibert discusses Achille Gagliardi, Pedro Sánchez (c.1528–1609), Bernardino Rossignoli, Jan van Crombeeck (Crombecius, 1558–1626), Alfonso Rodríguez (1538–1616), Álvarez da Paz, Antoine Le Gaudier (1572–1622), Suárez, Francisco Arias de Párraga (c.1534–1605), Giulio Negrone (Nigronius, 1554–1625), Giulio Fazio (1534–96), Bartholomeo Ricci (1542–1613), Melchior de Villanueva (c.1547–1606), Vincenzo Bruni (1532–1594), Luca Pinelli (1543–1607), Jan Buys (Busaeus, 1547–1611), Scribani, Lessius, Pierre Coton (1564–1626), Louis Richeome (1544–1625), Pedro Manrique (17th c.), and Dominique Mengin (d.1595). De Guibert then moves to the period between the generalates of Aquaviva and Ricci (1615–1758), a period that he analyses and discusses meticulously and in a number of different spheres. He treats the decisions of the general congregations and of the successive superiors general, the lives of the saints in the order in that period (such as Jean–François Régis (1597–1640) and Claude La Colombière (1641–82)), and the martyrs of New France, among others), the Marian congregations, the Apostolate of the Spiritual Exercises and the retreat houses, and the religious foundations. In the next chapter, de Guibert discusses the spiritual authors of the seventeenth century. He describes the spiritual literature of that period as “astonishingly abundant,” so plentiful in fact that it would be impossible to provide a comprehensive overview. He treats the most important authors and works by region: Spain and Portugal, Italy, the German-speaking territories, Poland and Lithuania, the Low Countries, and France. The following chapter focuses on four central themes in this period, namely those of frequent communion, important devotions such as to Mary, Joseph, and Agnes, and spiritual reflections on purgatory. The devotion to the Sacred Heart is treated separately due to its exceptional importance. On the other hand, this is also the period of the controversies concerning quietism, which de Guibert discusses extensively. Indeed, this debate and its aftermath had a profound impact on Catholic spirituality, with a general suspicion of its mystical dimensions. Nevertheless, among the spiritual authors of the eighteenth century—who were far less numerous in the Society than in the previous century—there were some who continued to write mystical theology, as de Guibert compellingly demonstrates. On the other hand, this period also saw the great attacks on the order, and the spiritual life of its members appears to have been less ardent than in the preceding century. The penultimate chapter moves to the period of the suppression (1773–1814): the little information we possess as to spiritual life in Russia, where the order continued to exist, the figure of Jan Philip Roothaan (1785–1853) in this period, as well as Giuseppe Pignatelli (1737–1811) and Pierre de Clorivière (1735–1820). De Guibert also treats a number of spiritual authors, of which Jean-Nicolas Grou (1731–1803) is by far the most important. The final chapter of the second part surveys the period following the refoundation of the order until 1940. De Guibert first discusses the various decisions that successive superiors general  took concerning the spiritual life of the Jesuits, and the results of these options. As far as the inner life of the order is concerned, he presents some striking testimonies in biographies and autobiographies, as well as the spiritual work ad extra, namely the work of spiritual directors in leading the Spiritual Exercises, the “apostolate of prayer,” the promotion of devotion to the Sacred Heart and the Marian congregations. He also discusses a number of spiritual authors, though there are far fewer here than in the previous chapters.

In the third and final part of the book, de Guibert present a number of the general characteristics of the order’s spirituality, but he does not develop the historiography of this spirituality as such.

3. Extensive Additions

De Guibert’s book continues to be the most comprehensive treatment of the history of Jesuit spirituality, though it is several decades old. The most significant addition to it was published twenty years later in the extensive and exceptionally well-documented ten-author article “Jésuites,” in the Dictionnaire de spiritualité.18 Given that this is an article in a reference work, the text is extremely compact, but it contains a remarkable wealth of information.

