Saint Ignatius of Loyola
Founder of the Society of Jesus, Confessor — 1491-1556

Feast Day: July 31

The founder of the Society of Jesus was a pragmatic idealist who devoted his mature years to revitalizing Catholicism and meeting the challenge of the Protestant Reformation. He was born on Dec. 24, 1491, the year before Columbus discovered a New World and claimed it for Ferdinand and Isabella.

His birthplace was the great castle of Loyola in Guipuzcoa, in the Basque country of northwest Spain. Both his father, Don Beltran, lord of Onaz and Loyola, and his mother were of ancient and illustrious lineage. There were three daughters and eight sons in the family, and Inigo, as Ignatius was christened, was the youngest. He was a slight, handsome, high-spirited boy, with the Spaniard's pride, physical courage, and ardent passion for glory. As a youth, Inigo was sent by his father to go and live in the household of Juan Velasquez de Cuellar, one of King Ferdinand's provincial governors, at Arevalo, a town of Castile. Here he remained for many years, but like most young men of his class, he was taught little more than how to be a good soldier, an accomplished horseman and courtier.

This long period of training, inculcating the soldierly virtues of discipline, obedience, and prudence, probably exerted some influence on the form and general tone of the society he founded. When he was 25, he enlisted under a kinsman, the Duke of Najera, saw service in border warfare against the French in northern Castile and Navarre, and won a captaincy. The event that utterly changed the course of his life was the defense of the fortress of Pampeluna, the capital of Navarre. During this hotly contested battle, which Inigo led, he showed great bravery against heavy odds, but when he was hit by a cannon ball that broke his right shin, the Spanish capitulated.

The French looked after the young captain's wounds and then sent him in a litter to his father's castle, some 50 miles away. The shattered bone, badly set, was now rebroken and set again, a crude operation that left the end of a bone protruding. Anaesthesia was still in the distant future, and Inigo endured this, as well as having the bone sawed off, without being bound or held. Afterwards his right leg was always shorter than the left.

One day, while he was confined to his bed, he asked his sister-in-law for a popular romantic book, Amadis of Gaul, to while away the hours. This book about knights and their valorous deeds could not be found, and instead he was given The Golden Legend, a collection of stories of the saints, and a Life of Christ. He began to read with faint interest, but gradually became so immersed and so moved that he spent entire days reading and rereading these books.

He had fallen in love with a certain lady of the court; he also at this time retained his strong feeling for knightly deeds. Now he gradually came to realize the vanity of these worldly passions and his dependence on things of the spirit. He observed that the thoughts that came from God filled him with peace and tranquility, while the others, though they might delight him briefly, left his heart heavy.

Towards the end of his convalescence he reached the point of dedication; henceforth he would fight for victory on the battlefield of the spirit, and achieve glory as the saints had done.

He began to discipline his body, rising at midnight to spend hours mourning for his sins. As soon as his condition permitted, he mounted a mule and went on pilgrimage, always the great resource of persons in trouble or in a state of indecision, to Our Lady of Montserrat, a shrine in the mountains above Barcelona. On arriving, Inigo took off his rich attire, left his sword at the altar, donned the pilgrim's sackcloth, provided himself with a staff and gourd. After full Confession, he took a vow to lead henceforth a life of penance and devotion to God. He soon met a holy man, Inez Pascual, who became his lifelong friend.

A few miles away was the small town of Manresa, where Inigo retired to a cave for prayer and penance. He lived in the cave, on alms, through most of the year 1522.

As frequently happens, exaltation was followed by trials of doubt and fear. Depressed and sad, Inigo was at times tempted to suicide. He began noting down his inner experiences and insights, and these notes slowly developed into his famous book, Spiritual Exercises. At length his peace of mind was fully restored and his soul again overflowed with joy. From this experience came the wisdom that helped him to understand and cure other men's troubled consciences.

Years later he told his successor in the Society of Jesus, Father Laynez, that he learned more of divine mysteries in one hour of prayer at Manresa than all the doctors of the schools could ever have taught him. In February, 1523, Ignatius, as he was henceforth known, started on a long-anticipated journey to the Holy Land, where he proposed to labor and preach. He took ship from Barcelona and spent Easter at Rome, sailed from Venice to Cyprus and thence to Jaffa. His zeal was so conspicuous as he visited the scenes of Christ's life that the Franciscan Guardian of the Holy Places ordered him to depart, lest he antagonize the fanatical Turks and be kidnapped and held for ransom.

