A statue of Bishop John Carroll, a Jesuit and the first American bishop, at Georgetown University

The Pope and Jesuit America

On the map, the itinerary of Pope Francis in his late September visit to the United States —beginning in Washington, D.C., proceeding to New York City and culminating in Philadelphia—is a re-enactment of both the church’s and the Society of Jesus’ American history.

True, a lot happened before or shortly after March 25, 1634, when Andrew White, S.J., and 150 settlers disembarked from the Ark and the Dove and waded ashore on St. Clement’s Island, at the mouth of the Potomac River in Maryland, to celebrate the first Mass “in this part of the world.” Yes, Jesuits in Mexico City had established a college in 1572; French Jesuits Isaac Jogues and his companions were martyred by the “savages” they had come to baptize; Spanish Jesuits were killed in Florida in 1566. And French Jesuit Jacques Marquette set out on his pioneer canoe trip on the Mississippi River in 1673.

But the Maryland Jesuit experience was both theologically and politically unique. The standard missionary endeavors were to “save souls” and baptize “savages,” even at the cost of missionary lives. The Maryland experiment saved souls, but it also introduced a unique relationship between secular power and religious commitment, or “a new birth of freedom.”

Father Andrew White. Engraving by G.G. Heinsch, 1655, in Mathias Tanner, Societas Jesu apostolorum imitatrix Prague: Typis Universitatis Carolo-Ferdinandeae, 1694. Special Collections Division, Georgetown University Library.

Father Andrew White. Engraving by G.G. Heinsch, 1655, in Mathias Tanner, Societas Jesu apostolorum imitatrix Prague: Typis Universitatis Carolo-Ferdinandeae, 1694. Special Collections Division, Georgetown University Library.

As the colonies took root in what is now the Acela route—linking Washington, Baltimore, Philadelphia, New York and Boston—the Puritans settled in New England, and William Penn’s Quakers set the tone in Philadelphia. With the death of Charles Calvert, his son Cecil raised the money to found a new colony to be named Maryland, in honor of the king’s wife, and set sail with two ships of approximately 150 immigrants, including 30 sponsored by Jesuits and another 20 young Catholics from wealthy families determined to make their fortunes abroad. Cecil Calvert, though Catholic, was not founding a “Catholic colony,” and he forbade the Jesuits to say their Masses in public. For his time Calvert had some “democratic” principles, in that all religions were to be treated equally and all services were to be held in the same church, which Protestants and Catholics had combined to build—though no Protestant clergy were available at the time.

The Saga of John Carroll

When John Carroll (b. 1735) was growing up as a member of one of the richest families in the colonies, there were about 20 Catholic priests—all Jesuits, about a third of whom were native-born—for a Catholic population of over 2,000 in Maryland and Pennsylvania. Hostility toward Catholics was still strong, so he and his cousin were sent to school in St. Omer’s in Flanders in 1748. He read widely and was influenced by French intellectuals and the Enlightenment. At 18 he joined the Jesuits in the Netherlands, taught English in Leige and Bruges, and traveled for two years as tutor for an aristocrat’s son. In 1773 he was struck by the news that the pope, influenced by European royalty who hated Jesuits for various reasons, had suppressed the Society of Jesus. He wrote to his family, “The greatest blessing which in my estimation I could receive from God, would be immediate death…” He had several possibilities: leave the Jesuits to become a diocesan priest, leave the priesthood and run the plantation, join another religious order, or accept the invitation of Catherine the Great and join a group of Jesuits in exile.

Carroll held out the hope that the Society would be restored, but he assumed the role of a diocesan priest, went home and eventually collected the 20 local ex-Jesuits into the Corporation of the Roman Catholic Clergy of Maryland. They retained legal ownership of the tobacco plantations (15,000 acres), rode secretly as far as New York and New Jersey to say Mass and hear confessions, and formed the foundation for what would become the Catholic Church in the United States.

As the Revolution approached, John Carroll, like his family, added his support to the cause. In April 1776, Congress asked Carroll to join a diplomatic mission with Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Chase and his cousin Charles Carroll to gain Canadian support for American Independence, mainly from Quebec. The mission failed. But it succeeded in giving Franklin and Carroll respect for one another and weakening any public impression that Catholics were “less American” than the rest of them.

But Carroll was becoming aware of an impending threat within the church. His fellow Jesuits had not aged well, and without the discipline of the Society they were indolent, living in the past. The former Jesuits, strongly attached to their plantations (including the slaves) and the status they represented, were slow to perceive the radical nature of the political and social change the Revolution would inspire. When the Society was semi-restored in 1808, Carroll would decline to rejoin it.

Meanwhile, the Catholics in Maryland needed leadership. They felt that a bishop selected from Rome would compromise the new rapport gained through Catholics’ support of the Revolution, so they insisted on electing their own bishop. Rome went along with it, and the ex-Jesuits elected Carroll.

