Today in 1853, Peter Jan Beckx was elected the Father General of the Society of Jesus, during General Congregation XXII, with 27 votes of the 51 delegates. At a time of many vicious attacks against the Jesuits, a reminder that in the immediate years after the universal restoration of the Society of Jesus the situation was still very delicate, Fr Becks wrote many letters encouraging his companions to keep the spirit alive. Outstanding in this ministry of consolation, was the letter written shortly after several French Jesuits were executed in the chaos that followed the establishment of the French Commune.
The time of his generalate also saw a certain modernisation of the Society and its apostolates. The Ratio Studiorum was updated from relying on the classical subjects of Philosophy, Theology, Latin and Greek giving more space and encouragement to the teaching of sciences. One of tension leading up the suppression was that the Jesuits extensive network of schools and colleges, although supplying an excellent and disciplined education which were often not available in the local situation, the syllabus informed by the Ratio, was seen as starting to drag behind in an age of ‘Enlightenment’ and a new enthusiasm for new and growing fields of knowledge. Similarly under Beckx the Society was encouraged to write about and promote ‘religious freedom’. In age when the temporal power of the Church was extensive, this was an important current which could feed into greater tolerance and the desire to engage rather than suppress other systems of belief and thought.
Part of this trend in engaging with an emerging modern Europe was the publishing of Jesuit journals and newspapers that became influential. Their mission was to promote a Catholic thought, culture into the modern world. In Italy La Civilta Catolica began in Beckx’s time, founded in 1850, in England the Month was first published in 1856, only recently closing to be replaced by an on-line journal Thinking Faith, similarly in France, Etudes was first published in 1865. In a time of turmoil and change, when understandably a conservative spirit dominated the Church as expressed by ultramontanism, these publications at least expressed a willingness to engage in the hotly disputed debates of the time.