St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556)

Ignatius was born in Spain in a castle at Azpeita, in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa, of a noble family. The youngest of thirteen children, he was christened Iñigo López de Loyola.

As a youth, Ignatius became a court page and then went into the military. At thirty he was seriously wounded when a cannonball shattered his leg during the siege of Pamplona. During a lengthy convalescence at the home of his brother and sister-in-law, he picked up a book on the lives of the saints and was struck by their heroism.

His own life, however, seemed to be standing still. Although his leg healed, it was never the same as before. It was slightly shorter than the other leg and had a raised bump.

Ignatius struggled with his handicap. In his third-person autobiography, he wrote: “Because he was determined to make a way for himself in the world, he could not tolerate such ugliness and thought it marred his appearance.”

Ignatius told the surgeons to remove the bump, a terribly painful operation performed at the time without anesthesia. Inspired by his reading about the saints, he decided that when he was healed he would become a soldier again, but this time he would fight for Christ.

Figure 10-2: St. Ignatius of Loyola

The Beginning

By the time he turned thirty-one, Ignatius was feeling well enough to start his new life. He left his brother's castle for a pilgrimage to the Catalonian shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat. There he traded in his expensive-looking clothes for a beggar's, and laid his sword and dagger from military service at the shrine's altar of OurLady.

Next, he walked to the nearby town of Manresa and began to beg for food. He allowed his hair to grow wild in atonement for the pride he had once taken in it. Unlike other saints in the beginning of their spiritual development, Ignatius received a number of mystical visions. In one, a ray of light emanated from the Eucharist on the altar while he prayed.

Frederick Buechner on compassion: “Compassion is the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it's like to live inside somebody else's skin. It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.”

Ignatius wrote most of his Spiritual Exercises in Manresa. This was the guide to prayer for which he is most noted. It was not published until 1548. One of the book's themes involved discerning the will of God. A person struggling between two seemingly good options could read the Exercises and discover, through them, which path to choose.

Ignatius left Manresa in 1523, on his way to Africa. He begged for all that he needed en route. But it was not a successful missionary journey, and he was forced to return to Barcelona.

Now, the once-unenthusiastic student elected to fill another void in his life: education. Realizing how much he needed to know for the life he aspired to, Ignatius returned to school. He enrolled at the University of Paris and became friends with six men who would work with him for the rest of their lives: Blessed Peter Favre, St. Francis Xavier, Diego Lainez, Alfonso Salmerón, Nicholas Bobadilla, and Simón Rodríguez.

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Although Ignatius suffered much from his painful wound, he understoodthe value of laughter and gratitude, especially in the face of obstacles. “Out of gratitude and love for Him, we should desire to be reckoned fools,” he wrote. “Laugh and grow strong.”

The men listened to Ignatius's religious insights and plans for future missionary work. Not only were they willing to hear him out, but they also wanted to accompany him, with the exception of Francis Xavier, who was initially reluctant.

This small group formed the nucleus of the Jesuit order. Ignatius also began to attract followers based on his Spiritual Exercises. As his fame spread, he also attracted negative attention and was even sent to prison for a short time. Some of the concepts in the book were viewed as controversial. Ignatius was ultimately released because no heresy could be found in the book.

The Next Phase

Ignatius graduated from the university at forty-three with a Master of Arts degree. He and his six close friends relied on the Exercises as their guide. On August 15, 1534, the Feast of the Assumption, they went to the chapel of St. Denis in Montmartre, Paris, to make their vows of poverty and chastity. Their third vow — they saw themselves as missionaries — was to go to Jerusalem to convert the Muslims. If they failed in that venture, they planned to offer their services to the pope, who could direct them at his discretion.

The group reached Jerusalem, but Ignatius became ill and was forced to return to Spain to recover. He planned to meet the others in Venice. When they all met again, their number had grown to ten. Three more men had listened to Ignatius's message and wanted to accompany the others. They were ordained to the priesthood, although they were still not a formal religious order.

A threat of war in Jerusalem kept the missionaries from returning. The group decided to separate so that they could each take on different tasks:volunteering in hospitals and teaching the Exercises in various Italian cities. Months went by, and when conditions still did not look good for travel to Jerusalem, Ignatius called everyone back to meet in Rome.

The group agreed to stand by the decision made in Montmartre: to offer their services to the pope. But should they become a formal religious order, which would mean taking a vow of obedience to the Vatican, along with vows of poverty and chastity? The group prayed over the issue and then agreed that they would swear obedience. They unanimously elected Ignatius as the head of the order. On September 27, 1540, Pope Paul III signed a document establishing the Society of Jesus, who became known as the Jesuits. The pope immediately ordered some of the men to leave for missionary work in foreign countries.

Staying Home

Ignatius remained in Italy, putting together the constitution for the Jesuit order and handling the other responsibilities of a Superior General. He was patient and charitable, but he was also good at standing up to the men who flaunted their education.

In 1550, Ignatius was given funds to build the Roman College for the Jesuits, which became the model for all of his other schools of learning. This came against the backdrop of tremendous change in Europe. The ideals of the Reformation were beginning to gain power, and ships sailed from Spain and Portugal to explore the world. These new developments brought a sense of urgency to the work of the Jesuits.

Ignatius had been frequently ill, so when he became sick in July of 1556, no one was particularly alarmed. However, this turned out to be his last illness. By the time he died on July 31 at the age of sixty-five, he had watched the Jesuits grow from ten to more than 1,000 men located in various European countries, Brazil, and India. Four hundred years later, there are more than 22,000 members of the Society of Jesus, and his Spiritual Exercises has become a classic.

Ignatius's feast day is July 31. He was canonized in 1622. During the proceedings leading to his declaration as a saint, more than 200 miracles were attributed to him. “For the greater glory of God” was St. Ignatius's motto, both for himself and for the Jesuits. St. Ignatius Loyola is the patron saint of retreats and spiritual exercises.

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