He returned to Barcelona by way of Venice. Feeling the need of more education, he entered a class in elementary Latin grammar, since all serious works were then written in Latin. His life as a soldier as well as his more recent period of retirement had prepared him poorly for such an undertaking. Only by viewing his concentration on religion as a temptation was he able to make progress. He bore with good humor the taunts of his school fellows. After two years of study at Barcelona Ignatius went to the University of Alcala, near Madrid, newly founded by the Grand Inquisitor, Ximenes de Cisneros. He attended lectures in logic, physics, and theology, and though he worked hard he learned little. Living at a hospice for poor students, he wore a coarse gray habit and begged his food.

On the advice of the archbishop of Toledo, Ignatius went to the ancient University of Salamanca. Here, too, mainly because he could not temper his zeal for reform, he was suspected of harboring dangerous ideas. The vicar-general of Salamanca imprisoned him for a time, and afterward pronounced him innocent, orthodox and a person of sincere goodness. Ignatius looked upon these sufferings as trials by which God was sanctifying his soul, and spoke no word against his persecutors. However, on recovering his liberty, he resolved to leave Spain, and in the middle of winter traveled on foot to Paris, where he arrived in Feb. 1528.

He studied at the College of Montaigu and later at the College of St. Barbara, where he perfected himself in Latin, and then took the undergraduate course in philosophy. In his vacations he went to Flanders, and once or twice over to England, to ask help of Spanish merchants who had settled there. For three and a half years he studied philosophy; but such was his desire to make the Catholic religion a vital force in men's lives that he was never content to be merely a student. He persuaded a few of his fellows, most of them much younger than himself, to spend their Sundays and holy days with him in prayer and also to engage in good works on behalf of others. Several of these men were to form the inner core of the Society of Jesus.

Ignatius finished the course in philosophy, took the degree of Master of Arts in 1535, and began work in theology. Ill health prevented him from going on to his doctorate. By this time six other students of theology at Paris were associating themselves regularly with him in what he called his Spiritual Exercises. They were Peter Faber, Francis Xavier, a young Spaniard of noble family, Nicholas Bobadilla, Diego Laynez and Alfonso Salmeron, also Spaniards and fine scholars, and Simon Rodriguez, a Portuguese. They now agreed to take a vow of perpetual poverty and chastity and, as soon as their studies were completed, preach in Palestine, or, if that proved impossible, to offer themselves to the Pope to be used as he saw fit. This vow they solemnly took in a chapel on Montmartre on the feast of the Assumption in August, 1534, after having received Communion from Peter Faber, who had recently been ordained priest.

Not long after, Ignatius went back to his native land for the sake of his health. He left Paris in the beginning of the year 1535, and was joyfully welcomed in Guipuzcoa. Instead of staying in his family's castle, however, he took up quarters in a hospital nearby, where he went on with his work of teaching Christian doctrine. The seven men did not lose touch with one another and two years later they all met in Venice. Because of the war then raging between the Venetians and the Turks, they could find no ship sailing for Palestine. Ignatius' companions now went to Rome, where Pope Paul III received them graciously, and gave those who were not yet priests permission to receive Holy Orders from any bishop they pleased.

All having been ordained, they retired together to a cottage near Vicenza to prepare themselves by fasting and prayer for taking up the ministry of the altar.

While praying in a little chapel at La Storta, on the road to Rome, Ignatius had a vision. God appeared, commending him to His Son, who shone radiantly beside Him, though burdened with a heavy cross, and a voice said, "I will be helpful to you at Rome." On this second visit, the Pope did in fact receive them cordially and accepted their services: Faber was appointed to teach the Scriptures and Laynez to expound theology in the Sapienza, and Ignatius to continue to develop his Spiritual Exercises and to teach among the people. The four remaining members were assigned to other employment.

With a view to perpetuating and defining their ideas, it was now proposed that the seven form themselves into a religious order with a rule and organization of their own. After prayer and deliberation, they all agreed to this, and resolved to add to the vows of poverty and chastity a third vow, that of perpetual soldierly obedience. At their head should be a general who should hold office for life, with absolute authority over every member, himself subject only to the Pope. A fourth vow should require them to go wherever the Pope might send them for the salvation of souls. The teaching of the Catechism was to be one of their special duties.