The article’s introduction presents its specific perspective:

Joseph de Guibert published a history of La spiritualité de la Compagnie de Jésus; this study was conducted primarily on the basis of the spiritual and devotional literature of the Jesuits. We presuppose knowledge of this reference work, and we likewise presuppose knowledge of the personality and the works of the founder of the Society of Jesus and the first Jesuit, Ignatius of Loyola [...]. Rather than taking up the same perspective as J. de Guibert, we attempt here to present a broader and more diversified approach to the spiritual life by addressing questions concerning the balance between action and the inner life, the movements at play within the order, the awareness of some general congregations or general superiors of the problems of their day, the language of the spirituels, the influence of the distant missions on the Society, and European culture, etc.19

The article begins with an extensive bibliography compiled by André Derville, which includes almost all the important publications on this subject. As mentioned, it treats a succession of subtopics, but each of these is later developed in the seven parts of the article itself.


The first part, written by Cándido de Dalmases,20 treats the earliest history of the order’s spirituality, i.e. until the death of Ignatius. His discussion is based on legislative documents: the successive papal documents that regulated the foundation of the order and the Constitutions that stipulated the development of the Society’s structure. Dalmases then examines the order’s apostolic expansion, both in Europe and in the mission territories, and the way in which Ignatius governed this growing apostolic group—as can be discerned from his correspondence. He also describes the foundation and development of the colleges and the involvement of the Jesuits in the Catholic Reformation and the Council of Trent (1545–63). The number of spiritual texts written for publication was relatively limited in this period; the Spiritual Exercises is of course the most important text. Dalmases rightly points out that a great deal of information about the factual apostolate of the order’s members (numbering about one thousand at the time of Ignatius’ death) can be found in the Catalogues. He concludes this first part with the question of whether there is such a thing as “Jesuit spirituality” in the first period. In his view, the first generation is marked primarily by a great diversity “within the same general line.”


The second part, written by Ignacio Iparraguirre,21 presents developments in the fifty years between 1556 and 1606. He selected the year 1606 because it was then, fifty years after Ignatius’s death, that  Superior General Acquaviva ordered an investigation into the spiritual condition of the order, to which we will return below. Iparraguirre first discusses the generation of Ignatius’s companions who continued his spiritual legacy, such as Laínez, Nadal, Polanco, Canisius,etc. The spiritual developments are quite clear in the more elaborated form of the novitiate, and the care and attention devoted to the formation of the young members of the order. This was also the period of growing difficulties, however, due to what Iparraguirre calls a “spiritual romanticism” (975). This was followed by what he calls “the purification of [the order’s] spirituality under Mercurian.”22 Mercurian, the first non-Spanish  superior general, was deeply suspicious of every form of illuminism, which was undoubtedly due to his anti-Protestant background. We must also consider the fact that the order was growing very rapidly in this period. Tensions developed between the spiritual apostolate among influential people and the spirit of poverty, between the apostolate in unusual or dangerous circumstances and the minimal demands of the religious life, between apostolic activities and the cultivation of interiority. It was in the context of this fear of “distortions” of the original spirit that Mercurian took drastic measures, such as the prohibition to read mystical authors such as Tauler or Ruusbroec (March 21, 1575), or his interventions concerning Antonio Cordoses (1518–1601) or Baltasar Álvarez. Iparraguirre argues that “Mercurian imposed a line that was too rigid, leaving insufficient space for the freedom of spirit and diversity of temperaments.”23 Mercurian was succeeded as general superior by Acquaviva, who took a far more cautious approach to these matters. He attempted to create a favorable climate for the development of spirituality and to provide clarifications concerning the precise nature of Jesuit spirituality, and specifically with respect to the balance between the apostolate and prayer. Iparraguirre briefly discusses the spiritual authors of this period, and evidently refers to de Guibert’s work in this regard. He concludes that the generalate of Acquaviva saw a much clearer consciousness of the specific characteristics of the order’s spirituality: Christocentric, apostolic, and founded on the Spiritual Exercises.


