Thursday, July 4, 2013

Amazing Men

I have something in common with a diverse group of people, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock, Fidel Castro, James Joyce, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Descartes, Voltaire, Charles de Gaulle and many other heads of state, including 17 popes: we all had a Jesuit education.

Now that the world has the first Jesuit pope, many people ask me, knowing my ten years of Jesuit schooling, What exactly is a Jesuit?

In researching the answer, I discovered many things I never knew, especially the key role that these priest-educators made to science in the 17th century. In  addition to their many schools and colleges around the world, members of the Society of Jesus, founded by the Spanish-Basque nobleman Ignatius of Loyola in 1534, have been artists, scholars, sheep farmers, lawyers, wine growers, diplomats and missionaries.

I knew all about their tradition of learning, their long seminary training, their independence, and their reputation for being open-minded men who are anything but cloistered yet who are also set apart by their vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and by their commitment to social justice. The work of Pope Francis in the barrios of his native Buenos Aries is a key example.   What I did not know was their contribution to astronomy and other sciences.

I did not know that 35 craters on the moon are named for Jesuits, who were among the first to map the moon's surface. G. B. Riccioli's lunar map is in the Smithsonian. They did pioneering work in astronomy, map making, mathematics, and geophysics. They contributed to the development of barometers, microscopes, pendulum clocks, and reflecting telescopes. They were the first to discover the colored bands on the surface of Jupiter.

The German Jesuit Clavius, the first to use the decimal point, designed the calendar (Gregorian) we use today and was the teacher of Matteo Ricci, who translated his work, and the geometry of Euclid, into Chinese and paved the way for other scientific Jesuit missionaries to introduce Western maps, clocks, and astronomy to the Ming court before his death in Beijing in 1610.  He is honored there today as the wise sage "Dr. Li," who mastered the Chinese language and classic literature since he knew that, if he was to impress the elite of China, he had to respect their culture by knowing it.

So he and his men dressed as Confucian scholars and, after years of struggle, became not only accepted but welcomed by the Emperor, whose eunuchs consulted Ricci about a host of practical matters since at that time, European science and technology had made advances whereas China's had not. Ricci and his companions had only modest success spreading Christianity, but as cultural ambassadors, they were unrivalled.

With great patience and persistence in the face of attacks, floods, and other horrors, Ricci succeeded in showing China in the early 17th century
that its civilization was not the only one in the world. (I have enjoyed reading The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci by Jonathan Spence.)

I could also mention the German Jesuit polymath Athanasius Kircher, the subject of several books, as is Ricci; or the mathematician from Dubrovnik,
Roger Boscovich (d. 1787), who, in addition to writing poetry and writing treatises on mathematics and astronomy, served as a diplomat and consulting engineer; his major work on atoms and forces is still consulted.

The Jesuits sometimes got on the "wrong side" of the church hierarchy, as when they sided with grass-roots movements instead of monarchs, but their work today goes on after 450 years.  There are 90 Jesuit colleges or universities in 27 countries as well as 530 high schools in 55 countries; many of them, like my own school in St. Louis, are staffed largely by laymen educated, as I was fortunate to be, by these enlightened men of God.

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