The goal of this article is to show, through a case study of a convert from Islam to Catholicism in the seventeenth century, how multi-faceted and complex the phenomenon of conversion is, where political, social, and religious factors are intertwined. The article recounts the conversion story of Mohammed el-Attaz, later known as Baldassarre Loyola (1631-1667). Son of the king of Fez (Morocco) of the Saʿadian dynasty, Mohammed was captured on his way to Mecca by the Knights of Malta; he converted to Christianity, went to Italy, became a Jesuit, and spent some years of his life converting Muslims in Italian port cities. The story of Baldassarre Loyola is unique for many reasons. First, this is the only known case of a Muslim prince joining the Society of Jesus. Second, we have an extraordinary range of sources: more than 200 letters written by Baldassarre, Christian and Muslim first-hand sources, an unpublished Autobiography, and a 600-page unpublished Life written by Baldassarre’s spiritual director, the Jesuit Domenico Brunacci. Additionally, a sacred drama on Baldassarre’s story (El gran principe de Fez) was composed by Calderón de la Barca and performed in Jesuit colleges in Europe as well as overseas. This case study of a man between two worlds—struggling for a new identity but always linked to his ancient roots—illuminates, through the phenomenon of conversion, the tormented, rich, and fascinating relationship between Islam and Christianity on the eve of modernity.
John W. O’Malley, a member of the Society of Jesus, is currently a university professor in the Theology Department of Georgetown University, Washington, DC. He holds a PhD in history from Harvard University. His specialty is the religious culture of early modern Europe. O’Malley has written and edited a number of books, eight of which have won best-book awards. The First Jesuits (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993), perhaps his best-known work, received both the Jacques Barzun Prize for Cultural History from the American Philosophical Society and the Philip Schaff Prize from the American Society for Church History. It has been translated into twelve languages and its publication opened a new era in the study of the Society. Since then, the Jesuits have attracted greater attention from scholars of all disciplines on an international basis. O’Malley has continued to write about early Jesuits and the subsequent history of the Jesuits: his main essays on Jesuit history are now collected in the first volume of Brill’s Jesuit Studies series, Saints or Devils Incarnate?: Studies in Jesuit History (Leiden, 2013).
In the last few years, O’Malley published with Harvard University Press a trilogy on the three last councils in the history of the Catholic Church: What Happened at Vatican ii (2008), Trent: What Happened at the Council (2012), and Vatican I: The Council and the Making of the Ultramontane Church (2018). A comparative view of the three councils is offered now in his most recent book, When Bishops Meet: An Essay Comparing Trent, Vatican I, and Vatican ii (2019). O’Malley has lectured widely around the world to both professional and general audiences. He is past president of the Renaissance Society of America and the American Catholic Historical Association. He holds the Johannes Quasten Medal from The Catholic University of America for distinguished service in religious studies. In 1995, he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences; in 1997, to the American Philosophical Society; and in 2001, to the Accademia Ambrosiana, Milan. He holds lifetime achievement awards from the Society for Italian Historical Studies, the Renaissance Society of America, and the American Catholic Historical Association.
At the origin of the following interview there are three conversations Emanuele Colombo had with O’Malley in Chicago, in 2017 and 2018, as a follow-up of a lecture he gave on his life, “My Life of Learning,” now published in The Catholic Historical Review.1