Over the past four centuries, the Jesuits have built a formidable global education enterprise. The storied, 19,000-plus-strong Society of Jesus, as the organization is formally known, is today the world's biggest Roman Catholic male religious order. It is also one of the world's largest private-school operators, with 2.9 million students, mostly in developing countries. Indeed, in January, at one of the first masses following his election, the Jesuit leader, Father Adolfo Nicolás, a Spanish priest who has spent most of his life in Asia, underscored the group's main focus on helping "the poor, the marginalized and the excluded." Though he didn't say it then, to achieve that goal, the Jesuits are accelerating the effort to educate the rich in developing countries about their poor.
The Society, which runs U.S. universities like Georgetown and Boston College, is most famous for educating key historical figures in power capitals—including Hapsburg emperors, French literary giants Molière and Voltaire, and the Nazi propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels. But with a new superior general in Nicolás, who has made migrant workers and globalization's "new poor" a career focus, the Jesuits' work in emerging markets has taken on a fresh urgency. One of the order's most important education missions is the cultivation of empathy among the haves in poor countries for the have-nots.
In addition to establishing schools for underprivileged children, the Society also runs top private schools, attended by the children of some of the world's most influential leaders. Through these institutions the Jesuits aim to uphold academic standards while actively preparing graduates to be agents of social change. Father Bienvenido Nebres, a member of the board of trustees at Georgetown and the president of the elite Ateneo de Manila University in the Philippines, believes that quality education in a population with a wide income gap presents a unique set of challenges. "The poor are not an isolated group," he says. "In the U.S. you have poor sections in a city but the rest is pretty OK. In the developing world, it is the other way around because the majority is poor. Thinking of helping the poor in terms of soup kitchens or tutoring cannot be enough. You have to change the status quo."
The lingo may seem familiar. Three decades ago in Latin America, many Jesuit schools became contentious hotbeds of liberation theology, the Marxist-inspired thought advocating political and economic reforms. For the most part, the Society appears to have moved on. "Over time, we realized that liberation theology has its limits because it did not believe in markets," says Nebres, who earned a Ph.D. in math from Stanford in 1970. "We don't need to be taking down those at the top; what we need to do is be a bridge."
At Ateneo, this has translated into a greater emphasis on academic requirements geared toward social entrepreneurship, like helping poor urban groups start small businesses, and experiencing poverty more directly. For example, in order to graduate, students must serve up to four hours a week in menial jobs like bagging groceries or toiling alongside fisher folk. For those coming from privileged backgrounds, such experiences are completely new and eye-opening.
Developing empathy for one's poor compatriots is a concept the Jesuits have rolled out in their schools in Africa and Latin America as well as Asia. "We are a very centralized order," says Nebres. It has also become a very international one. Founded in Paris in 1534 by the Spanish former soldier Ignatius of Loyola, only about 10 percent of Jesuits reside in Western Europe. About 15 percent live in the United States, with the biggest proportion—20 percent—operating in South Asia.
In Indonesia, the Society runs 81-year-old Canisius College, one of Jakarta's top high schools. Its alumni include several major business tycoons and top politicians. Part of the current curriculum requires students to live with poor families for a week, says Father Joannes Heruhendarto, the country's Jesuit education coordinator. "For the sake of study, it is quite effective," he says. "The papers they have to write show that they learn compassion for the poor." Whether these programs will actually bring about positive social change remains to be seen. As Heruhendarto puts it, "We will see with the kind of graduates we produce." For better or worse, there's no denying that living Jesuit-school alumni already include many determined to change the world. Among them: India-born Hotmail creator Sabeer Bhatia, Raúl and Fidel Castro, French anti-globalization sheep farmer José Bové, and three former Iraqi candidates for prime minister.