A soldier saint: AD 1521-1539

In 1521 a 30-year-old Spanish aristocrat and soldier, Ignatius of Loyola, is defending the citadel of Pamplona against a French attack. A cannonball breaks his right leg. Recuperating in the ancestral castle at Loyola, he finds himself without his favourite type of reading - heroic romances. Instead the castle has a volume on the lives of the saints. Reading it, he warms to another sort of heroism.

As described in his Autobiography, it is almost as if the gallant soldier determines to equal the achievement of the saints: 'St Dominic did this, therefore I have to do it. St Francis did this, therefore I have to do it'.

Ignatius is destined to equal the achievement of the two earlier founders of preaching orders, but only after a long period of self-preparation. Part of this is spiritual, in a rigorous programme of mental training (including macabre instructions on how to imagine Hell) which he outlines in his book Spiritual Exercises. Part is more conventionally educational.

At the age of thirty-four Ignatius begins an 11-year period of study at the universities of Barcelona, Alcalá, Salamanca and Paris.

At each university he acquires a group of friends and disciples. The group in Paris, where he stays longest (for seven years from 1528), enact a ceremony together in Montmartre in 1534, binding themselves with vows of poverty and chastity.

Three years later, in 1537, they travel together to Rome to offer their services directly to the pope, Paul III.

Society of Jesus: AD 1540-1541

The visit to the pope by Ignatius Loyola has echoes of St Francis and St Dominic with Innocent III. Like those 13th-century saints, with their mission to live and preach among the poor of the expanding towns, St Ignatius is very much of his own time - a man of the 16th century, where the twin challenge is the drift of much of Europe into the Protestant heresy and the opening up of a far-flung pagan world, bringing fruitful fields for mission work in this new age of ocean travel and Exploration.

To these challenges Ignatius can bring the energy and the organizing skills of a trained soldier.

Offered a force of spiritual commandos, answerable directly to himself in fighting Rome's battles, Paul III seizes his chance. In September 1540 he authorizes a new order, to be known as the Society of Jesus. In April 1541 Ignatius's colleagues elect him as the first general; the title, in use to this day, accurately reflects the nature of the campaign being undertaken.

Ignatius writes simple rules for his order. There is to be no specific form of dress, no regular commitment to attend particular services. Jesuits, as they soon come to be called, are to be free to move fast wherever they are needed. Obedience to the pope is central. Jesuit theologians are already at the pope's side during the Council of trent.

By the end of Ignatius's life, in 1556, his order has about 1000 members. They are despatched to administrative territories which he calls provinces. These are mainly in Europe, where the task of the order is teaching and arguing against the Protestant cause. But there is one in Latin America and another in India, where the purpose is to bring new souls to the Christian God.

As early as 1549 Jesuits accompany the first governor general to Brazil. In that same year, in the other direction, Francis Xavier - one of Ignatius's original group of friends at the university in Paris - reaches Japan.

Apostle of the Indies: AD 1542-1552

The ten years spend in the east by Francis Xavier win him the title 'apostle of the Indies', and cause him to be named by the Vatican (in 1927) as the patron saint of all missions.

Xavier arrives in 1542 in Goa, the capital of Portuguese India. Here he works with Dominican and Franciscan missionaries before departing on a two-year mission of his own among pearl fishers near Cape Comorin, at the southern tip of India. In a pattern often typical of the spread of Christianity, the fishermen have already undergone mass baptism - in this case in return for Portuguese protection against similar attention from Muslims. But no one has yet had time to explain to them the religion they have adopted.

Xavier spends two years doing so, through interpreters. Then, in the last month of his stay in this region, he extends the process. He baptizes a group of 10,000 from a neighbouring district, with the promise that someone else will arrive soon to instruct them.

Xavier's personal mission now takes him further east - to Malacca, and then to Amboina and other islands of the Moluccas. Returning to Malacca in 1547, he meets Anjiro - a Japanese with an interest in Christianity. Anjiro excites Xavier with his suggestion that the religion might appeal to the nobility of Japan because (in Xavier's account of the conversation) they 'are entirely guided by the light of reason'.

Xavier sends Anjiro to Goa to be instructed in the faith. He then returns to India himself, to settle affairs before setting off on by far his boldest missionary adventure. He sails from Goa in April 1549 with two other Jesuits and with Anjiro, now a baptized Christian. In Malacca, in June, they transfer to a Chinese junk to start their long journey.

