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The land where the Jesuits embraced modernity

In a letter of 1850 the Swiss Jesuit John Bapst declared that “the United States is the freest country in the world”. Bapst had only arrived in America two years earlier but was already convinced that he could “establish here as many schools as I can wish, and no one will interfere with me”. He even envisaged preaching “the doctrine of the Catholic religion in the most Protestant town before an audience composed entirely of Protestants, and I feel sure that I would not suffer a single interruption”.

As John McGreevy explains in his splendid new book, such hopes would quickly be dashed. Bapst set up his devotional stall in Ellsworth, Maine, where he objected, quite reasonably, to Catholic children being made to read from the King James Bible. The local education board was unimpressed by the protest, so Bapst established a Catholic school in the town.

Before too long, the windows of the priest’s home were being smashed and a chapel was being blown up with gunpowder. In October 1854, Bapst was seized by a group of locals and tied to a rail. Some of his assailants suggested burning him alive: instead, he was stripped naked then tarred and feathered. The First Amendment’s promises of religious freedom counted for little on that terrible autumn evening.

Of course, not every Jesuit who travelled from Europe to the US during the 19th century encountered a rabid mob, but they still faced challenges aplenty. A recurrent headache was how to react to a nation that positioned itself as a cradle of progress. What to make of democracy, the separation of church and state, or the prizing of the individual over the communal?

McGreevy suggests that, by and large, Jesuit “opposition to modernity was selective, not wholesale”. It seemed wise, for instance, to take full advantage of shiny new technologies. When Jesuits in St Louis were desperate for news from the First Vatican Council they “pleaded with their Roman colleagues to use the telegraph” rather than the unreliable postal service.

At a loftier theological and philosophical level, more caution was required in an era of such novelty and flux. McGreevy, while avoiding excessive generalisation, portrays Jesuits in America as being, more often than not, of a conservative stamp: fiercely loyal to Rome, leading the charge in the Neo-Scholastic educational revival, and cultivating “Catholic distinctiveness” through their ministries and devotions. A general mood of suspicion towards Catholicism, peppered with violent outrages like the one inflicted on John Bapst, only helped to deepen this mood of insularity.

None of this precluded impressive Jesuit achievements. McGreevy also tells the inspiring tale of Burchard Villiger, another Swiss émigré, establishing his sumptuous and costly church in Philadelphia, and we hear all about Neapolitan fathers reaching New Mexico and their colleagues from Turin fetching up in San Francisco.

By the dawn of the 20th century, 15 per cent of the world’s 16,000 Jesuits were based in America. They could look back on decades of admirable work in the fields of education and mission, as well as crucial ministry among immigrant communities.

Oddly enough, however, more settled times provoked their share of dilemmas. With old cultural antagonisms in abeyance, the “limits of a subcultural strategy” became apparent and the 20th century would witness many debates about precisely what it mean to be an “American” Jesuit. Where was a line to be drawn between acculturation and Catholic particularity?

McGreevy traces a fascinating early example of this process: the role of American Jesuit missionaries in the proudly Catholic Philippines, secured by the US in the wake of the late 19th-century Spanish-American War.

There really ought to be better books about the American Jesuit experience, especially ones that move beyond educational case studies or the predictable crowd of well-travelled missionaries. In this panoramic and limpidly written study McGreevy sets a fine example.

This article first appeared in the June 24 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.

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