As mentioned, fifty years after Ignatius’s death, Aquaviva ordered an investigation of the spiritual condition of the order. This investigation was conducted by means of reports on this issue that were submitted by every Jesuit province. This revealed a generally felt concern within the order and a desire for reform. This subject is discussed by Michel de Certeau.24 There was a general awareness at the beginning of the seventeenth century, one hundred years after Ignatius’s death—the order had grown to more than thirteen thousand members in 1615—that the situation across the world was very different, and that the order required a clearer spiritual profile (in the words of de Certeau: “The construction of an ‘inner life’ [was] the most urgent task”),25 and the need to clearly define the content of the Institute’s charism. Acquaviva set the tone in this regard by stipulating an orthodox and unitary discourse, the via regia, whereby the inner life of the order was to be situated halfway between discursive meditation and passive contemplation.

Acquaviva was confronted with two problems. The first concerned the question of the extent to which the order’s Spanish origins were all-defining, and whether the function of the general superior should be limited in favour of regional superiors—King Philip II of Spain (r.1556–98) was a great advocate of this option. There was moreover a clear tendency among a number of Jesuits to question the new developments, whereby the original purpose of the order (namely preaching, spiritual direction, and guiding the Exercises) had been abandoned in favor of science, controversies, pedagogy, etc. These members found spiritual support in the writings of the mystical tradition of the North and the school of the Carmel. This explains why the same period saw the writing of a number of important works that sought to create a spiritual corpus for the order, such as by Álvarez de Paz, Alfonso Rodríguez, Suárez, Coton, de la Puente, and Lessius. And hence also why Acquaviva ordered an investigation de detrimentis Societatis (on the Society’s shortcomings). After lengthy preparations, the reports started arriving in Rome in 1606, and complaints about the effusio ad exteriora (absorption to the outside world) are surprisingly frequent: the Jesuits were losing themselves in apostolic work and neglecting their prayer and spiritual reading. De Certeau notes that the reaction can be summarized in two characteristic movements: the first was the establishment of an official image of Ignatius (Vita Ignatii Loiolae by Ribadeneyra), and the second was the publication of many short spiritual texts ad usum nostrorum tantum (i.e. intended only for internal use). These consisted of numerous extracts and anthologies, including from the letters of  superiors general, which were intended to regulate the spiritual life of the Jesuits.


De Certeau then provides a long and exceptionally well-documented dossier on the seventeenth century in France. He offers a detailed discussion of five aspects of the order’s spirituality in France. He first discusses the remarkable phenomenon of rhetoric as technique, which is employed in the debate with contemporaneous scepticism, and which was developed extensively in Jesuit theatre (which often stages a spiritual “struggle”), and which appears in the literary genre of the saint as “hero.” He then turns to the development of mystical literature in France: Coton, the “nouvelle spiritualité” (new spirituality) of young Jesuits about whom a dossier was sent to Rome because they were perceived as dangerous, and the “pléiade mystique” (mystical pleiad) of Jesuits from this milieu whose writings are extant, from Louis Lallemant (1578–1635) to Pierre Champion (1632–1701). De Certeau then discusses the spirituality of the apostolic works from this period, beginning with the Marian congregations for various social groups, the popular missions, and the retreats, which were often an extension of the missions, scientific work (in which spirituality was often considered the scientific virtue of the scientist or scientific ethics), and the widespread spirituality of the sanctification of the various states of life. Spiritual direction was a very important element of the latter, as is evident from the extant correspondence, much of which is unstudied. In the following section, de Certeau discusses the doctrinal disputes in which the French Jesuits were involved in the seventeenth century, namely Jansenism and quietism. The position of the Jesuits is very complex in both cases, both anti-Jansenist and anti-quietist. These debates likewise reflected a conflict within the order, namely between the theologians and the “spirituels.” De Certeau provides an interesting analysis of these tensions, and he describes the extent to which these debates, and the occasionally excessive positions that were taken within them, prevented the development of a profound theory on spiritual experience. In the final section, Michel de Certeau analyses the spirituality of the Sacred Heart and the connections with French politics in this period.


The fifth part of the article treats the Jesuits in the German regions in the period 1648–1773, written by various authors. They formulate the following introductory reflection:

This chapter has no other ambition than to present the life and the spiritual activities of the Jesuits in the vast German territories, in a period without problems or extraordinary results, during the second century of the existence of the Society of Jesus. In other words, it is a survey in calm weather.26

This explains why this section is considerably shorter and less analytic than the preceding ones. Following a general overview by Hans Wolter (1911–78), Gunther Switek briefly treats spirituality and apostolic works in the German territories (colleges, Marian congregations, the Spiritual Exercises, preaching, and the sacraments). This is followed by brief discussions of the Society of Jesus in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, and the mission territories in northern Germany and Scandinavia (written by Gunther Switek, Karel Gorski, and Klaus Peter Dietz).


