April 06, 2020

A Russian Gift

A Russian Gift
Georgetown University in Washington, DC Gtownsfs (Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

By a felicitous quirk of history, Pope Francis may owe a small debt to Russia.  On March 13, 2013, white smoke emanating from a chimney atop the Sistine Chapel signaled the selection of the Argentine Jesuit Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio as the new pope.  He was the first member of the Society of Jesus, founded in 1540, to become pope.  The religious order had been abolished by a papal edict in the eighteenth century, and it was ultimately saved from extinction only by the beneficence of Catherine the Great.  

The story is an interesting one and it connects Russia, the Jesuits, the Vatican and Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.


St. Ignatius
St. Ignatius. / Portrait by Peter Paul Rubens

The Jesuits had been founded by Inigo (known as Ignatius) Lopez de Loyola, a Basque priest and son of a nobleman, and confirmed by Pope Paul III in 1540 by his papal bull “Regimini Militantis Ecclesiae.”  As the title suggested, the Jesuits were to be one of the elite missionary instruments of the Church Militant to fight the ideas of Protestantism in the Counter-Reformation.

More than 200 years later, however, under sharp pressure from Catholic rulers intent on checking Vatican power, Pope Clement XIV reluctantly issued an apostolic brief in 1773 titled “Dominus as Redemptor" effectively putting the Society out of business.  The pope is said to have exclaimed wistfully, “questa suppressione mi dara la morte!” (“this suppression will be my death.”). Five cardinals were appointed to oversee the disbanding of the Jesuit order worldwide.

Yet two non-Catholic sovereigns refused to comply: the king of Lutheran Prussia, Frederick the Great (1740-1786) and the Empress of Orthodox Russia, Catherine II (1763-1796), who was born a Pomeranian princess.  The two rulers had similarly mixed motives for not cooperating with Rome.  Neither owed fealty to Rome, but more important, both were pragmatic modernizers and valued the work of Jesuits as educators.  Catherine and Frederick were pen pals, and they were also fans of Enlightenment philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot.

Catherine the Great
Catherine the Great /
Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder

The two sovereigns had perhaps less than lofty reasons for ignoring the papal suppression decree.  Starting in 1772, in coordination with the “most Catholic” Habsburg Empress of Austria Maria Theresa (1717-1780), these benevolent despots carved up the Commonwealth of Poland-Lithuania, a land grab that would take another two decades to complete and come to be known as the Partition of Poland.  After Frederick’s death in 1786, his son reversed his relatively liberal policy, leaving Catherine as the Jesuits’ only protector in the Christian world.  

As a result of the Partition, Catherine recovered several provinces in "Alba Russia” or White Russia — roughly today’s Belarus — including key towns such as Polotsk, Vitebsk, and Mogilev that had been lost more than a century and a half earlier during Poland’s brief occupation of Russia during the Time of Troubles.  In the process, Catherine’s imperial domain also gained some 1.6 million Roman Catholics, including a core group of 77 Jesuit priests.  Catherine was most interested in real estate.  But, as Jesuit historian Francis Fadner once noted, she “was bound and determined not to increase her problems by needlessly tampering with the institutions revered by her new subjects."  These included the Jesuit missions and schools.

The orphaned Jesuits of Alba Russia, ever obedient to the Vatican, asked Catherine to publish the pope’s suppression letter.  In response, according to Fadner, the ever pragmatic Empress "bade them to lay aside their scruples, promising to obtain papal sanction for their remaining in status quo.”  True to her word, in 1780, Catherine received permission from the Holy See for the Jesuits to open a novitiate and train new members.  That year, she visited the great Catholic cathedral at Polotsk, the center of Jesuit activity, and a magnet for leading scholars from Europe’s oldest universities.  The rector there referred to “the almost miraculous survival of the Jesuits in the Russian Empire.”  The Jesuits would go on to thrive in Russia, electing five so-called superior generals, the heads of the Society, and moving into the far reaches of the Slavic country.  By a twist of fate, Russia had become the last haven for Jesuit life and education.

I learned of this intriguing history as an undergraduate student at Georgetown University in the early 1980s, when then President Timothy Healy S.J. told me that the university had been a “Russian gift.”  It took a while to understand exactly what he meant, but a little archival digging unlocked the riddle.  

Archbishop John Carroll / Gilbert Stuart

Georgetown was founded in 1789 by a former Jesuit priest John Carroll who had been a signer of the Declaration of Independence.  Carroll had to be an ex-Jesuit because the papal suppression of the Society was enforced throughout the British colonies.  Yet Carroll followed closely developments in the Jesuit province in the Russian Empire.  Indeed, the Jesuit archives in Maryland reveal extensive correspondence with the Jesuits in Polotsk. Carroll sought guidance on many matters including the founding of his “Academy at George-Town on the Patowmack River.” The early affairs at the university were for a long time directed from Russian headquarters. Several of Georgetown’s early presidents came from Alba Russia and were appointed by the superior general in Polotsk before the order was officially restored by Pope Pius VII in 1814.  Catherine’s grandson Alexander I (1801-1825), suspicious of Catholic influence, would later expel the Jesuits from Russia after the death of the last superior general in 1820.

To quote Father Fadner again:

“Through the meandering course of history, that strange interplay of circumstances and human motivations of varying levels, it came to pass that the lands of Russia should see the preservation of the link between what we like to call the old Society and the new, with an early experiment in American liberal education as a symbol of the connection.” 

And, we might add, indirectly with a Jesuit pope in Rome today.

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