Ratio Studiorum - Introduction

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INTRODUCTION: "Ratio Studiorum: Jesuit Education, 1548-1773"

by John W. O'Malley, S.J.
 
Ratio StudiorumThis introductory essay was prepared for an exhibit celebrating the 400th anniversary of the first promulgation of the Ratio studiorum. The exhibit, "Ratio Studiorum: Jesuit Education, 1548-1773" was held at the Boston College John J. Burns Library in the fall of 1999.

Within the past few years, the John J. Burns Library at Boston College has substantially increased its already impressive collection related to the history of the Society of Jesus. These recent acquisitions came to the library through purchases from the Weston Jesuit School of Theology in Cambridge, Massachusetts and from the library of the French Province of the Jesuits located at Les Fontaines in Chantilly outside Paris. Since 1999 marks two anniversaries of great significance in the history of the Society of Jesus, it provides an excellent occasion for an exhibit including books from these new additions to the collection.

One of these anniversaries relates to the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus; the other relates to the Jesuits' educational enterprise and, thence, to their scholarship across a wide range of disciplines. Commitment to fostering religious devotion and to promoting formal schooling shaped the profile of the Society from its foundational years through the subsequent centuries, giving it the basic elements of what St. Ignatius called its "way of proceeding" or what we might call its style.

St. Ignatius underwent as a soldier a deep religious conversion while recuperating in 1521 from wounds he suffered in the battle of Pamplona. As his relationship with God developed over the next year or so, he began writing down what he was experiencing in order to help himself and also to help others who approached him in order "to converse about the things of God." These were the origins of the Spiritual Exercises, on which Ignatius continued to work for the next two decades. Although more often cited than studied, the Exercises were destined to become one of the world's most famous books.

The Exercises encapsulated the essence of Ignatius's own spiritual conversion from conventional Christianity to a deep awareness of God's presence and comfort in all of the circumstances of his life, and it presented this experience in a form that would guide others to analogous changes of awareness and motivation. Not a book of spiritual teachings as such, it was rather a design for a process of prayer, meditation, and discernment that would, as Ignatius said, "allow the Creator to deal directly with the creature, and the creature directly with the Creator."

A call to inwardness, it was the first Christian book to provide such a full, clear, yet remarkably flexible program, and it thus created what came to be known as the "retreat," a few days, a week, or a month of seclusion set aside in order to open oneself to God's will. The Exercises were intended for Christians from all walks of life but had special relevance for members of the Society in that they set the pattern, goals, and style for all of the ministries in which the Jesuits engaged. The importance of the book in establishing the ethos and spirit of the Society of Jesus cannot be overestimated.

When in the 1530s Ignatius studied philosophy and theology at the University of Paris, he guided a number of persons in the Exercises, including six of his fellow-students who, as a result of the experience, formed with him the first nucleus of what would in 1540 officially become the Society of Jesus. The book of the Exercises is what gave this initial group its cohesion, and it was an instrument that they used from the beginning in their efforts to help others find their spiritual way and, in some cases, to enter the nascent Society.

The book circulated in manuscript among members of the Society until it was finally published in Rome by the printer Antonio Blado in 1548. Ignatius wanted it published for several reasons: to assure a more accurate text, to increase its circulation among Jesuits, and to put it in a form that could receive papal approval. The last reason was crucial because the book was being attacked in some quarters as dangerous and even heretical. In any case, the publication launched the Exercises into the world beyond Ignatius's immediate disciples and began a remarkable printing history that continues to this day, with translations into practically every language around the globe. The book has had an immense impact on the history of Catholic devotion, an impact that continues up to the present. It has also influenced areas of culture in unexpected ways. With its promotion of the use of the imagination in meditation, for instance, it influenced painters and sculptors, and it helped create the genre of emblem books, with their fusion of symbol and meditation.

One of the most innovative and distinctive aspects of the Exercises was that individuals did not undertake them on their own but with the help of another person, who acted as guide, companion, senior partner, or simply helper. St. Ignatius in fact intended the book more for this person than for those actually making the retreat. In the book he gave the person a number of suggestions about how those making the Exercises might be guided most fruitfully and about dealing with the different circumstances that might arise. Early on, this person began to be referred to as the director of the Exercises. This was somewhat of a misnomer, given the more mediating role described in the book, but it became standard.

