Rouven Wirbser: Ad poenitentiam movere. The role and use of emotions in Jesuit popular missions

In 1715, the Jesuits introduced a new form of popular mission to the duchy of Jülich-Kleve. Two Southern German Jesuit preachers, Georg Loferer (1680–1756) and Konrad Herdegen (1670–1724), who had studied the so-called apostolic method (or Segneri method) in Italy conducted the first mission according to the new method in the town of Jülich in May 1715.[1] As the missionaries wanted to move their audience to penitence, the mission was marked by several outstanding features which aimed at the emotional involvement of the lay populace such as nocturnal penitential processions, intense self-flagellations of the missionaries and the use of torches and skulls to underline the contents of the sermons.[2] In reports to their superiors Loferer and Herdegen describe the positive response of the populace to these features: As a consequence of the new method an extraordinarily high number of participants confessed and received the sacrament in the aftermath.

Therefore, the missionaries conclude that the mission has been a complete success.[3] Similarly, an eye-witness account of an anonymous citizen of Jülich praises the missionaries and the newly introduced method.[4] Interestingly, in contrast to these contemporary reports, 20th-century scholars who wrote about this historical event have unanimously judged the penitential rites as “dramatic embellishment”,[5] “exotica”,[6] or “excitamenta”,[7] which might befit the extroverted sensitivities of the “Welsch” (Italian) people, or Southern Europeans in general,[8] but which did not appeal to the “German mind” and did not agree with the “German soil”.[9] Even in the year 2000, one scholar mused that in these missions one can observe “forms of devotion […], one might want to assign to the Asian culture area rather than to the European.”[10] Consequently, all scholars state that the Segneri method was substantially altered or the “dramatic elements” were almost completely abandoned in the missions of the following years.[11] However, they hardly provide any historical evidence for this claim. On the contrary, the apostolic method was adapted subsequently in all popular missions of the Jesuit Lower Rhine province. For example, in the Eifel region missionaries introduced the Segneri method as late as 1732, 15 years after the first mission in Jülich, and continued to use it until the 1760s.[12] None of the of the scholars cited above provides an explanation as to why missionaries would have changed their way of conducting missions in order to adapt to a method which was apparently so unfit to teach the “German mind”.

It is my assumption that the scholarly verdict described above stems from a fundamentally different view on ‘proper’ religious emotions and how these emotions should be excited and expressed. As a consequence, this discrepancy between contemporary sources and historical research has sparked my interest in the relationship between emotions and devotion in Early Modern Catholicism as well as Jesuit conceptions of penitence and the expression of religious feelings. In my paper I will look at Jesuit ideas on the role of the senses and emotions in meditation, prayer and preaching as well as the Jesuit stance on disciplines such as flagellations. These ideas were foremost rooted in the fundamental writings of the Society of Jesus such as the Constitutions and especially the Spiritual Exercises written by the founder of the order Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556). Subsequently, I will analyse how these ideas and concepts played out in different mission areas of the Jesuit order, how they shaped missionary strategies and how they were accommodated to different mission areas. Here, I will mostly concentrate on Italy as the Segneri method was developed there (amongst others) by the eponymous missionary Paolo Segneri the Older (1624–1694). However, I will also have a look at the East Asian missions of the Jesuit order to demonstrate that this subject was not restricted to the European missionary field. Thereby, I want to highlight the role of the laity, too, which was by no means a passive one, as lay expectations and reactions took an important part in shaping the Jesuit conceptions of penitence and the introduction or use of penitential rites in the respective mission areas. Finally, I will analyse the contemporary criticism of the Jesuit concepts of repentance in general and the conducting of the Segneri styled popular missions in particular.

Through my paper and the discussion of the sources and concepts with the participants of the training school I hope to be able to develop a new way of looking at the Jesuit popular missions in Germany which takes the historical actors and their respective models of religious emotions and their ‘proper’ expression seriously, and which does not impose modern views on the historical matter as has been done by most scholars so far.

Rouven Wirbser (

This post forms part of an open mini-series published in preparation of the COST Action IS1301 Training School “Passionate Devotions. Emotions in Medieval and Early Modern Religious Texts, Images and Music” (see announcement with details about submissions here).

It is published under


[1] G. Bers, ʻJülich in Sack und Asche. Religiöse Massenphänomene in einer rheinischen Stadt im Jahre 1715ʼ, Zeitschrift des Aachener Geschichtsvereins, 102 (1999/2000), pp. 185–217; B. Duhr S.J., ʻDie kurpfälzischen und kurbayerischen Volksmissionen im 18. Jahrhundertʼ, Historisch-politische Blätter für das katholische Deutschland, 170 (1922), pp. 510-526, 565-580, 637-655, pp. 518–523.

[2] T. Johnson, ʻBlood, Tears and Xavier-Water. Jesuit Missionaries and Popular Religion in the Eighteenth-Century Upper Palatinateʼ, in R.W. Scribner and T. Johnson, eds., Popular religion in Germany and Central Europe, 1400-1800 (New York, 1996), pp. 183–202, p. 187.

[3] Duhr S.J. ‘Volksmissionen’, pp. 520 and 523.

[4] Printed in Bers. ‘Jülich’, pp. 199–209.

[5] A. Schüller, ʻDie Entwicklung der Volksmissionen im Rheinlande und in Westfalenʼ, Historisch-politische Blätter für das katholische Deutschland, 171 (1923), pp. 317–327, p. 326.

[6] E. Nellessen, ʻDie Volksmission des 17. und 18. Jahrhunderts im Gebiet des Kreises Dürenʼ, Dürener Geschichtsblätter, 48 (1968), pp. 1129–1151, p. 1135.

[7] A. Schüller, ʻDie Eifelmission der Jesuiten 1704-1773ʼ, Annalen des Historischen Vereins für den Niederrhein, 121 (1932), pp. 79–130, p. 82.

[8] Nellessen. ‘Volksmission’, p. 1135. Here, Nellessen also characterizes the Segneri method as „medieval“.

[9] Schüller. ‘Eifelmission’, pp. 82 and 94.

[10] Bers. ‘Jülich’, p. 198.

[11] Nellessen. ‘Volksmission’, p. 1136; Duhr S.J. ‘Volksmissionen’, p. 568; Schüller. ‘Entwicklung’, p. 326.

[12] Schüller. ‘Eifelmission’, p. 82.



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