The sixth section of the article, on the missionary perspective of the order’s spirituality (written by Joseph Masson27) is likewise short. Indeed, this subject is simply too extensive, as is apparent from the bibliography, and the author thus necessarily limits his discussion to two questions: the means by which the order’s spirituality was influenced by the missions, and the effects of this influence on the order’s spirituality. The answer to the first is quite clear, since it is already to be found in the works of Ignatius, who grew up aware of the “unbelievers” (i.e. the Turks) and the “pagans” (in the Americas, which had recently been “discovered” by Spain). This perspective became even more explicit after his conversion and his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is likewise present in the desire of his first companions to travel to Jerusalem, or to be sent by the pope. It was explicitly mentioned in the foundation bull promulgated by Pope Paul III (r.1534–49) (Regimini militantis Ecclesiae, 1540) and in the Constitutions of the order. The living example of concrete members, such as Xavier, had a clear impact, but so did the correspondence of missionaries and books about the mission territories, such as the Imago primi saeculi. This consciousness gradually permeated the colleges and the apostolic works. What was the impact of this missionary perspective? Masson first mentions the openness of spirit. Indeed, the correspondence of the missionaries was not only edifying, it also kindled the members’ curiosity by exposing them to all kinds of intriguing information about unknown peoples. The sense of availability is an aspect of Jesuit spirituality that was stimulated by this missionary dimension, as is the sense of universalism.


The final part of this long article treats “la nouvelle Compagnie en France,” written by the French Jesuit Pierre Vallin.28 In other words, this final section concerns the history of the spirituality in the Society of Jesus from its restoration by Pius VII in 1814 until approximately 1950. Unfortunately, this period is only discussed with respect to France. Pierre Vallin justifies this choice as follows: on the one hand, he is dealing with a very broad subject, but on the other, too few studies had been devoted to this subject at the time that the article was written.29 This continues to be the case today: though several conferences and events were organized in 2014 to commemorate the refoundation of the order, no comprehensive overview of the development of the order’s spirituality in this period has been written. By way of example, we may cite a few general characteristics that Pierre Vallin has described concerning France. He distinguishes three periods. The first dates from the refoundation in 1814 until the publication of the Syllabus errorum by Pius IX (r.1846–78) in 1864, a period that was marked by a great wealth of spiritual publications, inspired by Catholics Romanticism and by “ontologism.”30 The latter had been initiated in France by Jean-Pierre Martin (1792–1859), who taught in Vals. Many Jesuit superiors supported the movement, but it did also receive considerable opposition, which led to the neo-Scholastic movement. “Ontologism” resulted in many significant publications, such as L’apostolat de la prière by François Gautrelet (1807–86), and the edition of the Traité de l’abandon à la divine Providence by Henri Ramière (1821–84).

Pierre Vallin describes the second period, after the promulgation of the Syllabus, as “a triumph of discipline over the imagination” (1058). A great deal of spiritual literature was written by Jesuits in this period, but as Vallin remarks, “the majority of it is strongly characterized by an absence of original and critical intellectual life. A significant amount of this literature had become dull, and despite its relative popularity at the time, it appears that it was also dull then.”31

For the third period—after the separation of church and state (and the breaking of Napoleon’s Concordat) in 1905 until the Second World War (1939–45) and its aftermath—Vallin continues to focus specifically on the French context, and few generalizations regarding the historiography of the order’s spirituality can be drawn from it, perhaps with one exception, namely the rise of spiritual literature that was specifically intended for young people.

