St. Ignatius of Loyola

Ingio Lopez de Loyola y Onaz was born in 1491, the thirteenth child in a family of minor nobility. At the age of sixteen Inigo left his home to serve as a page to the treasurer of the kingdom of Castille. As a page he was exposed to a life of riding, dueling, gambling, dancing and romancing young ladies.

When he was twenty-six, Inigo took up the life of a solider in the northern town of Pamplona. He was injured during battle when a cannonball crashed through the fortress he was defending and shattered his leg. Inigo was taken back to his brother's castle in Loyola, where doctors reset his leg. 

During his six month recovery, Inigo passed his time reading two books, one about the life of Christ and the other about tales of the saints. As he read and pondered these books, he noticed a change taking place within him. Daydreams of serving the king as a valiant knight and winning the love a noble lady, though at first enticing, ultimately left him feeling inwardly dry and discontented. By contrast, when he imagined devoting his life to the service of God and others, similar to the saints he was reading about, Inigo experience a deep sense of joy. Ignatius become convinced that God was speaking to him through these interior attractions and reactions.

After he recovered, Inigo left behind his brother's home and traveled widely -- begging, preaching and caring for the sick and poor. One of his first stops was at a Benedictine mountain-top shrine of Our Lady at Montserrat. There, after an all-night vigil, the young romantic left behind his sword before the altar of Our Lady and donned the sackcloth of a beggar. 

From Montserrat he set out for the small town of Manresa. Inigo stayed there for ten months, spending hours every day in solitary prayer and working at a hospice. He discerned carefully the interior movements of his soul: distinguishing the attractions, feelings, thoughts, and desire that led him to great intimacy with Jesus Christ from those that were distractions to his spiritual growth. Trying to outdo the piety of the saints he read about, Inigo took on severe bodily penances. At times, he became mired in self-doubt. Through prayer and wise spiritual guidance, he discerned that his seemingly pious acts of penance were really displays of vanity.

Inigo began to make notes of his spiritual insights. He talked to people about the spiritual life whenever and wherever he could, recording the fruit of these conversations. These notes became the basis for a manual of prayer that he would later title the Spiritual Exercises.

Inigo ultimately desired to end up in Jerusalem to spend the rest of his life in the place where Jesus lived and labored. However, because of the dangerous political situation in the Holy Land, he had to leave only a few weeks after he arrived in 1523. Inigo was learning that he had to be flexible in responding to God's will in his life. His decisions simply needed to be directed toward "helping souls," which could be done in many ways.

Once back in Spain, Inigo decided to begin studies for the priesthood, but he lacked knowledge of Latin, the language of the Church. So at the age of thirty-three, he spent two years in Barcelona, studying alongside school-children. Inigo subsequently attended universities in Alcala and Salamanca. Inigo then traveled to the renowned University of Paris to study philosophy and theology. There he became known as "Ignatius," a Latin form of his name. In Paris, he met other students like him -- Francis Xavier and Peter Faber -- who were captivated by Ignatius' experience of God, his vision of the world, and his adventurous spirit.

On August 15, 1534, in a small chapel on Montmartre, Ignatius and six other men professed religious vows of poverty and chastity to bind them more closely together. After their studies, the companions, now eleven in number, met in Venice and preached, worked in hospitals, and gave the Exercises. Ignatius and those others who were not yet priest were ordained in 1537.

The companions, "friends of Jesus", traveled to Rome and deliberated for many weeks about their future, all the while teaching, preaching, and performing works of mercy. They eventually decided to form a religious order under a vow of obedience to a superior, Ignatius. The companions, soon to be called Jesuits, shorthand for Society of Jesus, vowed to go wherever the Church's needs were the greatest and wherever they could help the most souls. Unlike monastic religious orders, their home would be the road, constantly meeting people along the way. They offered the Church a spirituality that was both mystical and practical; the first generation of Jesuits decided to be "contemplatives in action."

When their religious order was formally constituted in 1540, the Pope began to depend on the Jesuits for important missions throughout the world. The Jesuits opened schools all over Europe and across the seas to meet the dire need for an educated clergy and faithful. Ignatius and his Jesuits chose as their motto "Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam," a Latin phrase that means "for the greater glory of God." This would be the standard for all of their missions.

Ignatius died on July 31, 1556, suffering the effects of a persistent stomach ailment. At his death, the Society numbered nearly 1,000 men, with houses and colleges stretching from Brazil, across Europe, and to Japan. Ignatius was canonized, together with Francis Xavier, in 1622.

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Excerpt from Rev. Kevin O'Brien, SJ, The Ignatian Adventure, Loyola Press, 2011.