Jesuit Social Services

Jesuit heritage - an introduction

Our Jesuit heritage is complex and multilayered. In brief, the Jesuit way of proceeding moves from reflection on experience to purposeful and strategic action. Two constant elements are 'Ignatian discernment' and 'the promotion of justice'. These constant elements relate to the common description of people following the Ignatian tradition as being 'contemplatives in action'. They could also be described as 'relational' and 'speaking to power'.

The story of the Jesuits
Ignatian discernment
The promotion of justice
Catholic Social Teaching


The story of the Jesuits

The Jesuits are an international body of priests and brothers within the Catholic Church. They originated in the 1530s at the University of Paris. At that time Europe was a web of kingdoms, and Paris was one of the great centres of learning. Instead of pursuing fame and fortune in the service of earthly kings, however, Ignatius of Loyola and his fellow students chose to be "companions of Jesus". They wanted to follow Jesus among the poor and outcast, offering hope and healing and justice. When translated into Latin, this 'company of Jesus' became Societatis Jesu, or 'The Society of Jesus' [note that the Latin word, societas, shares the same root meaning as the word "social" in "social services"]. Their enemies described them as 'Jesuits', and the name stuck.

The Jesuits differed from the Benedictines, Franciscans and Dominicans and other earlier religious institutes in the Catholic Church one very important respect. Rather than living in monasteries separated from the world, Ignatius insisted that Jesuits be free to live and move in the world, to be contemplatives in action. For this innovation he met much opposition.

The Constitutions describe in detail the goals of the Society of Jesus, its organisational processes, and its ways of proceeding. Ignatius wisely gave general guidelines rather than specific details, but he insisted on discernment, communication and accountability in all processes. In the pivotal 1540 introduction to the Constitutions, known as 'The Formula of the Institute', Ignatius describes the purpose of the Jesuits in the following terms:

To strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine....and the spiritual consolation of Christ's faithful.... reconcile the estranged , compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good.

This mutuality of the spiritual and the practical, of the glory of God and the common good, occurs throughout all Jesuit texts: on the one hand there is preaching the faith and on the other hand there is reconciling the estranged; on the one hand there is consoling the faithful and on the other hand there is compassionately serving those in prisons and hospitals. Both are for 'the glory of God and the common good'. There is no separation between the spiritual and the practical. To live and work within the Jesuit tradition is to find God in all things, to be contemplative in action, to show love in deeds rather than words.

Today there are some 18,000 Jesuits around the world. They are organised in a local clusters (called Provinces) in ten regional groupings (called Assistancies and six conferences). Some of their works are local (like Jesuit Social Services) and some are international (like Jesuit Refugee Service). There are around 150 Jesuits in the Australian Province today. Most of their works are collaborative enterprises initiated by the Jesuits but involving some 2,000 non-Jesuits. The Australian Province is part of the Jesuit Conference Asia Pacific. The other Provinces in this Assistancy include Indonesia, Philippines, Japan, China, Vietnam and Korea. In the Jesuit Conference Asia Pacific Conference there are also Jesuits in regions or missions including Malaysia-Singapore, Thailand, Micronesia, East Timor, Myanmar (Burma) and Cambodia.

Ignatian discernment

"Ignatian discernment" is the way that Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits, identified the power of our hopes and dreams. While recuperating as a wounded young soldier, Ignatius realised that some of his day-dreams for the future gave him direction and consolation, whereas other day-dreams, while initially more attractive, left him feeling empty and desolate. Ignatian discernment thus began in a personal journey of reflection and self-awareness, sorting reality from unreality. It then became a way of walking with others so that they too might freely and fully become their own unique selves and find purpose in their lives. Ignatius made his "Rules for Discernment" the heart of his Spiritual Exercises, a little book of meditations that can be adapted to each person's gifts and needs, but designed to lead all to true freedom.

Ignatian discernment is thus both relational and transformative. It is a "way" rather than a "what". It not only respects persons and their cultures, but it also actively attends to the transforming power of their hopes and ambitions. Christopher Lowney, who moved from the Jesuits to a global investment bank, puts Ignatian discernment into contemporary terminology in the following three steps in his book Heroic Living:

  • articulating a purpose worth the rest of your life
  • making wise career and relationship choices
  • making every day matter by mindful attention to your actions and results.

