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Book review: “The Jesuits: a Multibiography” by Jean Lacouture

There are times when Jean Lacouture draws a picture of a particular Jesuit that takes your breath away.

Consider his description of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the 20th century scientist-theologian who was silenced for much of his professional life by the church for describing an evolving Universe in place of traditional Catholic teaching of a static world, rooted in the Book of Genesis.

Agnostic intellectuals and researchers, Lacouture writes, saw, in Teilhard, “a luminous personality almost recklessly offered, open to the point of innocence,” and a man in constant, quick movement, “pulsing with joyful vitality and optimism.”

Further, he writes:

Teilhard walked through life with long strides, from continent to continent, from millennium to millennium, from the Gobi Desert to Harar in Abyssinia, a beret on his head, or a sun helmet, or a turban, a cape slung across his shoulders, in shorts and bush jacket, wearing boots or rope soles — something of a Marco Polo, something of Claudel, something of Rimbaud — tough, laughing, pick or hammer in hand and a parable on his lips, twenty stories in his head, a too human human at once riveted in priestly fetters he had accepted and in permanent violation of Church law, a prophet constantly struck down and constantly reborn.

That’s a hero. That’s a man I want to emulate. That’s someone who fits my mental image of a Jesuit.

And there are many men like that throughout Lacouture’s 1995 book “Jesuits: A Multibiography.” Yet, as a reader, I often had a hard time finding them.

That may be my fault. Maybe not.

The condensing process

Lacouture is a Frenchman who has written biographies of Charles de Gaulle, Ho Chi Minh, Gamal Abdel Nasser and Andre Malraux. His 1995 book on the Jesuits, published in English translation, was a condensation of a two-volume work in French from 1991 and 1992.

It is possible that, in the condensing process, a lot of connective tissue and contextual perspective were lost.

That could explain why I found Lacouture’s writing densely convoluted. He seemed to want to analyze individual Jesuits and their order on philosophical, theological, social, historical and moral levels simultaneously. The result, for me, was an often constipated prose.

An element of this could be Lacouture’s often pretzel-like sentence structure.

Here, my difficulty in penetrating the thickets may be more cultural than anything else. French writers, in my experience, tend to prefer complexity to simplicity, a sort of textual huffing and puffing rather than a more humble setting forth of ideas — at least, that’s how it perceive it from my American bias.

Also, Lacouture seems to proceed on the assumption that the reader knows a lot about Jesuit history and maybe as much about French history, including the many various Gallic intellectual debates down the centuries.

Turgid chapters

Okay, this is a book that was written by a Frenchman most probably with a French audience in mind.

But wasn’t it up to the Lacouture and/or his editors to fill in some of these cultural gaps for American readers such as me?

Even more, wasn’t it the job of the author and/or his editors, during the condensation process, to slice away a lot of the overabundant text devoted to the activities of the Jesuits in Paris and the rest of France?

The most turgid of the book’s 17 chapters are five in the center (comprising nearly 150 of the book’s 498 pages) that are devoted almost exclusively to what the Jesuits were doing in France between 1750 and 1950.

Meanwhile — although he notes that today one of every five Jesuits lives in the United States — Lacouture has little or nothing to say about such American members of the order as Pierre-Jean De Smet, Jacques Marquette and Daniel Berrigan.

Enthralling portraits

Even with such flaws, Lacouture’s portraits of Ignatius Loyola and the other founders of the religious order, of Francis Xavier in Japan, and of Mateo Ricci in China are enthralling.

Both Ricci and Xavier, early in the evolution of the Jesuits as an organization, set a tone of openness, inquiry and mutual sharing in their dealings with the Others of the world — non-Europeans, non-Christians, non-believers, non-whites.

Indeed, Ricci went to far as to become a Confucian scholar in order to fit himself into Chinese society and be in a better position to preach the Gospel.

A Jesuit historian, quoted by Lacouture, provides this description:

[Ricci wore] a habit of dark red silk, its lapels, hem, cuffs and collar lined with a band of silk of lightest blue the breadth of a man’s hand. The sleeves are very wide and loose, somewhat like those of Venice. The belt is of the same red blue….

