12/22/2014 06:30 pm ET Updated Feb 21, 2015

Learning From Catholicism's Loyal Trouble-Makers

The intrepid Jesuits are at it again, straddling the activist-mystic divide and calling us to a communal "examen," the daily self-assessment exercise developed by their founder, Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556). The 17,000-member Catholic male order, formally named the Society of Jesus, lights our path toward the Christmas event: God braves all and empties himself of divinity's trappings. Its heritage of courage, intellectual prowess, and deep spirituality guides us toward compassionate risk-taking.

Jamie Today, S.J., displays Ignatian Spirituality in his November 15 piece at Ecojesuit, "Healing a broken world from our communities: Thinking and praying on the gift of creation." He says our parched lands betray parched souls: "Care of the environment cannot be fed only by politics, economics, and technical solid arguments. Care of creation requires a constant spiritual renovation." He quotes Pope Benedict XVI: "The external deserts in the world are growing, because the internal deserts have become so vast."

Christians, says Today, must cultivate a vital inner ecology, nurtured not in society's swelling noise but in God's vibrant silence.

A Jesuit push for climate-change action comes as no surprise, nor does Today's call to explore terrain beyond a COP negotiator's. Jesuits view themselves as "contemplatives in action" and march under the motto, "seeing God in all things." They've stirred the pot ever since their 16th-century inception and have ruffled monarchs and dictators ever since, triggering papal migraines even while they vow the pontiff unswerving loyalty. Pax vobiscum to you too, pal. Where's the Tylenol in this cathedral?

One wonders: Are pain-killer purchases spiking now that a Jesuit is at the See of Peter? Inquiring minds want to know.

A Wounded Knight Is Caught By Surprise

Jesuits are loved and loathed. Forty-two have been canonized and 137 have been declared blessed, the first step toward formal sainthood. One Internet commentator described them as the "Vatican Special Forces, highly trained, intellectual, multilingual ... who undertake the most difficult and dangerous church missions." They have a long martyr list. They're also a magnet for conspiracy theories. They were falsely accused of prodding Great Britain's schemers in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot (a foiled attempt to blow up Parliament) and banned in Switzerland from 1848 to 1973. Salvadoran troops killed six priests along with their housekeeper and her daughter in 1989.

The order's history and ethos beg for martial analogies. Ignatius and six others founded the Society of Jesus in the wake of a battle wound, a soul search, and a life-altering spiritual transformation. The injury came when a cannonball shattered the Basque nobleman's leg at the Battle of Pamplona in 1521, forcing him into a long convalescence. He itched for action as he lay in his castle and coveted books about knightly prowess. None were available, so he settled for stories about saints and the life of Jesus.

He was hooked.

Ignatius abandoned the sword, esteemed both Saints Dominic and Francis, traveled a circuitous route to the University of Paris, and befriended his six fellow founders, one being the celebrated Francis Xavier. Mockers called them "Jesuits," which meant something akin to "Jesus Freaks." They responded: "Yes, we are," and wore the brand with honor. They have headquartered themselves in Rome ever since their 1540 commendation, calling their leader "Superior General" and operating under a charter with this opening line: "Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the cross ..." They're famous for their 12-to-15 year training gauntlet and prestigious universities and colleges, 28 of which are in the US - including Georgetown, Creighton, Boston College, and Fordham.

The schools, incidentally, were considered ancillary to the order's overall "charism," or distinguishing features.

Jesuits avidly opposed the Protestant Reformation but saw the need for ecclesiastical and moral reform. They played a key role in the Council of Trent (1545 to 1563), which condemned Martin Luther's teachings while modifying the Church's doctrine and practices. They also evaded diocesan control - they reported directly to the pope - and meddled in European politics. Mid-18th century Catholic monarchs feared their independence and power and expelled them from Brazil, Portugal, France, Parma, and Spain, then pressured Pope Clement XIV to suppress them altogether. Clement yielded. Both Frederick the Great of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia refused to carry out the ban in their countries, which made for the irony of ironies: Two non-Catholic nations shielded the pope's "soldiers" from their esteemed Holy Father.

Pope Pius VII lifted the ban 41 years later.

Veteran Boat Rockers

The order has evolved and is now recognized for ecumenical dialogue and strong stances on social justice. Some colored outside the lines with more strident forms of Liberation Theology, amusing neither Pope John Paul II nor Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, now Pope Francis. Others lead the Catholic Charismatic Movement in Latin America.

At their best, Jesuits implement their founder's strengths: Ignatius was a practical mystic. He stared at the stars on Rome's rooftops by night and administered his order like a grand strategist by day. All who knew him said he was warm and generous -- much like the world's most famous Jesuit lunching in the Vatican cafeteria (how very Jesuit of him; he did, after all, take a vow of poverty).

Today illuminates the contemplative-active interplay: "The invitation to become custodians of creation is an invitation to care for our own lives, for our inner life. And this is where spirituality, for believers, becomes a central issue in the environmental debate. We need a spirituality of resistance to tackle the difficulties and complexity of the problems and a spirituality of thanksgiving to celebrate constantly and everywhere the gift of Life." He writes: "Unless ecology becomes part of our spirituality, our prayers, and our celebrations, it will not play an important role in our lives. Father Adolfo Nicolas, the Superior General of the Society of Jesus, has insisted on the importance of depth and silence ... Silence, apparently a waste of time in our busy world, becomes the source of vitality in our mission."

Today sums it all up: "It is not enough that we are informed and aware of the main ecological issues, but rather we should make them part of our inner life."

He -- along with the rest of his order -- shows us the both-and of Christ-like advocacy: street smart activists need contemplatives and vice versa. We can take risks with glee if we cultivate our inner beings on the soil of God's fertile silence, then argue with joy. We'll be far more persuasive.