In 1534 a group of students at the University of Paris lead by Íñigo López de Loyola, a Basque Spaniard, met to form the ‘Company of Jesus,’ taking vows of poverty and chastity and agreeing to “enter upon hospital and missionary work in Jerusalem, or to go without questioning wherever the pope might direct.” In 1537 they travelled to Rome to seek papal approval for their new order, and after being ordained that summer they immediately set about preaching and performing charitable acts. Their goal of travel to Jerusalem could not be met due to the ongoing war between the Empire, Venice, and the Turks. In 1540, Pope Paul III approved the founding of the new order, subsequently renamed the Society of Jesus, with Loyola as the order’s first Superior-General.
France remained an important center of the order, establishing over a dozen colleges in the first three decades of the order’s history and participating in the Colloquies at Poissy, a great debate between the Church and the Huguenots of France. The priests of the order were recognized for the performance their apostolic duties, but they also came into conflict with the University of Paris; the Gallican leanings of the professors conflicted with the ultramontanism strongly espoused by the priests of the Society, and the Parlement of Paris restricted the Jesuits from the University. During the height of the Wars of Religion, Jesuits could be found as spiritual advisors to leaders of both the French court and the Catholic League, but by scrupulous observance of their vow to respect the consciences of all, the priests of the Society avoided alienating either of the Catholic factions.
In 1576, Henri III was crowned King of France following the death of his brother, and he took a Jesuit, Father Auger, as his confessor and personal chaplain, setting a precendent that would be followed by successive French monarchs, to the enduring dissatisfaction of other priests and friars in France.
Under Henri IV, Jesuits played a significant role in his own absolution and bringing peace to the divided country. An attempt to assassinate the newly converted king by a Jesuit supporter and former Leaguer named Jean Chastel in 1594 aroused the wrath of the Parlement once again, and they succeeded in banning the Jesuits from France the following year. In 1603, however, Henri IV submitted to the pope’s earnest entreaties and restored the Society to France. The king encouraged the Jesuits to participate in missions both home, in the Huguenot strongholds of Normandy and Navarre, and aboard, in New France and the Levant. By 1610 the Society operated thrity-nine colleges across France. The assassination of Henri IV brought fresh outrage directed against the Jesuits, but by this time they had gained sufficient support that the parlementaires, in their capacity of censor of published material in France, could only order the burning of some of the Society’s texts.
The order has continued to grow under the reign of Louis XIII, but many still distrust the black-cassocked priests as fomentors of sedition against the king and the French Church.
The Jesuits are clerks regular, secular priests bound to follow a rule, as distinct from contemplative monks and non-ordained friars.