Our founder Ignatius of Loyola wanted us to call ourselves “friends in the Lord,” as a constant reminder that our being together is the fruit of a strong personal relationship with the Lord, and this makes us “friends” with each other. Hence the term “companions” and Society of Jesus.
In his writings Ignatius never called us “Jesuits.” The term “Jesuit” was already widespread in medieval times to indicate people particularly devoted to the name of Jesus and was used mostly in a derogatory sense. Thus, as early as 1544, our first companions were being scorned or mocked under the name “Jesuits.” This name, short and immediate, started spread even within the Society because, taken seriously, it speaks the truth of what we want to be.
Over the centuries, the term has been colored with negative undertones, becoming synonymous with “false” and “hypocritical,” because a flourishing anti-Jesuit literature portrayed us as willing to do anything to reach positions of power. The Jesuit missionary Matteo Ricci, in fact, used as an apostolic strategy to ingratiate himself with local rulers, perhaps with surprising gifts from Europe that aroused curiosity and attracted attention. But its ultimate goal was not to gain power, but to evangelize and ensure a social structure that would allow Christianity to take root and develop.