The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus employ familial metaphors to create emotional bonds between members and to create disciplinary responsibilities, both between fathers (superiors) and sons (rank and file members) as well as among brother Jesuits. Familial charity and love became the guiding principles for the order’s disciplinary procedures, which became routinized as the order grew. As evidenced by correspondence between Rome and the province of Aragon, paternal and fraternal correction frequently used one-on-one advice to encourage improvement and bring about change. Beyond private counsel, more public penances, often performed in the refectory, offered visible repentance and helped define acceptable standards of comportment for all members of the community. By the seventeenth century, general congregations added measures, like transfers to other colleges or houses, to encourage Jesuits to reflect on and modify their negative behavior, even if they did so prior to their departure from the order.
While a great deal has been written about the Reformation(s), the effects of the momentous religious changes of this era on families, especially families divided by faith, is an understudied topic. This essay focuses on the Jesuit Robert Southwell (1561–95) and his pastoral and literary mission to England in the late sixteenth century. The central focus is Southwell’s letter to his father, who, unlike most of his family who remained Catholic recusants, had conformed to the Established Church. At the heart of Southwell’s rhetorical strategy is a juxtaposition of the father/ son relationship, in which the biological son assumes the role of the spiritual father. By means of his literary and theological gifts as a priest, and his love as a son, he eventually wins his father back to the faith—and to the family. Over many decades, Southwell’s writings had a significant impact, not only on his own relatives, but on the wider Catholic and religious culture.
The Jesuit charism, which prioritized fealty to a voluntary family, invoked new ways of thinking about the duty, obedience, and love that Jesuits owed to the Society and to biological kin. The tension between family ties and the exigence for total emotional detachment from kin was subject to various degrees of accommodation. Nevertheless, the metaphor of the Society as family continued to exert a powerful influence over actual familial relations as well as attitudes toward discipline and governance.