By Doris Yu
October 31, 2014 — It’s not easy to condense the entire 473-year history of the Jesuits into a single volume, but that’s exactly what Jesuit Father John W. O’Malley does in his latest book. “The Jesuits: A History From Ignatius to the Present” covers the fascinating story of the Society of Jesus from its 1540 founding to the present day.
“This is the bird’s-eye view. It will give you the panorama of Jesuit history,” says Fr. O’Malley, a professor of theology at Georgetown University. “I wanted it to be an easy read. It’s a book that you can read in two or three evenings.”
Targeted to the general public and those who may not know much about the Jesuits, Fr. O’Malley’s book was released on Oct. 16 and has already been translated into French, Spanish and Italian, with versions in Slovak, Hungarian, Portuguese and Polish in the works.
“For Jesuits, it will be a refresher and perhaps give them a new perspective on things. For others, I hope will it be an easy introduction to what the Jesuits are about,” says Fr. O’Malley.
Though Fr. O’Malley has written many books on Jesuit history, writing about the more contemporary era of Pope Francis posed a special challenge, which he enjoyed.
“I would have liked to do more on the last part of the book, after the restoration in 1814. It’s the most difficult part to write because there’s no standard work on it, so I had to put it together all by myself,” he says, noting the relatively small number of books about the Jesuits’ most recent 50 years.
The Jesuits have faced criticism and suppression throughout the Society’s existence, a theme explained succinctly in the book. “The Jesuits are resilient, at the same time retaining identity. They’re certainly the most controversial of all the religious orders,” says Fr. O’Malley. “That’s understandable because, for a variety of reasons, they’ve been on the cutting edge. By definition, almost, they have one foot planted in the church and the other foot planted in the world, and they’re mediating between the two. So, that gets them into trouble.”
Fr. O’Malley, an only child, “grew up talking with adults about adult subjects,” which incubated his passion for history.
“My mother was very interested in history. She and her friends and cousins were always discussing history books,” he says. The foundations of his childhood have turned him into a distinguished historian and prolific author. Plans for a subsequent book about the Jesuits and the popes — especially those of the modern age — are underway.
“I get excited about writing,” Fr. O’Malley says of the writing process. “I get an idea, and I get excited.”