When Jesuit Were Giants | Interview with Father Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J. | July 31, 2006 | Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola

When Jesuit Were Giants | Interview with Father Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J. | July 31, 2006 | Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola


From its inception and up to recent times, the Society of Jesus took to heart the phrase "soldiers of Christ." Founded by Spaniard St. Ignatius of Loyola in Paris in 1534, the Jesuits' passionate missionary drive resulted in conversions in Asia, Europe and the Americas--indeed all over the world.

As Father Cornelius Buckley, S.J., points out in his book, When Jesuits Were Giants: Louis-Marie Ruellan, S.J. (1846-1885) and Contemporaries, it was nineteenth-century French Jesuits who founded many fine Jesuit institutions of learning in western United States and Alaska.

The North American martyrs, eight French Jesuits (all of them now canonized) who were killed by the Iroqui Indians between 1642 and 1649, were largely unsuccessful in winning converts to the Catholic Church. But their writings inspired other Jesuits to become missionaries among the Native American peoples. One of those French Jesuits was Louis-Marie Ruellan (1846-1885), who asked his superiors to send him to North America to work among the native tribes.

As Father Buckley writes in the forward to another Ignatius Press book on the French Jesuits, Jesuit Missionaries to North America, by Father Francois Roustang, S.J.:
Father Ruellan gave promise of becoming an outstanding Jesuit academician, a professor or a writer of scholarly articles, and so it was after some time and with great reluctance that in 1884 he was at last assigned to the Rocky Mountain Mission, where he hoped in some way to replicate the lives those he had read about in the Jesuit Relations.
But when Father Ruellan arrived in Spokane, he was told to forget the Native American tribes and instead direct his talents to building a college, the future Gonzaga University:
Here he learned the hard lesson that imitating (the Jesuit martyr) Jogues and his companions did not mean performing great and splendid exploits. Rather it meant imitating their fidelity to grace in all matters, and this called for the same kind of quiet self-annihilation that characterized their lives and enabled them to hope in God's providence. Such a state was the by-product of detachment from all self-interest--and that included working with the Indians; of seeing God's presence in all people and events and of his ascertaining God's will in whatever task was given to him under obedience.
In When Jesuits Were Giants, Father Buckley contends that the short but promising life of Father Ruellan, who died before reaching the age of forty, was instrumental in the French Jesuits' effecting a complete turnaround in their attitude toward North America: from lukewarm disinterest to passionate missionary zeal. Father Ruellan died less than a year after coming to America, but Father Buckley believes his life was one of great sanctity:

News of the untimely death of this exceptional young man had a miraculous effect. His death so greatly shocked religious superiors in a number of European countries that they sent scores of missionaries into the American West and Alaska--once again changing the course of the Church's history and once again demonstrating the miraculous and continuous power of the seventeenth-century Jesuit martyrs and missionaries to North America.

To mark the feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, IgnatiusInsight.com interviewed Father Buckley about When Jesuits Were Giants. Father Buckley, himself a courageous voice for the Catholic Faith, is now chaplain for Thomas Aquinas College in Southern California. A former tenured history professor at the University of San Francisco, Father Buckley taught at the St. Ignatius Institute before becoming the first chaplain of the Ave Maria School of Law in Ann Arbor. He was later assigned to serve as a hospital chaplain in southern California and then to Thomas Aquinas College. Father Buckley also taught at Santa Clara University and was president of St. Ignatius College Preparatory School in San Francisco. Father Buckley also was chaplain at the San Francisco County jail and of the Courage chapter in San Francisco.

IgnatiusInsight.com: Why did you choose to use the life of French Jesuit and American missionary Father Louis-Marie Ruellen, S.J., as the lynchpin of your book, When Jesuits Were Giants?

Father Buckley: What can I say? He was the topic of the book. I think that the book explains why this was so. His untimely death caused a change in policy in Rome about recruiting Jesuits for the western American Jesuit missions. His death brought about a new life for the Church on the West Coast and Alaska.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What made him special? Why did you use him as the focus about the Jesuits and their mission of that era in France and in the U.S.?

Father Buckley: In the nineteenth century, after the reestablishment of the Jesuits (1814), foreign missionary activity was very important and France was one of the countries where Jesuit vocations were plentiful. By the 1880s, China and the missions in Asia and the Near East were put at a premium. Following the example of the lives of the North American martyrs and other Jesuits who had worked with the North American Indians, Ruellan became interested in the Rocky Mountain Mission. Although his superiors let him come to the American Northwest, they did not do so with enthusiasm. He was a great loss for France and yet by his untimely death he became far more important than he ever could have been by a life in France.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are the main points you would like the reader to take away from When Jesuits were Giants?

Father Buckley: As the title of the book implies, the French Jesuits in the nineteenth century played a crucial role in educating and catechizing the people both at home and in the foreign missions. They did this through schools, which were the best in France, home missions, the media and pastoral work. The reason why Jesuits today have the reputation of being outstanding educators is to a great extent because of the Jesuit schools in France. I have described some of these extraordinary men in the book. They also enjoyed the reputation of being tough men who led ascetic lives and who were counter-cultural. This is the reason why they were persecuted and expelled from France.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What are some of the key differences between the Society of Jesus and the Church of that era, and those institutions in our own era?

Father Buckley: A number of issues. For example, tuition: it was minimal and in some places non-existent. The Jesuits believed in instruction and education, fidelity to the purity of truth and piety. The purpose of the colleges was to imbue the young with those ideals, ad majorem dei gloriam, that defined the essence of a Jesuit, and even though the environment of the school was nonconformist and self-questioning, the product, like the Jesuits, could be an originality sometimes disconcerting. The product of the nineteenth century Jesuit schools was a humanist molded on the classics of Western culture, and a follower of Christ as presented in the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius and a supporter of the Magisterium of the Church.

IgnatiusInsight.com: What can we do to encourage vocations of the quality of Father Ruellan's?

Father Buckley: First of all, pray. Secondly, pray. Thirdly pray. There are plenty of vocations out there, but the young want challenges to greater heights. I do not want to go into detail here--where angels fear to tread--other than to ask: Why are the Marines so successful in the little recruiting that they do?

IgnatiusInsight.com: Any other thoughts?

Father Buckley: Read the book and try to discover for yourself what made Louis Ruellan tick. Granted, he was a product of the period of French Catholic Romanticism (as was St. Therese), but the essence of a saint does not depend on the era or the culture; it expresses itself though the medium of culture and the customs of the times, but it is something deeper in the psyche. Let the reader ask himself what made Ruellan a saint.

Related IgnatiusInsight.com/Insight Scoop Links:

The Counter-Reformation: Ignatius and the Jesuits | Fr. Charles P. Connor
The Jesuits and the Iroquois | Cornelius Michael Buckley, S.J.
The Tale of Trent: A Council and and Its Legacy | Martha Rasmussen
Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation | Geoffrey Saint-Clair

Related Ignatius Press Books:

St. Ignatius of Loyola | James Brodrick, S.J.
The Jesuit Missionaries to North America | Father Fran¨ois Roustang
The Re-formed Jesuits, Vol 1 | Joseph Becker, S.J.
The Re-formed Jesuits, Vol 2 | Joseph Becker, S.J.
St. Ignatius and the Company of Jesus (Vision Series) | August Derleth
A Danger to the State: A Historical Novel | Philip Trower
Ignatius Loyola: The Story of the Pilgrim (DVD)

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