Ignatian discernment is thus both self-transforming and world-transforming.

The promotion of justice

Ignatius of Loyola gathered together a multinational group of students in the University of Paris in the 1530s. He taught them his Spiritual Exercises and his rules for discernment. They decided to go to Rome to form a company in the Catholic Church for 'the glory of God and the good of souls'. They became the first members of the Society of Jesus, more commonly known as Jesuits. Ignatius's first works in Rome in 1540 were giving the Spiritual Exercises, preaching the Gospel, teaching the catechism, protecting the Jewish community, organising care for the sick and orphaned, and protecting and rehabilitating prostitutes.

Christopher Lowney describes the Jesuit way of proceeding in contemporary terms in his book Heroic Leadership. The Jesuits, he writes,

• understood their strengths, weaknesses, values, and worldview

• confidently innovated and adapted to embrace a changing world

• engaged others with a positive, loving attitude

• energised themselves and others through heroic ambitions.

In 1975, reflecting on the circumstances of the modern world, the Jesuits declared their core mission today to be the service of faith and the promotion of justice. The promotion of social justice was seen as an absolute requirement of following Jesus Christ, because reconciliation with God demands the reconciliation of people with one another. At the 35th General Council of the Jesuits in 2008, the Jesuits broadened their mission by including the ecological dimension to its mission of faith doing justice. Today there are some 18,000 Jesuits spread across the globe, among all cultures and religions, notably as the world's largest provider of non-government education services, and also as the founder of one of the world's first transnational refugee services.

Jesuit Social Services is a major expression of the Australian Jesuits' commitment to the promotion of justice.

More information on the Jesuits, discernment and the Jesuit commitment to the promotion of justice is provided below.


The Jesuit Curia in Rome:
Australian Jesuits:

Catholic Social Teaching

What is it?

Catholic Social Teaching sums up the teachings of the Church on issues of justice between groups in society. It seeks to bring the light of the Gospel to bear on the social justice issues that arise in the complex network of relationships in which we live.

Catholic Social Teaching promotes a vision of a just society that is grounded in biblical revelation, the teachings of the leaders of the early church, and in the wisdom gathered from experience by the Christian community as it has tried to respond to social justice issues through history.

A formal body of international Catholic social justice teachings for the modern era has developed since the nineteenth century.


Catholic Social Teaching is part of the discipline of applied moral theology and draws on all four major sources of insight used in Catholic ethics: Scripture; reason; tradition; and experience.
Tradition, which is often passed on through formal teaching documents, has played such a strong role in Catholic life that sometimes people think of Catholic Social Teaching as just a series of Papal documents.


The social teachings are made up of three distinct elements: principles for reflection; criteria for judgment; and guidelines for action. Each has a different level of authority. The key principles for reflection are sometimes called perennial principles because they apply across every time and place. They are highly authoritative, but also rather abstract and general. International Church documents identify just four of these principles: human dignity; the common good; subsidiarity; and solidarity.

The guidelines for action can vary for different times and places. Uniform guidelines for action aren’t feasible because societies differ greatly, and they are always changing, creating new situations with different problems and possibilities. Guidelines for action always depend on practical judgments made with the information available at the time. There is often scope for legitimate differences of opinion among believers on social justice issues.

The criteria or norms for judgment can be thought of as connecting or mediating between the highly authoritative but necessarily general and abstract principles for reflection, and the need for action guidelines in concrete social situations. They are less authoritative than the principles for reflection but more so than the guidelines for action.

Universal and particular

Catholic Social Teaching operates at both the international and at the local level.
The insights of local Bishops responding to particular issues in their own place help to inform the development of the international teachings, while the international teachings guide the Bishops in teaching on justice issues in their particular places.4

1 Australian Jesuits website -
2 Australian Jesuits Province Orientation handbook – March 2009 edition
3 Loyola Institute – Foundational Insights of Ignatius, module 4, handout 1
4 Introducing Catholic Social teaching –