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Jesuit Survival and Restoration

200th Anniversary Perspectives from Boston and Macau

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2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the restoration of the Society of Jesus, one of the most significant events in nineteenth-century cultural and religious history but also one of the least well-studied. This international conference aims to shed new light on neglected aspects of this vital subject.

The 1773 suppression of the Jesuits, and the various national expulsions and banishments that preceded it, sought to destroy the Society as a corporate entity. This did not spell the end of the Jesuit enterprise, however. Persecuted by the Catholic monarchies of Portugal, Spain, and France, the Jesuits survived in various guises and locales across the globe. We focus on three of these and the links between them but we also look at the parallel contexts in other parts of Asia, South and North America, and central and Western Europe.

The eastern part of the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, known as Belarus or White Russia, was occupied by Catherine the Great just before the papal suppression of the order. She rejected the ratification of the papal brief of suppression in her territories. Local Jesuits not only continued to influence the region’s religious history but also expanded their influence beyond the safe haven of the Russian empire. One of the most striking examples was their enterprise in China. From their intellectual center in Połock—dubbed the Athens of Belarus—they attempted to re-approach China through their easternmost station in Irkutsk, Siberia and their community in St. Petersburg. Exiled Jesuits from Portuguese Macau also found refuge in continental China, where the Society sustained its pivotal role in the historic encounter between East and West, initiated by the Italian Matteo Ricci back in the 16th century.

Just as significant was the role of ex-Jesuits in the religious landscape of the fledgling United States and the links between Jesuit survival in Eastern Europe and North America were crucial. Five former Jesuits in the United States renewed their vows in 1805 (a decade before the order’s official restoration) after receiving permission from Russia and even when the Jesuit presence in Russian territory became increasingly controversial during the first two decades of the nineteenth century the dynamism continued. The Polish Superior General Tadeusz Brzozowski sent a group of his confreres to the US. There, and in other parts of the United States, the Society would thrive throughout the early nineteenth century. They would be crucial, for instance, in saving Bishop John Carroll’s struggling Georgetown College and in establishing new institutions and missions across the United States.

The history of the Society’s survival after 1773 and its restoration two centuries ago deserve closer attention and the anniversary year of 2014 provides an ideal opportunity. We plan to look at three hotspots, arguably the three most important engine-rooms of Jesuit activity during this turbulent period: east-central Europe/Russia, China, and the United States and place them within the context of other regions of the globe. What happened in and between these far-flung places defined the future of the Jesuit order and also had momentous consequences for the broader religious and cultural history of three continents. Adopting a global perspective and recruiting some of the finest scholars working in this muddled but fascinating field will go a long way toward plugging a lamentable historiographical hole.

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