In July 1940, to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the foundation of the Society of Jesus, Pope Pius XII issued the following apostolic letter to Wlodimir (Włodzimierz) Ledóchowski. Pius notes to the superior general how the Catholic Church “is deeply indebted to your religious society for its glorious record of service.” The letter chronicles some of the “rich and salutary results” of the past four centuries, paying particular attention to the contributions Jesuits made in spirituality and in safe-guarding the Catholic Church through missionary work and education.
Greeting and the Apostolic Benediction. You doubtless know how dear to Us and how highly esteemed by Us is the Family of Ignatius, which you have governed with diligence and prudence for the past twenty-five years. It will be no surprise to you, then, if now, when four hundred years have passed since Our Predecessor of undying memory, Paul III, in his Apostolic Letter Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae approved the Society of Jesus and duly established it by apostolic authority, We wish to take part in your solemn celebration and share in your joy. Indeed, that joy, though it seems just now to be overcast with a cloud of sorrow, due to the distressful and alarming circumstances of the time, nonetheless is equally the joy of the universal Church, which is deeply indebted to your religious society for its glorious record of service during this long lapse of time. It is Our pleasure today to recall in a brief summary the memory of those glorious deeds, and this not only to solace Ourselves and you, but also that all of you, while pondering with grateful hearts upon the brilliant achievements which God in his providence has effected through your forefathers and yourselves during the course of these four hundred years, may offer enduring thanks to the same Heavenly Father and at the same time, trusting in his providence, may derive from these memories encouragement to go on with undiminished strength in the advancement of the greater glory of God and the salvation of souls.
Hard, indeed, were the conditions which your Father and Lawgiver had to meet in his day. For on the one hand, the intensified study of the wisdom and civilization of the pagans so quickened and inflamed the minds of men that the Christian standards of life were oftentimes either looked down upon with contempt as something of lesser worth, or, judged in the light of mere human reason, were totally destroyed; so much was this so that the morals of many, even at times of those who should have set a good example for others, became very much relaxed, and, sad to say, brooking no restraints, went utterly to rack and ruin. No wonder, then, if it seemed as though the onrushing storm of the Innovators from the north was shaking and toppling down the very pillars of the Church. No wonder, if, with the rejection of the submission due ecclesiastical authority and even the obedience due the Roman Pontiff himself, so many peoples and nations were torn away from the center of unity and wandered unhappily astray over devious ways.
On the other hand, while these grave disturbances of the minds and affairs of men caused much anxiety and worry to all good men and seemed to be sapping the strength of the sacred ministers, a new and arduous field of apostolic toil was thrown open to the priests of the Church. Vast regions were discovered to the east and to the west and the numberless inhabitants of those countries stood in need of the divine truth given to us by Jesus Christ and were awaiting the gift of divine grace.
Yet it was at this truly critical juncture that Christ himself in a truly marvelous way gave evidence that he was preserving his most chaste Spouse from contamination by these dangers from within and without and was imparting to her a most abundant spiritual fecundity. A new spring, so to speak, awakened in the garden of the Church, the fairest flowers of sanctity sprang into being, burst into bloom, and spread the sweetest fragrance abroad. Men and women, outstanding models of Christian virtue, opposed unbreakable barriers to the surging flood of impiety; they devoted themselves with zeal and skill to the spread of the Catholic faith and with gratifying results they turned back the erring to the right way from the misleading paths of falsehood by exhortations full of fervor, writings full of wisdom, and, above all, by the example of their holy lives. It is a matter of common knowledge that in this number of holy men, who as “star from star differ in glory,” Ignatius of Loyola held a place of highest eminence and that the Society founded by him took a large share in those laborious enterprises. Justly and deservedly so. For, to quote the words of Our immediate Predecessor of happy memory, “History bears witness…that the Catholic world, fortified by the aid Ignatius had so seasonably provided, began speedily to recover its vigor. It would be no easy task to recount the many and great works wrought by the Society of Jesus for the glory of God under the initiative and leadership of Ignatius. Her indefatigable members could be seen victoriously beating back the stubborn attacks of the heretics, busying themselves everywhere with the reformation of morals, the restoration of the tottering discipline of the clergy, the leading of numerous souls to the very summit of Christian perfection. Many, too, devoted themselves to instilling piety into the minds of the young and instructing them in the liberal arts in the hope of seeing a posterity truly Christian. Others, again, distinguished themselves in bringing the light of faith to the infidels to spread by new conquests the kingdom of Jesus Christ.”