St. Ignatius trained some of the early Jesuits for this delicate role in informal ways, so that a demand grew for him to write down some further indications as to how it was to be performed. Ignatius left a few notes, as did some of the Jesuits he trained, but many Jesuits came to believe that something fuller and more systematic was needed, a "directory." Ignatius's two successors as superior general promoted the idea, but the next general, Everard Mercurian (1571-1580), pushed it forward by himself, composing a draft and successfully requesting another from Juan Alfonso de Polanco, one of Ignatius's closest assistants. The next general, Claudio Acquaviva (1581-1615), was finally able to bring the project to completion through further drafts and consultations. It turned out to be a relatively small book that tried to distill reflections resulting from pastoral experience, for the most part simply elaborating on suggestions already in the Exercises.

Thus in 1599 the official Directory was published, another landmark in the history of Catholic devotion. It meant that the Exercises had achieved almost canonical status. This Directorium exercitiorum spiritualium P. N. Ignatii, reprinted innumerable times and translated into a number of languages, was never revised nor has it ever officially been replaced, which is a tribute to its accomplishment. In the past thirty years, however, a number of commentaries on the Exercises have appeared that have made it less useful than it once was.

Scholars correctly describe the Society of Jesus as the first teaching order in the Catholic Church insofar as the Jesuits were the first ever to undertake the founding, management, and staffing of schools as a formal ministry. In the long history of the Jesuits, few activities seem more characteristic of them. It comes as somewhat of a surprise to learn, therefore, that when the Society came into being in 1540, such an undertaking was not in the purview of the founding members. In fact, graduates of the University of Paris though they all were, they decided that they would not undertake any teaching assignments anywhere except on a temporary, short-term basis. It certainly never occurred to them that they would end up running schools. They saw themselves primarily as itinerant catechists, preachers, and evangelists. Saint Francis Xavier, one of the original companions of Ignatius in Paris, was on his way to India as a missionary even before the Society received its papal charter in 1540. Within a few years, however, Jesuits began giving some instruction to young recruits, and bit by bit their reputation as pedagogues grew. They had, moreover, begun to see the benefits of labors sustained with the same group of people over a long period of time. The stage was being set for a new commitment, but we know this only in hindsight. It was certainly not clear to them at the time.

The curtain rose with incredible suddenness and the action took off with incredible speed. In 1547, scarcely a half-dozen years after the founding of the Society, St. Ignatius received an utterly unexpected and unsolicited invitation from leading citizens of the city of Messina in Sicily to found and staff a secondary school for their sons. He accepted, which indicates that his own thinking was already changing. The school opened the next year and, though plagued with many problems, was a great success. A momentous turning-point had been reached in the history of the Society of Jesus.

That same year, thirty members of the senate in Palermo, impressed by what was happening in Messina, petitioned Ignatius for a similar school. Again he acquiesced. Other schools soon followed -- in 1551 schools opened in both Vienna and Rome. By the time Ignatius died in 1556, the Jesuits were operating some thirty schools, practically all of them secondary, and just a few years later Polanco would write in the name of the new general to inform Jesuits that education had become the primary ministry of the Society.

Meanwhile the school in Rome, the "Roman College," had developed into a university, and, while secondary schools would always be far more numerous, other institutions of higher learning would henceforth be an important part of the Jesuit enterprise. By 1773, the year that the Society of Jesus was suppressed throughout the world by papal edict, the Jesuits were operating more than eight hundred universities, seminaries, primary, and secondary schools around the globe. The world had never seen before, nor has it seen since, such an immense network of educational institutions operating on an international basis under a single aegis.

As the schools proliferated in the early decades, questions about curriculum, pedagogy, textbooks, administrative procedures, and similar matters began to be asked with greater urgency. An overarching issue was how these many schools could maintain some coherence among themselves. This was important for a number of reasons, not least of which was the necessity for Jesuits being moved from one school to another to fit into the new institutions to which they had been transferred. How, furthermore, could a certain quality-control be established, with standards against which performance might be measured?

