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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Taking a Spirited Tour of a Different Kind of Company : JESUITS: A Multibiography by Jean Lacouture; Counterpoint $29.50, 550 pages

February 07, 1996|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

"Ite, et inflammate!"--"Go, and set the world ablaze!" is how Jean Lacouture translates Ignatius of Loyola's command to his followers.

They went forth, and in an astonishingly short time after Pope Paul III approved the Company of Jesus in 1540 there were Jesuits all over Europe and from China to South America, promoting the faith, teaching and learning in the spirit of inquiry that has marked this order of Roman Catholic priests for much of its history.

Lacouture, French journalist and historian, biographer of Charles de Gaulle and Ho Chi Minh, takes the reader on a spirited tour of the order's 450 years by concentrating on leading Jesuits.

This English-language edition is a one-volume condensation of the two-volume history that Lacouture published recently in French. The translation nicely captures the clarity and vigor of Lacouture's prose.

"Why," asks Lacouture, "did the author spend so many months resurrecting this extraordinary company of priests? Because he saw in them discoverers of worlds, of peoples, of diverse civilizations.

"Whoever attempts . . . to harvest the most significant characteristics of the history of this Company must acknowledge the overpowering part played by initiative and striving in an enterprise that the Jesuits--ad majorem Dei gloriam--[their motto, "to the greater glory of God"] stamped upon the raw, intractable clay of life."

The chief striver of all was the founder, Inigo Lopez de Loyola, born in the fateful year 1492. Lacouture introduces him as he walks toward Barcelona in Catalonia, a Basque emerging from the Middle Ages and soon to be immersed in the Renaissance and pointed toward modernity:

"Small and horribly thin, he wore a skimpy sack cloth tunic as rough as a hair shirt. One of his frail hands gripped a weighty staff . . . .

"A strange face. A ship's prow of a nose, sharp cheekbones, a broad forehead fringed with fiery red curls. The eyes burned as fiercely as a forge in their deep sockets. The face, bony, lopsides, scorched-looking was framed in a russet beard--a flint giving off wild sparks."

Lacouture does a fine job of re-creating not only the events and the people but also the flavor of the epochs that follow in all their changing aspects.

But Lacouture, though all in all an admirer, is no apologist. He examines both Ignatius' deep attraction to and for women and his hostile refusal to countenance a companion order for women. And he argues that while Ignatius did not partake of the ordinary anti-Semitism of the day, the order itself slipped into that infamous but common Christian attitude.

It did not emerge until, with significant Jesuit help, the Church in the 1960s and 1970s renounced its ancient hatred.

Dynastic and territorial jealousies led to the expulsion of the Jesuits in the late 18th century from the Portuguese and Spanish empires and from most of the countries of Europe, and they were suppressed by the papacy.

When they were revived in 1814 it was to a European world traumatized by the French Revolution and Napoleon. The Jesuits, like the church, became reactionary and restorationist. It was in the last century that they got their militarist reputation as the shock troops of the church, resolutely antiliberal and antimodern.

Lacouture takes obvious pride in the transformation of the Company, as it is called in Spanish, Italian and French, into the present bedrock commitment to faith and justice. The murder of the six Jesuits in El Salvador in 1989 stands as a terrible emblem of both.

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