Four Jesuit alumni are having a startlingly good effect on the European Union. Mario Monti has made such an impact as Italy’s Prime Minister that he is compared to Cincinnatus, saviour of ancient Rome. This is partly due to his support by Mario Draghi, president of the European Central Bank, and Herman van Rompuy, President of the European Council.
Meanwhile Mariano Rajoy feels strong enough as Prime Minister of Spain to defy the gnomes of Brussels on the issue of budget deficit. We could hardly imagine a stronger endorsement of Jesuit education than we are witnessing. For all their regional differences, Jesuit schools can still produce what Quintillian, their inspiration, defined as vir bonus dicendi peritus: good people who can communicate well.
It all began with a pragmatic decision: in 1548 the citizens of Messina in Italy begged the local Jesuits to extend their teaching beyond the Jesuit trainees to include the other sons of the city. Ignatius shrewdly sent some of his brightest to staff a new school.
The enterprise never looked back; Jesuit schools multiplied. They were free schools, sponsored either by rich patrons or by a municipality; so they provided a unique setting where the sons of plumbers sat with the offspring of dukes. Within fifty years they had systematised the programme into the Ratio Studiorum. Again for pragmatic reasons this has been adapted to circumstances of time and place, but not before we had won a treasured blessing from Francis Bacon in The Advancement of Learning: "For education, consult the schools of the Jesuits. Nothing hitherto in practice surpasses this."
They may be drastically different from the Messina college, especially in the proportion of Jesuits on the staffs, but their ethos is still profoundly influential in the public life of Europe.