Bob Vollinger holds the cross as the group prays along K St on April 22. Members of St. Aloysius Catholic Church walked the Stations of the Cross through the city as part of their Remembering Good Friday program. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)

When John Langan came to Georgetown University in 1975 as a young Jesuit priest, he was one of 112 brothers from the Catholic order on campus. Jesuit Robert Drinan, a Massachusetts Democrat, was in Congress, and Jesuit John McLaughlin had recently been in the West Wing advising Republican President Richard Nixon.

Today there are barely half as many Jesuits at Georgetown, the order’s flagship university. Gonzaga, a Jesuit high school in Northwest Washington, is down to 17, compared with 43 in 1970. There’s talk that St. Aloysius, a Jesuit parish in the District known for its social justice efforts, could close when the last remaining Jesuit leaves. And there are no full-time Jesuit staff members at the Washington Jesuit Academy, where the board chairman is Jewish.

Jesuits are vanishing from the Washington area, where they established the first Catholic parish in the Colonies.

When Langan’s fellow Jesuits gather Thursday for an annual post-Easter dinner at Georgetown, a topic of table chat will be transition. The regional Jesuit office is in the midst of merging with two other shrinking offices to create one that extends from Maine to Georgia.

“If I haven’t been in a place for a while, I have a sense of shock when I walk in and realize the Jesuits are now gone, or there are only a few,” said Langan, a philosophy professor and rector to the Jesuits at Georgetown.

Looking at the Jesuits’ slip from public life is particularly poignant during Holy Week — when Catholics believe Jesus created the priesthood — and especially so in the Washington region, where Jesuits essentially laid the foundation for Catholicism in the English-speaking Colonies.

As the first Catholic priests in the Colonies, Jesuits created the country’s first Catholic parish in 1641 in St. Mary’s County. American Jesuits call the D.C.-Baltimore branch of the order “the mother province.”

Some of Washington’s most esteemed institutions are Jesuit: Georgetown University and Georgetown Preparatory School, Gonzaga College High School, St. Aloysius Gonzaga Church and the 10,000-member Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Georgetown.

Part of Washington’s fabric and pride is Jesuit, or what some in the order call the “Jesuit brand,” or “Jesuitica” — an ethos of people who are highly educated and activist. Jesuits are the archetype of priests with PhDs who protest in the streets or otherwise advocate for causes, often politically liberal ones.

The trend of fewer priests isn’t unique to the Washington region or to the Jesuits. The number of Catholic priests in the United States has been falling for decades.

But even as the Jesuits brace for near-extinction in this part of the world, their ideals are spreading.

The lack of new priests, they say, must be part of God’s vision for lay people. So rather than mourn, the Jesuits have been busy building an elaborate system for passing along their beliefs and unique meditative rituals, imaginative prayer known as the “spiritual exercises.”

In recent years, the Jesuits have started programs to teach the ways of their founder, 16th-century theologian Ignatius of Loyola, to administrators of Jesuit schools, lay people who run Jesuit parishes, Catholics and even non-Catholics.

Their efforts appear to be succeeding. Organizers of the programs say Catholics are much more focused on learning “Ignatian spirituality” than they were when Jesuit priests were more plentiful. Jesuit retreat centers say they’re having to put guests into spillover motel rooms. And last year, a book on Jesuit spirituality hit the New York Times bestseller list.

Jesuit theology, which tends to be open and positive, is well suited to American spirituality in 2011, said the Rev. James Martin, a corporate executive turned priest and writer. He calls his order “user-friendly” and wrote “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything” last year, aimed at a non-Catholic audience.

“The message that God meets you where you are is very appealing, because we are a very experiential crowd today,” Martin said. “Seekers want real-life experiences of God; they don’t want just dogma.”

Indeed, the stereotype of Jesuits stands in contrast to that of the Catholic Church hierarchy, which many U.S. Catholics consider remote and doctrinaire.

Jesuits are often seen as rebels, and the Vatican shut down the order for several decades in the late 1700s because of the perception that its members were meddling in Colonial politics. In recent decades, Jesuits have been associated with high-profile activism, such as in Latin America and, earlier, the protests against the Vietnam War.

Because Jesuits tend to work within the culture — in schools, research and cultural institutions — they sometimes are seen as less wary of contemporary Western life than Catholic Church officialdom.

“It’s a very positive view of the world, of culture, this idea that God desires to be found wherever people are. It’s a very different mentality than what has characterized Catholic mentality — a siege mentality, that the world is bad, the material world is bad, we need to defend ourselves,” said the Rev. Mark Horak, pastor at Holy Trinity, which recently hired someone to “form” lay people in Jesuit spirituality.

At Holy Trinity, Lent doesn’t necessarily include giving up something, which is a classic way Catholics prepare spiritually during the contemplative period between Ash Wednesday and Easter. A “more positive” approach, Horak said, is to engage by being more generous, compassionate and active — including writing to city leaders to “encourage them not to balance budgets on the backs of the poor.”

Worldwide, Jesuits remain the largest Catholic religious order. And, like the Catholic Church, the order is struggling in the West and booming in parts of Africa and Asia.It has continued to open schools, including in this region, that are fueled by Jesuit ideas and fundraising prowess — even if actual Jesuits are in short supply. But with the average age of Jesuits in the West approaching 70, the order recognizes that its future rests with lay people.

The push to empower people who aren’t priests is more than just a result of the numbers crunch, Jesuits say. It has been slowly building since the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which emphasized that lay people have key roles to play in the Church.

Which is why Jesuits can seem oddly upbeat about their endangered status.

“Some people outside will see this as a crisis, but we inside don’t see it that way. We see it as an invitation to share our tradition with lay men and women,” said the Rev. Kevin O’Brien, executive director of campus ministry at Georgetown University. “It’s no better, no worse; it’s just different.”

Martin puts a sharper point on it.

“It’s like running a program in Italian studies with someone born in Italy, who has their PhD in Italian from an Italian school, versus someone born here who studied here,” he said. “As immersed as someone can get, they’re not living it the same way a Jesuit is. There’s something qualitatively different.”