4. Later Updates

Both de Guibert and the team that wrote the article for the Dictionnaire de spiritualité provide the most important information regarding the historiography of Jesuit spirituality. More recent publications have treated specific issues, but almost all of them are based in these two standard works. We do find a number of additions in the Spanish reference work, Diccionario histórico de la Compañía de Jesús, which was published in 2001.32 This encyclopedia does not describe the order’s spirituality in historical perspective, however, but thematically. Other examples include the analysis of spirituality as it is found in the general congregations,33 or numerous analyses of Jesuit spirituality in certain regions or periods34 which are itemized in the general bibliography by László Polgár (1920–2001).35

It is worth mentioning here the recent overview of mysticism in the Society of Jesus, by various authors,36 which discusses the mystical dimension in the spirituality of major Jesuit authors, or the reflection on it by well-known Jesuit theologians or researchers. The following Jesuits are discussed: Ignatius of Loyola (by Darcy Donahue), Baltasar Ávarez (by Manuel Ruiz Jurado), Luis de la Puente (by Rady Roldán-Figueroa), Achille Gagliardi (by Rob Faesen), Louis Lallemant (by Tibor Bartók), Jean-Joseph Surin (by Moshe Sluhovsky), Claude La Colombière en Marguerite-Marie Alacoque (by William P. O’Brien), Jean-Pierre de Caussade (by Wendy M. Wright), Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (by François Euvé), Henri Bremond (by François Trémolières), Henri de Lubac (by Andrew Prevot), Karl Rahner (by Harvey D. Egan) en Hugo M. Enomiya-Lassalle (by Ursula Baatz). As the editor, Robert A. Maryks, mentions in the introduction, this is certainly not an exhaustive overview, and thus not a historiography in the full sense of the word.

No general synthesis concerning the development of the order’s spirituality in recent years exists. This period is complex, however, given the developments that occurred in the order after the Second Vatican Council (1962–65), the 32nd General Congregation, the generalate of Pedro Arrupe (1907–91), etc., which each had a specific impact on Jesuit spirituality.

Translated by John Arblaster


^ Back to text1. John W. O’Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993).

^ Back to text2. Antonius Possevinus, Apparatus sacer ad scriptores veteris et novi testamenti […] synodos et patres Latinos ac Graecos […] theologos scholasticos […] poetas sacros (Cologne: Apud Johannem Gymnicum, 1608).

^ Back to text3. Maximilianus Sandaeus, Jubilum Societatis Jesu seculare ob theologiam mysticam in eadem excultam et illustratam (1640), editio nova, variis documenta aucta, ed. Henri Watrigant (Engien: Bibliothèque des Exercices, 1922), 77–78.

^ Back to text4. Sandaeus, Jubilum Societatis Jesu, 14.

^ Back to text5. For a useful overview, see Robert Danieluk, “Monumenta Historica Societatis Iesu: Uno sguardo di insieme sulla collana,” Archivum historicum Societatis Iesu 81 (2012): 249–89.

^ Back to text6. Hugo Rahner and Karl Rahner, “Die aszetischen Schriften in den MHSI,” Zeitschrift für Katholische Theologie 108 (1986): 422–33.

^ Back to text7. Jean-François Gilmont, born in Tervuren in 1934, was a Belgian Jesuit until 1964, when he left the order. He then studied at the Université Catholique de Louvain (Louvain-la-Neuve), where he obtained a doctorate in history in 1977. He was librarian of the university and lecturer, and became emeritus in 1984.

^ Back to text8. Jean-François Gilmont, Les écrits spirituels des premiers jésuites: Inventaire commenté, Studia ad historiam S.I. 3 (Roma: Institutum Historicum S.I., 1961).

^ Back to text9. Pierre Bouvier, “Jésuites: IV. Théologie ascétique ou spiritualité,” Dictionnaire de théologie catholique 8 (1924): 1092–108. Bouvier (1848–1925) studied in the diocesan seminary of Nantes before joining the Society of Jesus in 1870. He stayed at Paris (rue de Sèvres) and was very much appreciated as a preacher. He often preached the Exercises to priests and published about the spiritual doctrine of the Exercises. In March 1903, he sent a list of expressions from the writings of Alfred Loisy (1857–1940) that seemed erroneous to him, which led to these works being placed on the Index, and the propositions being condemned (decree Lamentabili by Pius X). He died in Paris in 1925 (Paul Duclos, “Bouvier, Pierre,” in Diccionario Histórico de la Compañía de Jesús, ed. Charles E. O’Neill and Joaquín María Domínguez [Madrid: Universidad Pontificia Comillas, 2001], 1:513–14).

