Through disappointment to great solace

Published on 02 Jan 2015

We often read that the Society of Jesus was destroyed in 1773 and restored in 1814. In terms of the Jesuits' global, legal existence this is not inaccurate. It is important to remember, however, that the Society never entirely disappeared during the suppression era. It survived, indeed thrived, in the Russian empire and in 1801, a papal brief granted official recognition to this outpost of the supposedly expunged Society. This encouraged many groups of ex-Jesuits, including men in England, to seek formal links with the "Russian Society". There was progress elsewhere. In the early 1790s Ferdinand of Parma allowed a handful of Jesuits to return and, in 1804, Pius VII issued the papal brief Per alias which restored the Society in the kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Exciting developments also unfolded in the fledgling United States and other places.

Such events both delighted and confused ex-Jesuits around the world, not least those in Britain. In the wake of 1773, members of the former English province worked extremely hard to sustain a sense of Jesuit identity while abiding by the rulings that showered down from above. During the 1770s and 1780s they met in London taverns to debate the most sensible course of action. By 1802 a kind of affiliation with confrères in Russia was secured and, soon afterwards, there was a provincial of England, Scotland, Ireland and "of those places linked with England". It was all decidedly hush-hush, however. The road towards full authentication was destined to be rocky. There was disappointment when the 1804 brief Per alias made no mention of England and even after the global restoration in 1814 it took a surprisingly long time (until 1829) for total legitimation of the English branch of the Society to arrive. Even then, the British Government saw things rather differently than Rome.

Countless challenges lay ahead for the hundred or so British Jesuits in 1829. Difficult decisions had to be made about how to allocate scant resources, and there was the small matter of coping with a broad cultural mood that had little affection for any Catholic religious order. There was, however, great solace in remembering that, in the worst of times, British Jesuits, or ex-Jesuits, had stuck together. There had been quarrels and disappointments but a victory of sorts had finally been secured.

Anyone with doubts about the future should buy a time-machine and travel to the Turk's Head Tavern, Soho, in 1776, where English ex-Jesuits sought to forge a link between the Jesuit past and the possible Jesuit future. This was difficult then, and is no less easy now, but the attempt was made. 

Jonathan Wright is co-editor, with Robert Maryks, of Jesuit Survival and Restoration. He is honorary fellow in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.