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.

You Might Also Like

The Baptizers
  • August 01, 1996

The Baptizers

An excerpt from "A Land Owned by Russia," a book to be published that describes the assimilatio nof Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and northern California by Russian explorers in the 17th-19th centuries, and the work of traders and missionaries in that period.
The City of Chagall
  • May 01, 2010

The City of Chagall

Just over Russia’s border in Belarus is the remarkable city of Vitebsk, birthplace for a surprisingly influential artistic community that flourished just before and after the Revolution.
Like this post? Get a weekly email digest + member-only deals

Some of Our Books

The Little Golden Calf

The Little Golden Calf

Our edition of The Little Golden Calf, one of the greatest Russian satires ever, is the first new translation of this classic novel in nearly fifty years. It is also the first unabridged, uncensored English translation ever, and is 100% true to the original 1931 serial publication in the Russian journal 30 Dnei. Anne O. Fisher’s translation is copiously annotated, and includes an introduction by Alexandra Ilf, the daughter of one of the book’s two co-authors.
Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Dostoyevsky Bilingual

Bilingual series of short, lesser known, but highly significant works that show the traditional view of Dostoyevsky as a dour, intense, philosophical writer to be unnecessarily one-sided. 
Chekhov Bilingual

Chekhov Bilingual

Some of Chekhov's most beloved stories, with English and accented Russian on facing pages throughout. 
A Taste of Chekhov

A Taste of Chekhov

This compact volume is an introduction to the works of Chekhov the master storyteller, via nine stories spanning the last twenty years of his life.
A Taste of Russia

A Taste of Russia

The definitive modern cookbook on Russian cuisine has been totally updated and redesigned in a 30th Anniversary Edition. Layering superbly researched recipes with informative essays on the dishes' rich historical and cultural context, A Taste of Russia includes over 200 recipes on everything from borshch to blini, from Salmon Coulibiac to Beef Stew with Rum, from Marinated Mushrooms to Walnut-honey Filled Pies. A Taste of Russia shows off the best that Russian cooking has to offer. Full of great quotes from Russian literature about Russian food and designed in a convenient wide format that stays open during use.
The Samovar Murders

The Samovar Murders

The murder of a poet is always more than a murder. When a famous writer is brutally stabbed on the campus of Moscow’s Lumumba University, the son of a recently deposed African president confesses, and the case assumes political implications that no one wants any part of.
Marooned in Moscow

Marooned in Moscow

This gripping autobiography plays out against the backdrop of Russia's bloody Civil War, and was one of the first Western eyewitness accounts of life in post-revolutionary Russia. Marooned in Moscow provides a fascinating account of one woman's entry into war-torn Russia in early 1920, first-person impressions of many in the top Soviet leadership, and accounts of the author's increasingly dangerous work as a journalist and spy, to say nothing of her work on behalf of prisoners, her two arrests, and her eventual ten-month-long imprisonment, including in the infamous Lubyanka prison. It is a veritable encyclopedia of life in Russia in the early 1920s.
The Latchkey Murders

The Latchkey Murders

Senior Lieutenant Pavel Matyushkin is back on the case in this prequel to the popular mystery Murder at the Dacha, in which a serial killer is on the loose in Khrushchev’s Moscow...
Murder and the Muse

Murder and the Muse

KGB Chief Andropov has tapped Matyushkin to solve a brazen jewel heist from Picasso’s wife at the posh Metropole Hotel. But when the case bleeds over into murder, machinations, and international intrigue, not everyone is eager to see where the clues might lead.
At the Circus (bilingual)

At the Circus (bilingual)

This wonderful novella by Alexander Kuprin tells the story of the wrestler Arbuzov and his battle against a renowned American wrestler. Rich in detail and characterization, At the Circus brims with excitement and life. You can smell the sawdust in the big top, see the vivid and colorful characters, sense the tension build as Arbuzov readies to face off against the American.

About Us

Russian Life is a publication of a 30-year-young, award-winning publishing house that creates a bimonthly magazine, books, maps, and other products for Russophiles the world over.

Latest Posts

Our Contacts

Russian Life
73 Main Street, Suite 402
Montpelier VT 05602

802-223-4955