He has let his hair grow down to his ears, no longer clipped as the French once practiced it, but as with women curled into ringlets…By the end of one year, his beard has grown down to his belt — a great wonder for the Chinese, who never have more than four, eight, or ten sparse hairs on their chins.

What makes a Jesuit a Jesuit

Just as enthralling are the insights Lacouture provides on what makes a Jesuit a Jesuit.

For instance, he writes that, for the order’s eventual founders, “every act led toward active personalization of a spiritual life based as much on affectivity [i.e., emotions] as on intellect, on fundamental, militant poverty, on a passionate quest for knowledge.”

Lacouture quotes Loyola’s advice to early Jesuit missionaries:

In dealing with people and above all with equals or inferiors, speak little but listen long and willingly, according to their rank. Let greetings and farewells be merry and courteous. If you speak with persons of influence consider first (to win their affection and snare them in your toils for the greater service of God) what their character is, and adapt yours to it.

If a man be passionate and lively of speech, speak in the same manner, avoiding grave or melancholy expressions. With those who are by nature circumspect, reticent, and slow of speech, model your delivery accordingly, for this is what pleases them. With those who are sad or tempted, you will be affable, showing great joy to struggle against their low spirits.

Be all things to all men….

Making scenes

When, after being thrown out of France for decades, the Jesuits were permitted to return, Louis XVIII said, “Let them go noiselessly about their affairs and they have nothing to fear.”

To which Lacouture comments:

He little knew the Jesuits. ‘Let them go noiselessly about their affairs?’ But, sire, the Jesuits’ ‘affairs’ were by definition everyone’s affairs. ‘Noiselessly?’ Perhaps. But not without an effect on the course of events…However hard they might try, the Jesuits could not work without purpose, without encumbrances, without at least some commotion….[Louis XVIII] did not like ‘making scenes.’ And Jesuits by definition make scenes.

For another definition of a Jesuit, let me go back to Teilhard. In World War I, the 35-year-old Jesuit was a stretcher-bearer, a job which he later called his “baptism into the real.”

One of his Jesuit contemporaries, Rene d’Ouince, wrote:

I myself lived through that war. I learned the mind-numbing effects of constant vigilance and constant physical effort — and I was twenty.

To me Teilhard’s case seems a psychological miracle. Out on the front line, he thought all day long, and often at night…He would make for the nearest wood and pace up and down for hours, consigning it all to notes at first light. At his next rest break, in some parish church or rundown sacristy, he would write…twenty or thirty pages in a meticulous neat hand.
“In love with the Universe”

To that, Lacouture writes:

It was the shock of reality in its rawest, most aggressive form, the perception of that absolute which was the firing line he daily lived in, and which inspired in him pages pregnant with fascination….

He was instilled with the lessons and exchanges [of the battlefields], rich too from his encounters with the hoary old universe, henceforth knowing an Earth no longer abstract but in all its terrifying mud, flame, and fire, having borne in his arms life in its final throes and death in its first approaches, and having become familiar with death and closer to life, living fully through surviving, and worthy of declaring himself in love with the Universe.

Now that’s a Jesuit.

Patrick T. Reardon


  • Gary J. Krukar
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 8:53 am

    Nice review. Don’t know if I’ll get around to reading it, but the Jesuits have always fascinated me. An interesting, exciting, and ultimately disturbing read is Mary Doria Russel’s: The Sparrow. It is a sci-fi novel concerning the Jesuits, who send one of their own out to explore (and hopefully christianize) a planet from which poetry has been received via the SETI project in Puerto Rico.

  • Post Author
    Patrick T. Reardon
    Posted May 17, 2012 at 11:00 am

    Thanks, Gary. Given the many books about the history of the Jesuits, I’m not sure I’d recommend reading this one. And thanks for the tip on Sparrow. I owned that book for more than ten years, but now can’t find it. Probably weeded it out to make room for newly purchased books. It sounds like something I now definitely want to read, so I’ve ordered a copy. Russel, by the way, is the daughter of the longtime sheriff in DuPage County, the richest suburban county of Chicago.

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