Scholars Mull Jesuit Cultural History

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

A major international conference on Jesuit cultural history drew more than 150 scholars from across the world to Boston College for four days of seminars and artistic performances that cast the Jesuit saga in a new light.

"It was a major redefining moment in the historiography of the Society of Jesus," said former Gasson Professor of History John O'Malley, SJ, who helped organize the May 28-June 1 conference, "The Jesuits: Culture, Learning and the Arts, 1540-1773."

The scholarly gathering, hosted by the Jesuit Institute, was marked by fresh appraisals of the Society of Jesus' historic contributions to culture and the arts.

Organizers of the Boston College conference said past studies of the order have tended to paint Jesuits in black-and-white terms - either as brilliant martyrs or as sinister agents of the Inquisition - depending on the bias of the historian. The scholars who met at BC earlier this summer brought a more tempered and wide-ranging eye to the study of Jesuit history.

Jesuit Institute Senior Research Associate Gauvin Bailey, an art historian, said the gathering featured constructive exchanges on Jesuit history by scholars. "It wasn't just a celebration of Jesuits. It was a reassessment," said Bailey. "People weren't afraid to talk about the dark side of the order. It was a healthy dialogue."

In the past five years, non-Jesuit scholars have shown increasing interest in the contributions of the Society of Jesus to the arts and sciences, said Fr. O'Malley, a specialist in the Italian Renaissance who is a member of the faculty at Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge and author of The First Jesuits .

New methods have been brought to bear on the writing of Jesuit history, said Fr. O'Malley, including cross-disciplinary approaches and a greater emphasis on the society's culture, rather than the traditional focus on individual great men.

Bailey, who has researched the art of Jesuit missionaries in India and South America, praised the "global perspective" of the conference, which paid special attention to Jesuit missionary interactions with the native peoples of Asia and the Americas.

"They were far ahead of anyone else in trying to accommodate to non-European positions - to 'go native,' as it were," said Bailey.

The conference itinerary included presentations on Jesuit ballet in 18th century Paris, the influence of the Chinese on Jesuit corporate culture, and Jesuit aesthetics in book publishing, as well as a recital of baroque music played in the China missions.

A highlight of the conference was the international premiere on May 30 of "San Ignacio de Loyola," an 18th century chamber opera from the Jesuit Reductions of the ancient Province of Paraguay. The Spanish-language opera was "very well received" by a standing-room audience at St. Mary's Chapel, Bailey said.

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