The man whom the Church celebrates on the last day of July was born, probably in 1491, to the noble family of Loyola in northeastern Spain. Baptized with the name Iñigo Lopez, he is known to us as Ignatius Loyola. He remained proud all his life of his noble lineage.
In May 1521, Ignatius was struck by a cannonball while fighting invading French troops at Pamplona. With a broken right leg and a flesh wound in the left one, he was carried to the family castle at Loyola, where doctors decided that the bone in his broken leg must be reset. Under the shock of this operation his condition worsened, and on June 24 he was advised to confess his sins to a priest. Four days later, on the vigil of the feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, the doctors told him that he was dying. Ignatius prayed to Peter, promising that if he recovered he would devote his services to the apostle as a knight. The next day he was out of danger. When the reset bones knitted, however, a stump remained protruding from the flesh. Ignatius insisted that it be sawn off. He would walk with a limp for the rest of his life.
During his recuperation, Ignatius asked for some tales of love and adventure — the rough equivalent of today’s pulp novels and Playboy magazine. When nothing of this kind could be found, he was given the Legends of the Saints and a Life of Christ. He initially found them boring, but gradually his interest was piqued. "What if I were to do what blessed Francis did?" Ignatius asked himself, "or blessed Dominic?" Still, his mind turned back to fantasies about knightly exploits and chasing girls.
As the months crept by, he began to see that all his romantic dreams left him empty. The stories of the saints, on the other hand, filled him with a joy that persisted even after he laid the book down. He resolved to do penance for his many sins and to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem — another romantic dream, transformed now into a desire to serve a higher love, the love of God Himself.
Lying sleepless one night, Ignatius had a vision of the Virgin Mary that flooded him with joy for many hours. From that time on, the licentious thoughts that had filled his imagination for so long disappeared, never to return. Family members were surprised that Ignatius spoke only of God, with a simplicity that deeply impressed all who heard him. It would be years before Ignatius realized it, but he had discovered his life’s vocation.
By March 1522, Ignatius was sufficiently recovered to set off on a mule for his pilgrimage to Jerusalem. He went first to the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, where he made a general confession, laid down his sword at the shrine of the Black Virgin, gave his mule to the abbot, his fine clothes to a beggar, and donned the sackcloth garment of pilgrims.
Ignatius then made for the nearby town of Manresa, where he stayed for the next ten months. He attended Mass daily, spent much of the day in prayer, and fasted to excess. He became seriously depressed, was tempted with thoughts of suicide, and tormented by scruples about whether his general confession at Montserrat had been complete.
These often agonizing months at Manresa gave Ignatius what one of his later companions would describe as "the marvelous peace and strength seen in all he did, and the cheerfulness and joy that imbued all his actions: it shone in his face and could be seen in the prudence and assurance he showed in everything."
At Manresa Ignatius also began writing notes for what eventually became his Spiritual Exercises. Based on his own experiences, the work is a kind of handbook designed, as the opening paragraph says, "to prepare and dispose the soul to rid itself of all disordered affections and then, after their removal, to seek and find God’s will in the ordering of our life for the salvation of our soul." It would become the first organized manual for a spiritual retreat in Christianity’s history.
Ignatius left Manresa in February 1523. While waiting in Barcelona for a ship to take him to Italy, he talked with others about God and His plan for their lives, using material from his Spiritual Exercises. On reaching the Holy Land, he visited all the holy sites and was seized with the idea of remaining, to convert the Muslims. The Franciscan Provincial vetoed this proposal: Should Ignatius be taken captive by the Muslims, the Franciscans would have to ransom him.
Returning by sea to Venice and then overland to Genoa, where he took ship again, Ignatius reached Barcelona in early 1524, almost a year since his original departure. Realizing the need to supplement his meager academic education, Ignatius began to study Latin. He lived in an attic room, begged for his bread (giving much of it away to beggars and the sick), and found time to lead both women and men in the still developing Spiritual Exercises.
His earliest extant letter, written in December 1525to a woman he was helping spiritually, shows how much Ignatius had learned since his extreme penances at Manresa. Telling her to live joyfully, and with limitless gratitude to God, Ignatius wrote: "The Lord does not bid you do difficult things detrimental to your health but to live joyfully in him, giving the body its due. We grow weary of his gifts so much faster than he ever grows weary of bestowing them."