The cardinals appointed by the Pope to examine the new organization were at first inclined to disapprove it, on the ground that there were already too many orders in the Church. Eventually they changed their minds, and Pope Paul approved it [in] September 27, 1540. Ignatius, unanimously chosen general on April 7, 1541, reluctantly accepted the office in obedience to his confessor. A few days later his brothers all took the full vows, in the basilica of St. Paul-Outside-the-Walls.

Ignatius set himself to write out the constitutions of the Society. Its aims were to be, first, the sanctification of their own souls by a union of the active and the contemplative life; and, secondly, instructing youth in piety and learning, acting as confessors of uneasy consciences, undertaking missions abroad, and in general propagating the faith.

He set up two houses for poor orphans' and another as a home for young women whose poverty exposed them to danger. Many princes and cities in Italy, Spain, Germany, and the Low Countries begged Ignatius for workers. He made it a rule that anyone sent abroad should be fluent in the language of the country, so that he could preach and serve effectively. As early as 1540, Fathers Rodriguez and Xavier had been sent to Portugal, and the latter had gone on to the Indies, where he won a new world for Christ. Father Gonzales went to Morocco to teach and help the enslaved Christians there. Four missionaries made their way into the Congo, and, in 1555, 11 reached Abyssinia; others embarked on the long voyage to the Spanish and Portuguese settlements of South America.

Doctor Peter Canisius, famed for learning and piety, founded Jesuit schools in Germany, Austria, and Bohemia. Fathers Laynez and Salmeron assisted at the momentous Council of Trent. Before their departure, Ignatius admonished them to be humble in all their disputations, to shun contentiousness and empty displays of learning. Jesuits landed in Ireland in 1542, while others bravely undertook the hazardous mission to England. In Elizabethan England and Scotland Protestantism was now firmly established and adherents of the Roman Church suffered persecution. Many were the brothers who risked death to keep Mass said in places where it had been forbidden. Of the English and Welsh Catholic martyrs of the period, subsequently beatified, 26 were Jesuits.

The activity of the Society in England was, however, but a small part of the work of Ignatius and his followers in the movement which came to be known as the Counter-Reformation. The Jesuits carried encouragement to Catholics of other European countries where a militant Protestantism was in control. "It was," says Cardinal Manning, "exactly what was wanted at the time to counteract the revolt of the sixteenth century. The revolt was disobedience and disorder in the most aggressive form. The Society was obedience and order in its most solid compactness." In 1551 Francis Borgia, a minister of Emperor Charles V, joined the Society and donated a large sum to start the building of the Roman College of the Jesuits; later Pope Gregory XIII contributed to it lavishly. Ignatius planned to make it a model for all Jesuit institutions, taking great pains to secure able teachers and excellent equipment. The German College in Rome he designed for students from countries where Protestantism was making headway. Other colleges, seminaries, and universities were soon established. 

Ignatius' chief work, Spiritual Exercises, begun at Manresa in 1522, was finally published in Rome in 1548, with papal approval. In essence, it is an application of Gospel precepts to the individual soul, written in such a way as to arouse conviction of sin, of justice, and judgment. A warning contained in the book runs as follows: "When God has appointed a way, we must faithfully follow it and never think of another under pretense that it is more easy and safe. It is one of the Devil's artifices to set before a soul some state, holy indeed, but impossible to her, or at least different from hers, so that by a love of novelty, she may dislike, or be slack in her present state in which God has placed her and which is best for her. In like manner, he represents to her other acts as more holy and profitable to make her conceive a disgust of her present employment."

Ignatius' tender regard for his brothers won the heart of each one of them. He was fatherly and understanding, especially with the sick. Obedience and self-denial were the two first lessons he taught novices. Humility, the characteristic trait of all the saints, was to Ignatius the sister virtue of obedience. For a long time he had gone about in threadbare garments, and lived in hostels for the poor, despised and ignored, but finding joy in his humiliation. When asked the most certain way to perfection, he answered: "To endure many and grievous afflictions for the love of Christ. Ask this grace of our Lord; to whomever He grants it, He does many other signal favors that always attend this grace." 

Towards the end of his life Ignatius became so worn and feeble that he was assisted by three fathers. He died, after a brief illness, on July 31, 1556. In 1622 Ignatius was canonized by Pope Gregory XV.

Extracted from "Lives of Saints," published by John J. Crawley & Co., Inc.