Gerónimo Nadal, one of Ignatius's closest collaborators. was also the founder and first rector of the school in Messina. He drew up the curriculum along lines in accord with those promoted by Renaissance humanists, and this became, along with some of Nadal's other writings, the first, somewhat indistinct, blueprint for the schools that were springing up everywhere. But chaos sometimes reigned. Just after the school opened in Vienna, Ignatius complained that it was offering a mishmash of courses, without plan or meaning. Bit by bit, some order was imposed, but Jesuit educators increasingly requested a document, a comprehensive "plan of studies" that they could use as a guide.

A number of attempts were made in succeeding decades to come up with such a plan, but none of the versions was found to be fully satisfactory. As with the Directorium in exercitia spiritualia, it was Claudio Acquaviva who was able to bring this long-standing project to completion and officially publish in 1599 the Ratio studiorum that became the Magna Carta of Jesuit education. In the Middle Ages, the Augustinians had a document known as Ratio studiorum, and other orders had similar documents which were intended for the training of members of the orders. The Ratio of the Jesuits was different in that it was meant as much for the education of lay students as for Jesuits, but it also was different because the "plan of studies" now included the humanities -- literature, history, drama, and so forth -- as well as philosophy and theology, the traditionally clerical subjects. This meant that the Jesuit Ratio assumed that literary or humanistic subjects could be integrated into the study of professional or scientific subjects; that is, it assumed that the humanistic program of the Renaissance was compatible with the Scholastic program of the Middle Ages.

The Ratio had all of the benefits and all of the defects of such codifications; while it set standards, for instance, it discouraged innovation. In any case, it had impact far beyond Jesuit institutions because it was seen as a coherent and lucid statement of ideals, methods, and objectives shared broadly by educators in early modern Europe. For the Society of Jesus, the Ratio studiorum symbolized a certain maturing in its commitment to education, which had great repercussions for the future of Catholicism. The schools were often at the center of the culture of the towns and cities where they were located: typically, they would produce several plays or even ballets per year, and some maintained important astronomical observatories.

The commitment to education effected a profound change in the model of the Society of Jesus from what Ignatius and his companions originally envisaged. It meant that the model of itinerant preachers of the Gospel had to be tempered by the reality of being resident schoolmasters. It meant the development of large communities needed to staff the schools, it meant other things as well. Perhaps most profoundly, it meant a special relationship to culture in that the Society as an institution had a systematic relationship to "secular" learning, for its members had to be prepared to teach both the classics of Latin and Greek literature of the humanistic tradition (Homer, Virgil, Cicero, and Terence, for example) and the scientific texts of Aristotle in the Scholastic tradition (we must remember that "philosophy" meant to a large extent "natural philosophy," subjects we call biology, physics, and astronomy). If Jesuits were to teach these subjects, they would also almost perforce begin to write about them, at least to the point of producing textbooks for their students.

At the beginning of the Society, St. Ignatius and the other Jesuits, graduates of Paris though they were, did not consider the writing of books in the purview of their mission; within a decade, Ignatius mentioned in the Jesuit Constitutions the possibility of "writing books useful for the common good." Few such books were produced, however, until the number of schools began to grow and the need for appropriate and inexpensive textbooks felt. With textbooks in view, Ignatius in the last year of his life went to immense trouble to secure a good press for the Roman College, which was installed and in good working order within a few months of his death. Among the first books published by this first press operated by the Jesuits was André des Freux's edition of Martial's Epigrams (1558) -- a book by a "pagan." Within two generations, Jesuits were producing books on a great scale, a phenomenon that would come to characterize the order. Many of these were textbooks or at least related directly to instruction in the Jesuit classrooms, but others ranged far more broadly and began to touch on almost every imaginable subject. The experience of the Jesuit missionaries in exotic places like Japan, China, and Viet Nam gave, when viewed largely, an extraordinarily cosmopolitan cast to this production.

It is highly probable that even without the schools, the Jesuits would have produced a significant number of books, for their counterparts in other religious orders did so. However that may be, the incontrovertible fact is that the schools provided the impetus for an extraordinarily copious production. They also required that the scope of that production be consistently and predictably wide-ranging, for the schools took the Jesuits into just about every conceivable aspect of human culture and made them reflect upon it and come up with something to say.


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