ROME - Told that the Society of Jesus, the largest and most prestigious order in the Roman Catholic Church, was celebrating its 450th anniversary and the 500th birthday of its founder, an Italian nun raised her eyes to heaven and sighed:
``The Jesuits, ah, the Jesuits. They know everything - but nothing else.''
The story was told with impish laughter by Vincent O'Keefe, who rose higher in the order than any other American Jesuit, to acting father general.
Despite a one-third decline in the order's aging ranks - from 35,038 in 1965 to 24,400 today - and far fewer members in the United States, where the number applicants has shrunk to under 85 a year, O'Keefe does not count the Jesuits ``among the world's endangered species.''
``I think the Jesuit center of gravity is moving toward the Third World, although I'm not fond of that term,'' says O'Keefe, who is now superior of the New York provincial residence.
The order known throughout history as ``The Pope's Men,'' because of the special vow of obedience Jesuits take to go anywhere on any mission in the service of the pope, is celebrating its dual anniversary in apparent peace with the Vatican after some confrontations with Pope John Paul II and his two predecessors.
Troubled by prominent Jesuit theologians publicly dissenting from traditional church doctrine and Jesuit involvement in revolutionary Latin American politics, John Paul II in October 1981 took the unusual step of appointing a ``personal delegate'' to rein in the society before permitting the election of a successor to Father General Pedro Arrupe.
The papal intervention was the severest rebuke to Jesuit prestige since Pope Clement XIV suppressed the order in 1773.
With the election of Dutch Jesuit Peter-Hans Kolvenbach as father general in 1983, papal confidence seems to have been restored.
Kolvenbach has been invited to preach the annual retreat for the pope and his household. And recently ``the Black Pope,'' as the father general has been historically known, crossed St. Peter's Square from Jesuit headquarters to lunch with the pontiff.
On April 22, Pope John Paul II will preside at a Mass as centerpiece of a worldwide Jesuit commemoration of the day in 1541 when Ignatius Loyola and six companions, all masters of arts from the University of Paris, pledged obedience to Pope Paul III.
While other Catholic religious orders shut out the world behind monastery walls, the Jesuits set out to battle the world and its worldliness. They got their marching orders from a crippled Basque nobleman, Ignatius Loyola, who found God after intercepting a French cannonball at the battle of Pamplona. Ignatius bound his ``soldiers of God'' to a vow of papal obedience ``perinde ac cadaver'' - unresisting as a corpse.
By the time of Loyola's death in 1556, his company of a half-dozen ``virtuous and scholarly men'' had grown to more than 1,000 and had established 44 colleges in Ireland, Germany, Poland, Egypt, India and Japan.
Now, five centuries later, Jesuits everywhere are concerned about their future in education, particularly in the United States, where the thin, graying ranks administer 28 colleges or universities and 46 high schools, including Seattle and Gonzaga universities and Seattle Prep.
``A picture comes to mind from an old movie, `Beau Geste,''' mused Jesuit J.A. Appleyard, who teaches at Boston College.
``The last few survivors are trying to keep the besieged fort from falling to the enemy. They prop the dead soldiers up on the battlements to make it seem as though the fort is heavily defended. They run from one part of the walls to another firing their guns, hoping for a last-minute rescue and willing to die in defense of their commitment.''
A few months ago Catholic educators breathed a sigh of relief when a long awaited Vatican document on higher education upheld academic freedom and autonomous control of church-sponsored institutions without interference from Rome or the local hierarchy.
The document did, however, call on Catholic colleges and theologians to adhere to church doctrine and it specified that a majority of the faculty be Catholics.
Asked in an interview if maintaining a Catholic majority among the faculty would become increasingly difficult, Fordham University President Joseph O'Hare, who also heads the associations of both Jesuit and Catholic colleges, replied: ``No, it's going to be downright impossible. It's an unworkable norm here and in many parts of the world.''
Recruiting Catholic lay faculty is a tenuous proposition. ``Government aid is a complicating factor,'' points out Jesuit theologian Avery Dulles of Fordham. ``As the law is interpreted by our lawyers, you're not allowed to ask the religious affiliation of people applying for faculty positions.''
Young Jesuits were less attracted to teaching and fewer pursued graduate study in the hard sciences after the society in 1974 decreed its ``mission today is the service of faith, of which the promotion of justice is an absolute requirement.''
Those words put the society on a collision course with three popes as a number of Jesuits, particularly in Latin America, espoused the revolutionary class struggle under a banner of liberation theology laced with Marxist and anti-U.S. rhetoric. Jesuits became actively involved in guerrilla movements in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador and held office in leftist governments in Jamaica and Nicaragua. Fernando Cardenal was dismissed from the society after refusing to resign from the Sandinista Cabinet.
Since refocusing their mission on social justice, 35 Jesuits have met violent death around the world, most recently and brutally in El Salvador, where six Jesuits at the Central American University were massacred in a death squad-style execution that included removal of their brains.
Down through the centuries Jesuits seem to have a penchant for making friends and enemies in the highest places.
Queen Elizabeth visited Edmund Campion, the famous Jesuit scholar and preacher, in the Tower of London. She begged him to return to the Anglican ministry, then had him stretched on the rack and executed.
Jesuit Rudolfo Acquaviva argued fine points of theology on horseback with the grand mogul on the steppes of Hindustan, and Matteo Ricci was court mathematician to the Ming emperor Wan-li.
As Catholic Europe came apart, the ``Pope's Secret Service'' was accused in the assassination of popes and princes, of instigating the St. Bartholomew's Day massacre of Huguenots and the Guy Fawkes plot to blow up Parliament. The word Jesuit became synonymous with intrigue, cunning, the end justifying the means.
But when Pope Clement XIV dissolved the society at the urging of the Catholic Bourbon kings of Portugal, Spain and France, the Protestant Frederick the Great and the Orthodox Catherine the Great ignored him and kept Jesuit schools operating in Prussia and Russia.
``I do not like the reappearance of the Jesuits,'' John Adams wrote to Thomas Jefferson after Pius VII revived the order in 1814. ``If ever there was a body of men who merited eternal damnation on Earth and in hell, it is this society of Loyola's. Nevertheless, we are compelled by our system of religious toleration to offer them an asylum.''
Loyola's followers traveled up the Ganges and the Amazon, crossed the Gobi Desert, climbed the Himalayas and entered Tibet. Jesuits introduced the umbrella to Europe, also rhubarb, quinine, vanilla and the camellia, named for Jesuit botanist George Kamel.
In the New World, Jesuits Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet won places on the congressional hall of statuary by paddling their canoes down the Mississippi.
Half a millennium after Loyola, Jesuits still seem to be everywhere and into everything from Alaska to Zaire.
Jesuits man the microphones of Vatican Radio, the telescopes at the Vatican Observatory, seismographs at Boston College and the lecterns at nearly 1,500 high schools and colleges around the world, where a million and a half students are taught in such languages as Gujarati, Telugu, Tamil, Swahili, Marathi, Mandarin. Hindi and Pidgin.
Suspicion of the order lingers, even in the Oxford English Dictionary, which gives the definition: ``Jesuit: 1. A member of the Society of Jesus, a Roman Catholic order founded by Ignatius Loyola. 2. A dissembling person, a prevaricator.''
Timothy Healy, former president of Georgetown and now president of the New York Public Library, was asked if he or any other Jesuit had ever attempted to get the lexicographers to modify their second thoughts about the Society.
``Hell, no,'' he replied, ``That's a compliment. We Jesuits have a right to be proud of our enemies.''