Japan is the furthest point yet reached by Europeans in their 16th-century penetration of the far east. When Xavier arrives, in August 1549, it is only six years since the first Portuguese merchant has set foot in these islands.

Christians in Japan: AD 1543-1550

The first European arrival in Japan is an accident. A Portuguese merchant vessel, bound for China, is blown in a storm to the southern tip of Kyushu. The strangers are welcomed. Particular interest is shown in the Muskets which they have on board, soon to be successfully copied in Japan.

This accidental visit brings other Europeans for purposes of trade and, in 1549, for evangelization. In that year a Chinese junk brings Francis Xavier together with anjiro, his Japanese convert, to the island of Kyushu. Anjiro takes the Jesuit to his home town of Kagoshima and introduces him to the important people of the district.

There turns out to be a natural affinity between the Japanese ruling class and the Jesuits. Loyola's new order is in essence, and in its recruitment policy, an aristocratic elite - intensely hierarchical, valuing obedience and honour, and applying to spiritual campaigns the ideals of a warrior caste. The Japanese recognize much that they can admire.

The Jesuits are lucky also in that their early years in Japan coincide with the rise to power of a warlord, Oda Nobunaga, who resents the local influence of Buddhism. When Xavier sails away from Japan, after a year, he leaves behind about 1000 Converts to christianity. His success is only the beginning of a much stronger trend of Christian success in Japan.

Rival missions: 16th - 18th century AD

In the great period of Roman Catholic missions, during the Catholic Reformation, the Spanish and Portuguese expansion round the globe is everywhere accompanied by members of the four great preaching orders - Dominicans, Franciscans, Augustinians and Jesuits. The Jesuits, starting later and moving faster, are the most energetic. By 1615, at the end of the long generalship of Claudio Aquaviva, they have divided the world into thirty-two provinces in which they run more than 200 colleges.

But the success of the Jesuits, together with underlying differences of attitude, provokes the hostility of the Franciscans and Dominicans.

There is a deep distinction, in their origins, between the two older orders and the newcomers. The Franciscans, in particular, were established to live and preach among the poor of the cities. The Jesuits, special agents of the pope, are better adapted to moving among people of influence.

Tensions between the groups partly cause the disaster which strikes the Christians of Japan, where the Jesuits convert the nobility but the friars devote themselves to the poor. The Japanese, appalled at this dissent among Christians, persecute and ban the religion.

In China a similar development occurs. The Jesuits, under the leadership of Matteo ricci, integrate so well with the hierarchy that they allow their converts to engage in Confucian rituals - arguing that these are social rather than religious. The Franciscans and Dominicans disagree. They take the issue to Rome, where it becomes known as the Rites Controversy.

As in Japan, these signs of dissent among Christians disenchant the Chinese. In the early 18th century the Kangxi emperor, noting disagreements between the orders and even between Portuguese and French Jesuits, observes that 'this violates the principles of religion'. Meanwhile even in Europe there is increasing criticism of the religious orders during the 18th century.

All three orders lose prestige in the anti-clerical mood of the Enlightenment. But it is the Jesuits, with the highest profile, who attract the greatest hostility. Between 1759 and 1761 Portugal arrests all the Jesuits in its territories and ships them to the papal states. In 1761-3 the Jesuit colleges in France are closed. In 1767 Jesuits are expelled from Spain and its colonies.

For a few years Rome resists mounting pressure to abolish the Society of Jesus altogether, but eventually Clement XIV succumbs in 1773. In the very different mood at the end of the Napoleonic wars, Pius VII reinstates the order in 1814.

Monks nuns and friars in the modern world

The prestige of the religious orders suffers almost fatally from the anti-clerical spirit of the late 18th century (culminating in the Suppression of the jesuits), and from violent hostility during the French Revolution. Monasteries, even in Catholic countries, never again recover the economic power which they once enjoyed. And the preaching orders lose much of the influence acquired during the fervour of the Catholic reformation.

Nevertheless the 19th century sees a strong return to a more religious mood in society, and to a romantic rediscovery of the great Christian centuries of the Middle Ages when monasticism was at its peak.

In the 19th century convents and monasteries are even established for Protestants (unthinkable at any previous time since the Reformation), with the Anglican church giving the lead in the 1840s. In most western countries, in the late 20th century, monks and nuns and friars retain a presence in educational and charitable fields - with a few houses still devoted strictly to the first purpose of monasticism, that of contemplation.

Meanwhile in the east, the original home of the monastic ideal, monks remain a familiar feature in Buddhist countries, taking part in the everyday life of the community as naturally as they once did in Europe.