Who is St. Ignatius?

By Rev. Doug Leonhardt, S.J.

Inigo Lopez de Loyola was born into a family of minor nobility in 1491. He received a sparse education as many did in a semi-aristocratic class. When he was a teenager, he was sent to the household of the chief treasurer of King Ferdinand of Aragon where he was trained as a courtier. There he lived a carefree and raucous life. Then in 1517, Inigo entered military service. His military career was cut short and his life changed dramatically when he was wounded by a cannon ball trying to defend a fortress from the French at Pamplona.

When he was stable from his wounds, he was carried back to the castle of the Loyola family to recuperate. He requested books on chivalry to read.  The only books in the house were a life of the saints and another on the life of Christ. As he read them, he began to daydream about his future. When he imagined himself performing the same heroic deeds as the saints, he noticed a peace and contentment in his heart. But when he envisioned himself courting the ladies and engaging in noble military feats, he felt an emptiness and dryness. He learned to trust that what brought him peace came from God.

When he recovered, he decided to make a religious pilgrimage to Jerusalem to spend the rest of his life visiting the places where Christ lived and preached, suffered, died and rose.

His first stop on the journey toward Jerusalem was at a Benedictine monastery in Catalonia. There he spent a night in prayer, laid down his sword and fancy clothes before the statue of the Black Madonna. In beggar’s clothes, he journeyed to a little town nearby, Manresa. Planning to stay for only a few days, he remained a year. He sometimes prayed seven hours a day and would help in a small hospital for his board and room. One day when he was praying on the banks of the river Cardoner, Ignatius had a vision which was the most significant of his life. God infused his understanding in such a way that he saw God dynamically at work in all things. He noted his many religious experiences in a notebook.  He viewed the insights he received were to be shared with others to help them grow in union with God. These notes eventually evolved into the Book of the Spiritual Exercises.

When Ignatius finally arrived in Jerusalem, he was confirmed in his desire to spend the rest of his life visiting the holy places. But his plans were scuttled by the Franciscans who said they could not assure his protection and ordered him to return to Europe.

On returning to Barcelona in Spain, he made a commitment to pursue an education in order to serve others better. In 1524, he began his studies with youngsters in order to learn grammar. He advanced to the University of Alcala. But he was run out of town because he and his four companions were considered religiously suspect. He then went to the University at Salamanca. Again his theology and spirituality was questioned. So he journeyed to Paris to study. In the place where he lodged, he had two roommates: Peter Faber and Francis Xavier. They helped Ignatius with his studies and he helped them grow in union with God. During the years of study in Paris, Ignatius, Faber, and Xavier attracted other companions.  Diego Lainez, Alfonso Salmaron, Nicolas Bobadilla and Simon Rodriguez joined their companionship as friends in the Lord. In 1534 after they graduated, they vowed they would to go to Jerusalem and live a life of poverty.

The band of pilgrims never made it Jerusalem because of wars in the Mediterranean. So Ignatius, Favre and Lainez traveled to Rome to offer the services of the group to Pope Paul III. At LaStorta, a little town outside of Rome, they stopped at a small chapel to pray. While praying, Ignatius received one of his best known visions. He had a vision of Jesus carrying the cross with the Father at his side. Jesus said to Ignatius, “I wish you to serve us.” And the Father added, “I will be propitious to you in Rome.”

In the Spring of 1539 they met every evening after working all day to discern where God was directing them. In their deliberations they decided that they could do more good together as one body rather than be scattered as individuals. They came to the unanimous decision to petition the pope to form a new religious order in the Church. It would be different from the traditional monastic communities. They would not pray the divine office together and would vow to go wherever the pope would send them. The monastery was not to be their home but the world would be their house. They would be called Companions of Jesus.

On September 27, 1540, the pope approved this band of scholars as a religious community in the Catholic Church. Soon after, the group elected Ignatius as its religious superior. The first tasks for Ignatius were to coordinate the ministry of the group, send them to where they were requested or needed and draw up formal constitutions for the nascent Society of Jesus.

During the years between when he was elected the first Superior General of the Society of Jesus until his death on July 31, 1556, Ignatius became an accomplished strategist. His main task was to form a community of apostles who, though scattered over the globe, maintained union of mind and heart with their brothers. To this end, Ignatius had his men write letters about what they were doing. He would share these letters with the other Jesuits and he would personally respond to those who wrote. In his lifetime, Ignatius wrote thousands of letters not only to Jesuits but to many laymen and women who sought spiritual direction. By the time of his death in 1556, membership in the Society of Jesus grew to a thousand. They were scattered in colleges and houses throughout Europe, India, Brazil and Japan. Ignatius became St. Ignatius in 1622 along with St. Francis Xavier.