Wherefore, not only may it be asserted that as God Himself had sent other holy men at other times to combat error, so did he raise up Ignatius and the Society founded by him to oppose the errors of that age, but also that in the course of these four hundred years the unnumbered progeny of your Lawgiver and Father has with dauntless courage withstood newly rising errors, rendered strong support to the Church in emergencies, and brought forth most salutary fruits of every kind. In offering you Our congratulations We wish to recall here briefly and summarily these rich and salutary results.
In the first place, it pleases Us to express the highest commendation of the ascetical discipline of Ignatius, which in directing and fashioning the souls of men has as its special aim that “Christ be all and in all” and as its single purpose, therefore, that all be directed to the greater glory of God as to its highest end. This ascetical discipline is proposed to your own members, as well as to men of all stations in life, who have their salvation at heart, especially in the timely institution and practice of the Spiritual Exercises, made according to the method prescribed by Ignatius in that golden little book, which Our Predecessor of immortal memory Benedict XIV in his Apostolic Letter Quantum Secessus styles truly admirable. How many men, indeed, who either because of their absorption in the affairs of this world were neglecting the things of Heaven, or miserably seduced by the allurements of pleasure and unlawful desire were wallowing in the mire of vice, have at last, on entering a spiritual retreat and there recollecting themselves even for a brief period, lifted up their thoughts that were immersed in the things of time to the things of Heaven, have set their consciences in order, and obtained the pardon they craved for their sins, and grace and peace and quiet of conscience! For, when we are free from external occupation, and, in the quiet recesses of the mind, far from all disturbances of earthly cares, we are able to give our attention to divine wisdom and to find joy in meditating on holy things and the delights of eternity, we easily experience the truth of the saying that it profits a man nothing “if he gain the whole world, and suffer the loss of his own soul.” At such a time, too, it becomes clear as the light of day that all those things that either turn us away from eternal beatitude or do not contribute to the securing thereof are “vanity and vexation of spirit.” Justly, then, did Our immediate Predecessor Pius XI in his Encyclical Letter Mens Nostra assert that “in the exercises of the retreat is found established a unique safeguard of eternal life.” And since the special method proposed by Ignatius of Loyola is of such marked excellence in this matter, the same Holy Father in response to the requests of the Sacred Hierarchy in his Apostolic Letter Summorum Pontificum appointed and declared Ignatius the heavenly Patron of All Spiritual Exercises.
Wherefore, let the members of the family of Ignatius hold this method of retreat most dear, let them at stated times perform the Exercises with earnest devotion and great diligence, and let them look on them as the cradle of their religious Order, since, as is piously believed, it was when their Lawgiver and Founder was leading a life of retirement in the cave of Manresa, praying and meditating far from the company of men and the distractions of the world, that there first dawned on his mind, aglow with light from Heaven, the idea of the Society of Jesus as a sacred militia.
And let not only the members of the Order exercise themselves eagerly and earnestly in this arena of the spiritual life for the attaining of their own perfection, but let them also strive in season and out of season, as they do not now fail to do, to have as many as possible, as well from the clerical order as from all classes of the laity, frequent with pious and religious intent the houses of retreat, which everywhere should lie open to all who wish to come.