After two years of Latin, Ignatius began university study in Alacalá between Madrid and Toledo, where he donned clerical dress and resumed his activity as a spiritual counselor for others. This aroused the suspicion of the authorities, who charged him with heresy. Imprisoned and interrogated, he was eventually acquitted but told to dress like an ordinary student and not to dispense spiritual advice until he had studied for four years.
Discouraged, Ignatius left for the larger university at Salamanca, where after only a few weeks his experience in Alacalá was repeated: charges of heresy, imprisonment, subsequent acquittal, and release with warnings for the future. It was a pattern that would be repeated often in future years. Ignatius’s real offense was that he was gifted — and different. He ignored what is often called in jest the Seven Last Words of the Church: "We never did it like that before." And he possessed boundless self-confidence — a trait that inevitably provokes suspicion from envious and less gifted establishment types who feel threatened by those of superior intellect and character.
Following rejection at two Spanish universities, Ignatius began his studies anew in Paris in February 1528. Now 37, he gathered fellow students around him, guiding them through the Spiritual Exercises, and by March 1533 he had been awarded a licentiate in philosophy, the prerequisite for doctoral studies. On August 15, 1534, Ignatius and six companions attended a Mass celebrated by Peter Favre, the only priest in the group, in a chapel atop Montmartre, then outside Paris. Together they vowed to go to Jerusalem (the old romantic dream was not dead); and, if that proved impossible, to place themselves at the disposal of the pope for any work he assigned them.
Only in January 1537 could the group reassemble at Venice, the jumping-off place for the Holy Land. On June 24, Ignatius and his companions were ordained priests in Venice. With the Mediterranean closed to shipping by the Turks, the hoped-for trip to Jerusalem was impossible. At the end of 1538, then, Ignatius and his companions proceeded to Rome where they offered themselves to Pope Paul III, who assigned them missions in Italy, Portugal, and overseas.
Approval of the Society of Jesus as a religious order encountered opposition among the cardinals. Some thought that the Church had too many orders already. Others objected to the special vow of obedience to the pope, on the ground that all Christians owed such obedience. The lack of a common celebration of the divine office was also criticized. To leave more time for apostolic work, members of the new society were to pray the office privately. But final approval by the pope came on September 27, 1540. The following April, Ignatius was unanimously elected superior.
On April 22, 1541, Ignatius celebrated Mass at St. Paul’s outside the Walls of Rome and gave Communion to five of his companions who, with him, made their solemn profession in the newly approved society. "From that moment," Ignatius wrote later, "there came over them a silence, profound and increasing, to the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ."
Ignatius remained in Rome for the remaining 15 years of his life. The story of those years is less that of Ignatius himself than of the rapid growth of the society he founded. These years saw the foundation of two colleges in Rome for the training of the clergy, of Rome’s first orphanage, of the first "halfway house" for prostitutes wanting to change their lives, and, in 1547, the decision to found schools for laymen — the beginning of the worldwide Jesuit teaching apostolate that continues today.
Ignatius guided the society with a loose rein, allowing those on the spot to decide for themselves the best course of action. His extant correspondence, some 6,800 letters, is the largest of any person in the 16th century.
Inspiring and supporting all this activity was Ignatius’s deep and prolonged prayer. His devotion to the Holy Trinity was so intense that he sometimes had difficulty starting to celebrate Mass, or to continue it. After Mass he would remain two hours in prayer.
The Jesuits’ reputation as the pope’s shock troops against Protestantism came about more by accident than design. Ignatius himself always counseled gentleness in dealing with heretics, the approach that a later generation would describe as catching more flies with honey than with vinegar.
Ignatius’s influence on others was profound — not least on his younger contemporary Philip Neri, the founder of the Oratory. After Ignatius’s death, Neri testified that there was often a glow in the Spaniard’s face that no portrait could capture — clearly the fruit of his long hours of waiting on the Lord in silence. Indeed, silence was always important for Ignatius, who regarded it as a prerequisite for spiritual progress — a lesson sorely needed today, when millions banish silence with TV, radio, and a host of other electronic distractions.
Though Ignatius experienced poor health during his final years, his death before dawn on July 31, 1556, came unexpectedly. He went home to the Lord whom he had served so generously as he had taught his followers to live: without drama or fuss. At his death, those followers numbered more than a thousand, working as far afield as Japan and Brazil, and including the great apostle of the East, St. Francis Xavier.
Rev. John Jay Hughes is a priest of the Saint Louis archdiocese and the author, most recently, of the memoir No Ordinary Fool and of Columns of Light: 30 Remarkable Saints, available both in print and as a recorded book from Now You Know Media.