Today – 185 years ago - was the death of Fr Luigi Fortis, an Italian Jesuit who was the 20th Superior General of the Society of Jesus, the Second after the restoration and the first to be based in Rome. Elected general at the age of 72, Fr Fortis was one of the generation who spanned the Suppression and the Restoration. He was to be general for eight years and three months before his death. There is much talk about the ‘crisis of transmission’ in the early church – as the generation of apostles who were eye-witnesses to the words and deeds of Jesus began to die out. It was during this period that many of the Gospels were written, to keep a record of those eye witness account. In a similar way Fr Fortis and his generation, who remembered the Society before the Suppression and who survived to see its Universal Restoration faced not a crisis of transmission but a 'crisis of transition'.
His predecessor Fr General Borozowski had not been allowed to return to Rome, effectively being kept in Belarus by the Russian Czar. Fr Luigi Fortis task therefore was to guide the re-emergence of the Jesuits – reconstituting provinces such as Mexico, and missions such as Marlyand, Ireland and Missouri which at the beginning were dependent on Rome. As well as re-establish the infrastructure of governance in the Society, he also had the more subtle job of promoting ‘the texture’ of Jesuit life, writing many letters to scholastics and novices about the customs that should regulate life in the Society of Jesus.
This task was crucial as a division in the General Congregation that elected him (GC20) had highlighted. There was a small group of Jesuits who had got caught up in the intrigues of the Roman Curia and were pressing for the Constitutions to be altered. At one point Pius VII had to intervene directly in the Congregation due to this turmoil. This proposal was rejected, and when Fortis was elected the agitators for this change were dismissed from the Society. This mini-crisis set the tone for his generalate, and as the Society expanded, novices were admitted and colleges reopened due to overwhelming demand, his job was to ensure that the Restored Society was faithful to Ignatius original vision, and they could demonstrate without doubt a historical continuity. There is some discussion among historians, about whether or not this lead to an over rigidity.