Book introduces early Jesuit leaders in America

Reviewed By James P. Mc Cartin
Sunday, August 7, 2016

A list of notable contemporary American Jesuits would include names like Daniel Berrigan, the peace activist widely eulogized upon his recent death, and James Martin, the popular writer. But John McGreevy’s fascinating new book on 19th-century American Jesuits demonstrates how Berrigan’s and Martin’s forebears — a long list of forgotten figures like John Bapst and Ferdinand Helias — were no less talented, influential, controversial and revered than their latter- day brothers in the Society of Jesus.

In “American Jesuits and the World: How an Embattled Religious Order Made Modern Catholicism Global,” McGreevy spotlights a group of men who, over the course of a little more than a century, did a great deal to promote the sense that Catholics are part of an encompassing and global, not just Western European, community of believers. Along the way, he makes clear how Pope Francis himself fits squarely within a long sweep of Jesuit efforts to promote such a consciousness.

McGreevy focuses on a variety of Jesuits who shared a common orientation toward the United States, more often than not their adopted homeland. Reared on the opposite side of the Atlantic, those assigned to America lamented the church-state conflicts that rocked their native homes in France, Germany and Italy, conflicts that prompted persistent denunciations of the Jesuit order from European liberals and revolutionaries who painted them as archenemies of freedom.

Nevertheless, McGreevy’s subjects avowed a preference for the American tradition of freedom of conscience and religious practice. Typical of such men, John Bapst, who worked as a missionary in Maine beginning in the 1840s, informed his Swiss confreres that, while “you believe yourselves to be free ... you possess but a shadow of the liberty which we enjoy in America.” It should be noted that, before penning these lines, Bapst was subject to persistent harassment by American nativists who tarred and feathered him. He went on to become the first president of Boston College.

At the same time, Jesuits who labored in America scrupulously avoided the temptation to embrace American nationalism, a discipline they undertook with the encouragement of their order’s Roman leadership. The Belgian-born Ferdinand Helias, for example, worried that Americans’ regard for themselves as the “Nation of Nations” promoted a dangerous triumphalism, a point of view not surprising from a man who lived his Jesuit life in five nations before finally landing in the American Midwest where he spent his time both engaged in pastoral ministry and fighting super-patriotic anti- Catholic bigots whom another Jesuit called “so many tyrants of the lowest and most detestable kind.”

Like Bapst, Helias deeply appreciated American liberty, but worked against the nationalistic small-mindedness — tinged with an evangelical religious fervor — that he regarded as antithetical to the universal spirit of Catholicism.

Though later generations of Americaborn Jesuits would, at times, be less resistant to nationalism’s allure, men like Bapst, Helias and so many of their colleagues championed both the right of individual conscience and a sense of universal human dignity that transcends national or racial categories. McGreevy points out how this combination of values, refined and articulated substantially within an American context, became central not only to the Jesuits’ work around the 20th-century world, but also to the vision of the Second Vatican Council and that of Pope Francis.

Readers of “American Jesuits and the World” will meet a remarkably captivating cast of characters who, despite their obscurity today, enjoyed wide spheres of influence and forged a shared legacy with powerful contemporary resonance. They will also get a taste for why the Jesuits are so intriguing and why they will continue to be so important for the life of the church in the 21st century.