Portrait of Bishop John Carroll, by Gilbert StuartPortrait of Bishop John Carroll, by Gilbert StuartIn the same year, 1789, Carroll founded Georgetown College. His first, though private, motivation was to establish a seminary so young men like himself would not have to go to Europe to study for the priesthood or get a Catholic education, nor have to go to Philadelphia to attend the nonsectarian University of Pennsylvania. As bishop he was slow to believe the reports that in 1805 the pope had verbally restored the Society; he had supported ex-Jesuits assembling under Russian protection, but he declined to affiliate himself. But he quickly used the re-activated Jesuits for manpower.

One was Father Anthony Kohlmann, an Alsatian who had temporarily joined the Fathers of the Sacred Heart, one of several orders formed to anticipate the full society’s return. Kohlmann’s main achievement was founding the short-lived New York Literary Institute, but he may be best remembered for refusing to reveal to a New York grand jury the name of a penitent whom he helped make restitution for a theft. He also accepted an invitation from the dying patriot deist Thomas Paine to come to his bedside, but that was all a misunderstanding. When Kohlmann tried to talk about God, Paine told him to shut up. Kohlmann had come, perhaps, with baptism in mind; Paine thought the Jesuit had medicine that would cure his illness. But the Jesuits could cure only his soul. Paine tossed them out.

Swarms of Jesuits?

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were often political rivals, but in their later years, also pen pals. On May 6, 1816, Adams wrote, “I do not like the Resurrection of the Jesuits. They have a general now in Russia, in correspondence with the Jesuits in the U.S. who are more numerous than every body knows. Shall we not have swarms of them here? In as many shapes and disguises as ever the king of the Gypsies…assumed?… If ever any Congregation of Men could merit eternal Perdition on Earth and in Hell…it is this Company of Loiola [sic].”

Jefferson replied that he agreed, saying we will always have follies, but he chose enthusiasm, not bigotry, which he identified with Jesuits: “Bigotry is a disease of ignorance, of morbid minds; enthusiasm of the free and buoyant. Education and free expression are the antidotes of both.” Later both Washington and Adams attended a Jesuit church service in Philadelphia.

Without intending to do so, the founders were laying out a formula by which Jesuit education might succeed.

Jay Dolan, in The American Catholic Experience, lists five elements of Carroll’s vision for adapting 18th-century democratic ideals to Catholic progress: some independence from Rome; a national church with a native, not imported, clergy; the separation of church and state, meaning no special privileges for Jesuits; converts persuaded by reason, and therefore worshiping in English, not Latin; and a trustee system giving the laity a major role in church governance. But the anarchy of the French Revolution frightened Carroll and he backed away from the vernacular liturgy, the election of bishops and the authority once granted to trustees.

Carroll’s desire for American priests was shattered. In the 19th century, the Maryland Jesuits resented the newly arrived Jesuits from France, Germany, Russia, Poland and other countries. They came in waves, escaping persecution or fired up with the idea of saving savage souls on the frontier. It can be said that the wave of immigrants “saved,” or reconstituted, the American Catholic Church and the Jesuits. Networks of Jesuit parishes, prep schools and universities sprung up across the country. As Pope Francis makes his way up the coast, he will fly over the Maryland and New York provinces, with roughly 25 Jesuit communities in sizes from a handful of members to about 50.

In 1960, the number of Jesuits in the United States was 8,338, near its peak. Today it is 2,325. A positive interpretation for this decline is that by the 1960s Jesuits had begun to free themselves from fear and moved into an era when, though its numbers fell, its integrity rose. Jesuits held on because of the example of fellow Jesuits who stuck their necks out, were hurt, but did not leave. The Society would be rebuilt with the participation of Jesuit theologians who had once been looked at with suspicion in Rome. The documents of Vatican II, and, in particular, the contributions on religious freedom (the challenge faced by John Carroll’s generation) by John Courtney Murray, S.J., showed how both America and American Catholicism are built on the same beliefs—principles of natural law expressed in the Declaration of Independence.

In Washington, Pope Francis will address Congress. The chaplain of the House of Representatives is a Jesuit. Robert F. Drinan, the first priest and Jesuit elected to Congress, served from 1971 to 1981; he opposed the Vietnam War and was the first to call for the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. In 1976, he went to Argentina with Amnesty International, where he helped produce a comprehensive report on the assassination, tortures and “disappearances” caused by the governing junta. Of the 535 U.S. representatives and senators attending the pope’s address, 48 will have Jesuit educations (21 at Georgetown), consistent with John Carroll’s hopes. If only the pope could stay a year and meet or hear about his brothers in Christ who have dedicated themselves to schools and parishes, as well those who have suffered or risked prison in the struggle against war or racial and economic injustice—in tune with Francis’ heart.

In New York he will pass near St. Paul’s Church, right next to the former site of the World Trade Center; if he goes in, he can see the pew where George Washington prayed. In Philadelphia’s Independence Hall he should look closely at the copy of the Declaration of Independence and the signature at the bottom, Charles Carroll. That was Bishop Carroll’s cousin, signing off on “We Hold These Truths” and speaking for the emerging American Catholic Church.

Raymond A. Schroth, S.J., is literary editor of America.