Founder of the Society of Jesus, Confessor—1491-1556
Feast: July 31
St. Ignatius of Loyola, with his new and dynamic conception of the religious life, has left an impress on the Church unparalleled in modern times. 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 December 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 twenty-five, 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 fifty miles away. The shattered bone, badly set, was now rebroken and set again, a crude operation which 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 which came from God filled him with peace and tranquillity, while the others, though they might delight him briefly, left his heart heavy. This cleavage, as he was to write in his book <Spiritual Exercises>, helps one to distinguish the spirit of God from that of the world. 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. How grave these sins may have been we do not know, but as a young soldier he may well have shared in the loose and careless life around him. His eldest brother, Don Martin, who on the death of their father had become lord of Loyola, now returned from the wars. He tried his best to keep Inigo in the world, for he needed the strength and intelligence of this young brother in the management of their great estate.
Inigo, however, was now set on his course. 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. One episode of this journey shows us that his understanding of Catholicism was still far from perfect. He fell in with a Moorish horseman, and as they jogged along they talked of their respective faiths. When the Moslem spoke slightingly of the Virgin Mary, Inigo was aroused to fury. After the two had angrily separated at a certain crossroad, Inigo let the mule follow its own bent: if it took the road towards Montserrat, he would forget the Moor; if it followed after him, he would fight and, if possible, kill the man. The mule, we are told, providentially took the road that led to the pilgrimage place. 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. A pious lady of the city, Isabel Roser, helped to support him. At thirty-three, he found the study of Latin difficult. 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.
A part of his time was spent in holding services in the hospice and in teaching children the Catechism. Sinof. he had no training or authority for this, the vicar-general accused him of presumption and had him imprisoned for six weeks. At the end of that time the vicar declared Ignatius innocent and released him, but still forbade him to give instruction in religion for three years or to wear any distinguishing dress. 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 February, 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.
The highly conservative authorities were not slow in asserting themselves. Pegna, a master, thought these activities interfered with studying and complained of Ignatius to Govea, principal of the college. As a result, Ignatius was to be punished by a public flogging, that his disgrace might deter anyone from following his example. He was ready to suffer all things, but he feared that this scandal and his condemnation as a corrupter of youth would make the young souls he had reclaimed lose faith in him. He therefore went to the principal and modestly explained what he was trying to do. Govea listened intently, and, when Ignatius had finished, took him by the hand and led him into the hall where the whole college was assembled.
There he turned and asked Ignatius’ pardon, and said he now knew that Ignatius had no other aim than the salvation of souls. After this dramatic vindication, Pegna appointed another student, Peter Faber, to assist him in his studies, and with his help 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. Soon all had said Mass save Ignatius, who deferred the step until he had spent over a year in preparation. He said Mass for the first time in Rome, in the church of Santa Maria Maggiore, December, 1538, more than fifteen years after his “conversion.”
Still unable to go to the Holy Land, they resolved to place their services at the disposal of the Pope. If anyone asked what their association was, they would reply, “the Company of Jesus,” for their purpose was to fight against heresy and vice, apathy and decadence, under the standard of Christ. 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 Expercises 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. Professed Jesuits could own no real estate or revenues, either as individuals or in common; but their colleges might use incomes and rent for the maintenance of students. 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 by a bull, dated 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. They should wear the dress of the secular clergy. They should not be compelled to keep choir, because their special business was evangelical work, not the services of the cloister. Before anyone could be admitted he must make a general Confession, spend a month going through the Spiritual Exercises, then serve a novitiate of two years, after which he might take the simple vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. By these vows he consecrated himself irrevocably to God, but the general still had power to dismiss him. Dismissal, if it came, would free him from all obligation to the Society.
The higher rank of Jesuits, called the “professed,” after more years of study, took the same vows again, but this time publicly and with no reservations; they were forever binding on both sides. To them was added a vow to undertake any mission, whether to Christians or to infidels, at the Pope’s command. Ignatius was now fifty years old. The remainder of his life was passed in Rome, where he directed the activities of the Society of Jesus and interested himself in other foundations. He established a house for the reception of converted Jews during their period of instruction, and another for loose women who were anxious to reform but felt no call to the religious life. When told that the conversion of such women was seldom sincere or permanent, he answered, “To prevent only one sin would be a great happiness, though it cost ever so much pain.”