^ Back to text10. Bouvier, “Jésuites,” 1103.

^ Back to text11. Augustin De Backer, Carlos Sommervogel, et al., Bibliothèque de la Compagnie de Jésus (Brussels: Schepens, 1890–1960). In fact, these pages do not give an overview of publications of Jesuit spirituality as such, but rather an extensive list of works about the Spiritual Exercises.

^ Back to text12. Henri Bremond (1863–1933) was a Jesuit from 1882 until 1904. He was a good friend of George Tyrrell (1861–1909), Maurice Blondel (1861–1949) and Baron Friedrich von Hügel (1852–1925). In 1923, he was elected as a member of the Académie Française. His multi-volume Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis les guerres de religion jusqu'à nos jours is considered to be a major contribution in the rediscovery of mystical literature at the beginning of the twentieth century.

^ Back to text13. “C’est un événement, au sens rigoureux du mot, une de ces grandes expériences, chargées de sens, si l’on peut dire, telle que l’histoire des idées n’en voit naître que de loin au cours des siècles.” Henri Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu’à nos jours, vol. 8: La métaphysique des saints (Paris: Bloud & Gay, 1930), 229.

^ Back to text14. Letter dated June 16, 1573, cited by Henri Bernard, Essai historique sur les Exercices spirituels de saint Ignace depuis la conversion d’Ignace (1521) jusqu’à la publication du Directoire (1599), Museum Lessianum, section ascétique et mystique 21 (Louvain: Éditions du Museum Lessianum, 1926), 208.

^ Back to text15. Bremond, Histoire littéraire, 231.

^ Back to text16. Joseph de Guibert was born on September 14, 1877 in Montégut-Laugarais (Department of Haute-Garonne) in the south of France. He entered the Society of Jesus on October 19, 1895 and did his novitiate in Toulouse. He then studied in Vals (near Le Puy) and in Enghien (Edingen) in Belgium. In the meantime, he obtained a licentiate in arts at the Sorbonne. His did his tertianship in ’s Heerenelderen (near Tongeren). He taught theology at the diocesan seminary in Lecce (Italy) and at the order’s theologate in Enghien. During the First World War, he worked as a paramedic in the French army. After the war, he co-founded the Revue d’ascétique et mystique, and along with his confreres Marcel Viller (1880–1952) and Ferdinand Cavalera (1875–1954), he founded the Dictionnaire de spiritualité. He was then asked to teach at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, where he became the director of the so-called biennium for some time (i.e., the training programme for future professors of theology in the order). He was also professor of spiritual theology and a consultor to the historical section of the Congregation of Sacred Rites. He died in Rome on March 23, 1942. Paul Galtier, “Le P. Joseph de Guibert,” Revue d’ascétique et mystique 26 (1950): 97–120.

^ Back to text17. English translation: The Jesuits, Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice: A Historical Study, ed. George Ganss (St. Louis, MO: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1972).

^ Back to text18. “Jésuites,” Dictionnaire de spiritualité, 8:958–1065.

^ Back to text19. “Jésuites,” 958–59.

^ Back to text20. Cándido de Dalmases (1906–86) was during fourteen years the director of the Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu in Rome.

^ Back to text21. Ignacio Iparraguirre Aldanondo (1911–73) taught the history and theology of the Spiritual Exercises at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome, and was one of the founders of the Centrum Ignatianum Spiritualitatis (Rome). He was co-editor of the complete works of Ignatius, together with Dalmases. Several of his publications contributed to the rediscovery of the individually directed Exercises (Dalmases, “Iparraguirre Aldanondo, Ignacio” Diccionario histórico de la Compañía de Jesús, 3:2062–63).

^ Back to text22. “La purification de la spiritualité sous Mercurian” (“Jésuites,” 975).

^ Back to text23. “Mercurian traçait une ligne trop rigide, ne laissant pas assez de place à la liberté d’esprit et à la diversité des tempéraments” (“Jésuites,” 979).

