Jesuits, Scholars, Adventurers

Jesuits, Scholars, Adventurers

New book contains essays from conference on early missionaries

By Mark Sullivan
Staff Writer

Explaining the scholarly appeal of the early Jesuit missionaries to Asia and the Americas, former Jesuit Institute Senior Research Associate Gauvin Bailey sounds more like an adventure novelist than an academic.

"It's the Indiana Jones factor," said Bailey, an art historian now teaching at Clark University, and one of four BC-connected editors of a recently-published book, The Jesuits: Cultures, Sciences, and the Arts, 1540-1773 . "They got out further than anyone else was willing to go. They were pushing the envelope.

"They're going to places where they aren't safe, whether that means being eaten by jaguars or shot through with arrows, and building utopian cities with European Baroque architecture, writing grand operas with indigenous singers, and staging pageants and processions. They were creating a microcosm of the Renaissance world in places where they were completely at the mercy of non-Christian, non-European people who, at the beginning, had no idea to convert.

"It took guts," said Bailey. "I admire stubbornness. They were stubborn."

Music Department Chairman Assoc. Prof. T. Frank Kennedy, SJ (Music), seated, with fellow editors (L-R) Gauvin Bailey, Steven Harris and John W. O'Malley, SJ. (Photo by Gary Gilbert)
The 872-page book, released in January by the University of Toronto Press, contains 35 scholarly essays on the worldwide Jesuit undertaking in the arts and sciences. The volume grew out of a major international conference on Jesuit cultural history held three years ago at Boston College.

Bailey's fellow editors are: Music Department Chairman Assoc. Prof. T. Frank Kennedy, SJ; current Jesuit Institute Fellow Steven J. Harris, a historian of science; and former Gasson Professor John W. O'Malley, SJ, who teaches Church history at Weston Jesuit School of Theology and, along with Fr. Kennedy, served as one of the conference organizers.

The foursome, now planning another major conference on Jesuit cultural history at BC in 2002, is a prolific group of diverse talents. Fr. O'Malley, author of the best-selling history The First Jesuits , has a new book coming out on early modern Catholicism titled, Trent and All That . Bailey's Art in the Jesuit Missions in Asia and Latin America came out at the beginning of the year. Harris has a book in the works on Jesuit science, while Fr. Kennedy is producing a CD of Jesuit chamber operas.

Each acknowledged being taken with the Renaissance quality of the early Jesuits, a significant number of whom were artists, scientists, naturalists, theologians and practitioners of political intrigue - all at the same time.

Traditional histories that have focused on early Jesuits as black-robed "soldiers of the Pope" have tended to overlook their vast range of accomplishment in the arts as well as the sciences, the editors said.

"They were multi-media people," said Fr. O'Malley. He cited the example of 17th-century Italian Jesuit Orazio Grassi, a professor of astronomy and rhetoric, chamber-opera librettist, and architect of the Church of Saint Ignatius in Rome, not to mention an interpreter of comets who became embroiled in the Galileo controversy.

Another example the editors cite is the 16th-century Spanish Jesuit Jose de Acosta, a multifaceted priest known to each of the editors for different reasons. To Harris, Fr. Acosta was a famous naturalist who devised a land-bridge theory to explain Indian migration to the Americas, while Fr. O'Malley knew him as one of the earliest Jesuit playwrights. Bailey and Fr. Kennedy said they had recognized Fr. Acosta as the author of an influential handbook urging Jesuit missionaries to adapt themselves to local cultures.

Fr. Acosta was also a theologian of note, as well as a player in political machinations within the Jesuit order in Rome, the editors said.

"He was a Spaniard who went to Peru and Mexico, whose ideas traveled to India, Japan and China, and who involved himself in intrigues in Spain and Rome," Harris observed. "He was best known for his work on the natural history of South America, and as an anthropologist of indigenous peoples.

"Is he a botanist? A zoologist? An anthropologist? An ethnographer? The answer is yes," said Harris.

Ever since the trial of Galileo, said Harris, an inevitable conflict has tended to be seen between science and religion. Yet the early Jesuit priests may have been "the greatest experimentalists of the 17th century," he said, as innovators in the use of telescopes in their observatories, and as the finest naturalists of their age.

"How did it come to pass that a society of priests and theologians should come to be such great mathematicians, naturalists and astronomers?" Harris said. "It's an open-ended question. That is what I find so exciting."


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