There is another reason also why We should heartily congratulate you on this occasion and exhort you with fatherly affection. We are aware, indeed, that your Society from its very origin devoted itself wholeheartedly and with all its strength to the safeguarding of the Catholic faith in all its purity and fullness against the manifold deceits of erroneous doctrine, to the vindication of the most sacred rights of the Church and of the Roman Pontiffs, and, lastly, to the propagation of the Christian religion by apostolic men, who sowed the divine word among all nations. In regard to each and all of these ministrations, whoever will even very cursorily turn over your annals will find therein so many illustrious deeds worthy to be inscribed in characters of gold, not only in your own records but in those of the Catholic Church as well.
And here the names of those men of eminent holiness come to Our mind, who, like Peter Canisius and Robert Bellarmine, each of them proclaimed Doctor of the Church by Our immediate Predecessor, refuted by the spoken word and writings, full of wisdom, those who impugned Catholic doctrine, and by issuing at the cost of much labor volumes of the greatest moment, shed abundant light on that same doctrine; men, too, like Peter Claver and John Francis Regis and Francis Geronimo, who with the most ardent zeal and indefatigable toil led almost countless souls to the fold of Christ by instructing them in Christian precepts and cleansing them in the waters of baptism, or else brought them back to a way of life more in accordance with the Catholic faith; men, finally, like Francis Borgia and Joseph Pignatelli, who while guiding your religious Order on its course, made it their constant endeavor carefully and wisely to instruct zealous evangelical laborers and brave soldiers of Christ, to form them, to direct them and inflame them with the fire of charity. Moreover, the task of subjugating distant nations to the sweet rule of Christ, a task which in his apostolic zeal the great soul of Ignatius had accepted when he traced the first lineaments of the new Order, was undertaken in the very first days of your Society at the bidding of Our Predecessor Paul III by that most illustrious son of Ignatius, Francis Xavier, whom the Sovereign Pontiffs, Our Predecessors, have styled the Apostle of the Indies, and have likewise proclaimed the Patron of all Missions. Very many others of your same Society, in an unbroken line, have followed Xavier and do follow him to the present day, heralds of evangelical truth, with great ardor and distinction toiling in mission fields the world over. Nor has there been wanting full many a troop of martyrs, who, after exhausting themselves in labors undertaken to advance and defend by every means the cause of religion, have also in almost every part of the world generously shed their blood for the faith of Jesus Christ.
And if the enemies of the Divine Redeemer and of the Church have persecuted your religious Society with a particular hatred and animosity, that must redound not to your discredit but to your highest praise; for whoever follows Christ the Lord with utmost fidelity and love productive of great deeds must, in a certain measure, necessarily incur the odium and execration of depraved men. This the Savior himself foretold long ago to his Apostles: “You shall be hated by all nations for my name’s sake;” “If you had been of the world, the world would love its own; but because you are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you.” In persecutions, then, of all kinds, in accusations and calumnies, do not lose heart ; but mindful of the saying “Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’s sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” carry on with enthusiastic zeal the holy works you have begun, rejoicing exceedingly like the Apostles “that you have been accounted worthy to suffer reproach for the name of Jesus.”
Nor do We wish on this occasion to pass over in silence the high commendation won by your Society throughout these four centuries by the moral and intellectual education of youth. You, indeed, realize how very important this work is; you know that not only the destiny of the state but of the Church as well is very closely linked with the condition of the schools and the training they impart, since, generally speaking, the citizens will not be other, nor will the faithful of Christ be other, than their early education has shaped them to be. Well merited, then, is the praise We give you, because by opening almost innumerable schools and colleges, you cultivate the tender and impressionable age of youth with learning and form it to virtue, so that it presents a living image of the Christian manner of life, and for that reason bids us entertain bright hopes for the future. Praiseworthy, indeed, is your purpose of presenting to these young students for their contemplation the example of holy youths, who like Aloysius Gonzaga and John Berchmans and Stanislaus Kostka have kept bright and unsullied the virginal lily of purity, fenced round, as it were, with the thorns of penance.