^ Back to text24. Michel de Certeau (his full name was Michel-Jean-Emmanuel de La Barge de Certeau) was born in Chambéry (Savoy) in 1925 and died in Paris in 1986. He entered the Society of Jesus in 1950. After completing his doctorate on the Mémorial of Pierre Favre, he devoted much of his research to Jean-Joseph Surin. In addition to his historical studies, he also published cultural-philosophical analyses of the revolutions in the period of 1968 and works on psychoanalysis. He taught at various institutions, including the Institut Catholique in Paris, California University, the University of San Diego. See Pierre-Jean Labarrière and Luce Giard, “Certeau, Michel-Jean-Emmanuel de la Barge,” in Diccionario histórico de la Compañía de Jesús, 1:737–38).

^ Back to text25. “La construction d’un ‘intérieur’ est le travail le plus urgent” (“Jésuites,” 986).

^ Back to text26. Ce chapitre n’a pas d’autre ambition que de présenter la vie et les activités spirituelles des jésuites dans les vastes territoires de l’assistance de Germanie, en une période sans problèmes ni résultats extraordinaires, au cours du deuxième siècle d’existence de la Compagnie de Jésus. Autrement dit, c’est un sondage par temps calme (“Jésuites,” 1016).

^ Back to text27. Joseph Masson (1908–98) was a Belgian Jesuit who obtained a doctorate in philosophy, philology, and oriental history. He was professor (1958–78) and dean (1963–69) of the faculty of missiology at the Pontifical Gregorian University in Rome. He was also a member of the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue.

^ Back to text28. Pierre Vallin taught church history and history of ecclesiology at the Jesuit Centre Sèvres in Paris.

^ Back to text29. I.e. in 1974 (“Jésuites,” 1041–42).

^ Back to text30. The philosophical school that taught that one can only truly account for the modes of thought of the human spirit when one assumes the principle that there is a constitutive connection between the finite intellect and the absolute, an immediate perception of God, which only becomes explicit knowledge through the mediation of experience and reflection. (“l’école philosophique qui tient que l’on ne peut rendre compte des démarches de l’esprit humain qu’en postulant le principe d’un rapport constitutif de l’intelligence fini à l’absolu, une perception immédiate de Dieu, qui ne deviendra connaissance explicite de Dieu que par la médiation de l’expérience et de la réflexion” [“Jésuites,” 1055]).

^ Back to text31. Elle est dans sa masse, fortement marquée par l’absence d’une vie intellectuelle originale et critique. Une part importante de cette littérature est devenue ennuyeuse, et, malgré son relatif succès, il est probable qu’elle le fût à l’époque (“Jésuites,” 1059).

^ Back to text32. Diccionario histórico de la Compañía de Jesús, 2:317–21. Strikingly, the Cambridge Encyclopaedia of the Jesuits, ed. Thomas Worcester et al. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) does not include an entry on “spirituality,” but does include one on “asceticism and mysticism” (written by John Gavin).

^ Back to text33. Manuel Ruiz Jurado, “La espiritualidad de la Compañía de Jesús en sus Congregaciones Generales,” Archivum historicum Societatis Iesu 45 (1976): 233–90.

^ Back to text34. John W. O’Malley, “Early Jesuit Spirituality: Spain and Italy,” in Louis Dupré, Christian Spirituality, vol. 3: Post-Reformation and Modern (New York: Crossroad, 1991), 3–27.

^ Back to text35. László Polgár, Bibliographie sur l’histoire de la Compagnie de Jésus 1901–1980, t. 1: Toute la Compagnie (Rome: Institutum Historicum SI, 1981), 146–79, 483–84.

^ Back to text36. Robert A. Maryks, ed., A Companion to Jesuit Mysticism, Brill’s Companions to the Christian Tradition 78 (Leiden: Brill, 2017). Obviously, the term “mysticism” can be used in various meanings. This book follows the definition from the Catholic Encyclopedia (“a direct and immediate intuition of the Infinite,” see the quote on page 1).

Cite this page
Faesen, Rob, “Historiography of Jesuit Spirituality”, in: Jesuit Historiography Online. Consulted online on 20 March 2019 <>
First published online: 2018

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