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, eleven 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. Ignatius prayed much for the conversion of England, and his sons still repeat in their prayers the phrase, “for all Northern nations.” 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, twenty six 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. The type of academic, psychological, and spiritual education for which the Jesuits became so famous was well worked out before the founder’s death. The tone remained religious; students must hear Mass every day, go to Confession every month, and begin their studies with prayer. Their master should take every fit occasion to inspire them with love of heavenly things, and encourage a fervent habit of prayer, which otherwise might easily be crowded out by the school routine. 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.
The value of systematic retirement and religious meditation, which the book sets forth, had always been known, but the order and method of meditation prescribed by Ignatius were new, and, though many of the maxims he repeats had been laid down before by the Fathers, they were here singularly well arranged, explained, and applied. To perform the Exercises as directed requires a month. The first week is given to consideration of sin and its consequences; the second, to our Lord’s earthly life; the third, to His Passion, and the fourth, to His Resurrection. The object is to induce in the practitioner such a state of inner calm that he can thereafter make a choice “either as to some particular crisis or as to the general course of his life,” unbiased “by any excessive like or dislike; and guided solely by the consideration of what will best forward the one end for which he was created—the glory of God and the perfection of his own soul.”
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. In his famous letter to the Portuguese Jesuits on the virtue of obedience, he says that it brings forth and nourishes all the other virtues; he calls it the distinguishing virtue of the Jesuits.
True obedience reaches to the understanding as well as to the will, and does not suffer a person even secretly to complain of or to criticize any command of his superior, whom he must look upon as vested with the authority of Jesus Christ. Even when broken with age and infirmities, Ignatius said that, if the Pope commanded it, he would with joy go on board the first ship he could find, though it had neither sails nor rudder, and immediately set out for any part of the globe. When someone asked what his feelings would be if the Pope should decide to suppress the Company of Jesus, “A quarter of an hour of prayer,” he answered, “and I should think no more about it.” His perpetual lesson was: “Sacrifice your own will and judgment to obedience. Whatever you do without the consent of your spiritual guide will be imputed to willfulness, not to virtue, though you were to exhaust your bodies by labors and austerities.”
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 he lived in a house with his brothers, he always shared in the humble daily tasks in an unobtrusive fashion. In matters where he did not feel competent, Ignatius always readily accepted the judgment of others. As he received rebuke with cheerfulness and thanks, he allowed no false delicacy to restrain him from rebuking those who stood in need of it. Although he encouraged learning, he was quick to reprimand anyone whose learning made him conceited, tedious, or lukewarm in religion. He would have each member of the Society take up whatever work, whether teaching, preaching, or missions abroad, that he could do best. Notwithstanding the fatigue which the government of the Society imposed on him, Ignatius was always on fire to help others.
The motto, “<Ad majorem Dei gloriam>” (To the greater glory of God), was the end for which he and the Society existed. 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.” The French historian Guizot, in his <History of Civilization>, wrote of the members of the order, “Greatness of thought as well as greatness of will has been theirs.”
Ignatius directed the Society of Jesus for fifteen years. At the time of his death there were 13,000 members, dispersed in thirty-two provinces all over Europe, and soon they were to be established in the New World. The Society of Jesus served as the chief instrument of the Catholic Reformation. Its pursuits as a trading firm, followed for some years, reaped high returns but were disapproved by the papacy. Exclusive of the period of its suppression by papal brief, 1776-1814, and its suppression by various countries at different periods, largely by reason of these commercial activities, it has flourished in virtually all parts of the globe; its educational institutions are famous, and many individual Jesuits have achieved distinction as teachers and writers. 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. The brilliant Father Laynez succeeded him; he and Father Francis Borgia gave the Society its direction for years to come. In 1622 Ignatius was canonized by Pope Gregory XV, and in our own time Pope Pius XI declared him the patron of all spiritual exercises. His emblems are a chasuble, communion, a book, and the apparition of the Lord.