Nor is it for adolescents only that you provide education, but as your Lawgiver and Founder had with a prevision of the times to come commended in his Constitutions, you erect houses of higher studies and universities in many places, where you instruct clerics unto the hope of the Church in the learning and holiness that will fit them for their sacred duties, —as you do with great distinction in our mother city, as it were, before our very eyes, in the Pontifical Gregorian University and the associated institutions, —and give a careful and suitable preparation for their future careers in private or public life to citizens of every rank. A strong support is given to this work of education by those organizations of piety and the Christian apostolate, known as the Sodalities of Mary, which the Church has at her call like to so many picked auxiliaries, enlisted in the ranks of peace under the standard of the Virgin Mary. Continue, then, with your accustomed zeal to promote these holy enterprises, and do not imagine that any forethought on your part can be so effective that none greater need be exercised. For as long as young people anywhere attend schools and lectures in which error, disguised as truth, ensnares the mind, and the foul breath of impiety corrupts morals, every effort must be made that schools of sound training and true learning may not be wanting in any place, so that the light that comes from sound doctrine and the teachings likewise of Christian virtue may illumine the minds of the students.
And do not cease to carry on and advance your other works of religion, charity and piety. Your ancestors have left behind for your imitation outstanding examples in all lines of endeavor and in all fields of training. Press on, then, in their footsteps with great good will and energy; and let their virtue and holiness of life arouse and constrain you to take up or promote ever greater enterprises.
The new times in which we live demand, it is true, even in spiritual lines new undertakings, works and safeguards, by which suitable provision may be made for the changed and increasing needs of this our age. In keeping with your ardent zeal do not neglect these means and strive to bring it about that whatever this adult age may introduce may contribute in fuller and fitter measure to strengthening at home and extending abroad the Reign of Jesus Christ. Yet let your Institute, so dear alike to Us and to you, be ever the same; the mode of government on which it rests secure, the same; the spirit whence it derives its nutriment, the same; the same, finally, that enthusiastic obedience and devotion by which you hold fast, unfalteringly, to this Apostolic See. On this score, however, you need no exhortation from Us, since Pius XI, Our Predecessor of undying memory, in his Apostolic Letter Paterna Caritas, has willed the Society of Jesus to continue unimpaired and has confirmed it anew by his authority; since, too, it is the distinctive characteristic of your religious Order, and, as it were, a sacred legacy from your forefathers, he willed that you keep your inheritance by all means unharmed and apply it to ever more glorious purpose.
We earnestly pray for God’s heavenly aid in your behalf, that all that We have written in this letter, beloved Son, rather with the intention of praising than exhorting you, may in daily larger measure of blessing be given effect. Especially on this festive occasion, may your Lawgiver and Father be present with you, his children, from his throne on high to rejoice with you; and may those countless men of exalted sanctity be with you, who have shed so much lustre on the Society of Ignatius by their virtue and wisdom. May they win for you in fullest measure the divine favor and most abundant fruits of sanctity and of the apostolate from the Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, the love and worship of which you strive to instill and foster in every class of men, especially through what is called the Apostleship of Prayer.
We, in order to increase these fruits of sanctity by bestowing some gift from, the treasury of the Church, very willingly grant that on the twenty-seventh day of September next, the day of the quadri-centenary celebration, or on any other day which the Superiors of your Religious Family may choose for this celebration, all the members of your Order, and all the faithful, who, having duly confessed and received Holy Communion, shall piously visit any church of the Society of Jesus, or one committed to its care, and prayed for Our intention, may be able to obtain a plenary indulgence.
Meanwhile, We impart, most cordially, to you, beloved Son, and to all the religious of the Society of Jesus and to their students the Apostolic Benediction, as a pledge of heavenly blessings and a token of Our fatherly affection.
Given at Rome, at St. Peter’s, the sixth day of July, the Octave of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, in the year 1940, the second of Our Pontificate.
Pius PP. XII
Original Source (English translation):
“An Apostolic Letter of His Holiness, Pius XII, by Divine Providence, Pope, to His Beloved Son, Wlodimir Ledochoswki, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, on the Fourth Centenary of the Foundation of the Same Society.” Woodstock Letters 69.3 (1940): 285–295.