A chronicle of the famous (or, if you prefer, notorious) order of Catholic scholars and evangelists, narrated with fresh enthusiasm by British historian Wright.
Founded in 1534 by the Spanish nobleman Ignatius of Loyola, the Society of Jesus began with a dozen theology students at the University of Paris who made a vow to travel to the Holy Land to preach the Gospel to the Saracens—or, failing that, to offer their services to the pope for whatever missions he saw fit to propose. The latter turned out to be their destiny, and from the first the Jesuits were closely associated with papal power and Roman intrigue. Although Ignatius had not originally intended the combat of heresy to be one of his primary tasks, the intellectual and political climate of the times soon demanded it, and his followers proved to be formidable adversaries, winning back entire regions and even kingdoms (e.g., Hungary) to the Church. In the 19th and early 20th centuries the order became synonymous with reactionary politics and ultramontane theology, but in the years since the Second Vatican Council (1962–65) they have become associated with some of the most radical movements (e.g., liberation theology) of contemporary Catholicism. Wright offers an anecdotal (rather than a narrative) history, concentrating on many of the obscure but representative figures of the order throughout its long history and jumping rather freely back and forth across the centuries. Although he has a keen eye for many of the traits (notably, military organization combined with a strongly humanistic training) that brought the Jesuits some of their early success, he glosses over their slow and rather dismal decline in recent years, when they lost much of their membership and became less and less central to the life of the Church.
Histories of the Jesuits are invariably apocalyptic or awestruck and give the reverend gentlemen far more credit for good or ill than they deserve: Wright aims to walk the middle ground, but he ends up sounding like a cheerleader all the same—which is a pity, because his account is clearheaded, modest, and highly readable.