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Life of St. Ignatius - Founder of the Society of Jesus

St IgnatiusInigo Lopez de Loyola, son of the local landowner, was born in 1491 in the castle at Loyola, in Spain's Basque Province. He was brought up in the cottage of the blacksmith's wife, Maria de Garin. As a page at court he served the Treasurer of the Kingdom of Castille, then the Duke of Najera. Up to his twenty-sixth year Inigo was, in his own words:

"a man given over to the vanities of the world, and took a special delight in the exercise of arms, with a great and vain desire of winning glory."

In the pursuit of such glory, this courtier in the army of King Ferdinand of Spain was stirred to defend the town of Pamplona from an attacking French army. The town's governor saw the futility of resistance to the vastly superior French forces and advised surrender. But the foolhardy Inigo rallied a handful of men to defend the town's citadel. On the 20th of May 1521, during this desperate action, a French cannonball smashed into both his legs; Inigo and Pamplona fell.

After his legs were set - badly the invalid was carried on a stretcher to his native Loyola. For eight months Inigo languished in bed. At his own insistence, his leg was broken twice more by doctors in an attempt to correct a limp, which had developed -for how could a cripple win the affections of a high-born lady? This treatment brought the patient close to the death, but recovery began on the feast of St. Peter.

Wounded St IgnatiusAs he lay on his sickbed, inigo dreamt of the noble deeds he would undertake, the feats of great daring, the romance of winning the love of some great lady. These day-dreams brought respite for a time to the bored convalescent, but it soon left him feeling empty and dissatisfied. Then he dreamt of doing great deeds for God, imitating the great saints like Francis and Dominic and walking barefoot to Jerusalem. These dreams too inspired Inigo, but unlike the dreams of romantic gallantry they left him feeling contented and joyful. He slowly began to realise that joy and contentment came in following Christ.

As soon as he regained his health, Inigo left home on a pilgrimage with a determination to serve Christ and the Virgin Mary. Before the black Madonna at Montserrat, the Pilgrim renounced his former ways with all its vanities and dedicated himself to his new Master. From this time on he lived a simple lifestyle, embracing poverty.

St Ignatius at his DeskFrom the Benedictine Monastery high among' the wild and jagged peaks of Montserrat, the pilgrim descended to the bustle of the nearby town of Manresa. For ten months in Manresa Inigo learned to interpret the way in which God deals with the individual soul. He first punished his body. Reacting against his former tendency to vanity he gave away his fine clothes in exchange for rough sacking. He cut neither hair nor nails and took no care of his appearance. He begged daily for his meagre food. During this time Inigo suffered from scruples. Sinner that he had been, he couldn't believe that the Lord had forgiven him.

This way of life brought him to the edge of despair, tormented as he was by guilt. He gradually began to see that this was the work of the Tempter. So he gave up his self-punishing excesses.

He was discovering that the acceptance of the Lord is total, the forgiveness of the Lord is free, not bought with self-inflicted penances. Sitting in his cave by the banks of the Cardoner River Inigo prayed. The fruits of his meditation laid the foundations for his Spiritual exercises. He then put his own hard won experience to work and sought to help others in interpreting the ways of the Lord for themselves.

From Manresa the pilgrim set out on -the long journey to Jerusalem. Braving the dangers of a war-torn Jerusalem, he begged his way to the Holy Land. Here he spent time devotedly walking in the footsteps of the Master. He wished to stay in the Holy Land to convert the Muslims, but the more prudent Franciscan keepers of the Holy Places ordered him out. This dream shattered, he returned to his native Spain to find Christ, not in the romantic notion of converting the world, or living in the land trod so long ago by Jesus, but in the mundane events of daily life in his own country.

Inigo's great desire became to help others see the Lord working in the ordinary events of their own lives. His work was frequently looked upon with suspicion by the Roman Catholic Church authorities who saw heresy lurking behind every tree. Europe of the time was in the throes of the Reformation. inigo felt that the best way to be allowed to teach in the Church was by studying philosophy and theology and becoming a priest. So the Pilgrim (what Inigo called himself in his own autobiography) settled down to life as a student. In Barcelona, at the age of 33, he went back to school and joined classes of boys to learn Latin, the language of the universities.

When he had mastered the basics of this ancient language he moved to Acala University to study philosophy. He continued giving the Spiritual Exercises during this time of study. But Inigo now calling himself "Ignatius", fell foul of the Spanish Inquisition and was imprisoned in 1527, for teaching religion before completion of the required training.

Upon release from prison, Ignatius the student moved from Spain to the freer atmosphere of Paris and its Montaigu College. But academic study alone could never satisfy this man. He gathered about him young men whom he fired with enthusiasm to serve the Lord. He gave the Spiritual Exercises while continuing his studies of philosophy at the University.

To finance his studies he would spend a little time each year in Flanders begging for alms. In the summer of 1530 he went further afield to London. The generous Londoners gave him much more than be had collected previously, in fact, sufficient to keep him for the whole year.

St Ignatius taking VowsIgnatius gathered around him a small band of six companions. On the 15th of August 1534, one of their number, Pierre Favre said Mass in a chapel on the slopes of Montmartre, where they all took vows of poverty and chastity. They also promised, upon completion of their studies, to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

The following year Ignatius took sick and so returned home to recover in his native air. Before leaving Paris, the companions had agreed to meet up together in 1537, in Venice, in order to catch a ship to Jerusalem to fulfil their vow.

After four months in the land of his birth, Ignatius, ever restless, pronounced himself fit to travel. He arrived in Venice 18 months early in the Autumn of 1535. He made the most of his time and spent his wait in a thorough study of theology.

The agreed meeting took place, but the companions waited in vain for a pilgrim ship to the Holy Land. To the normal dangers of winds and weather was added that of war with the Turks. But what happened during the wait was more significant than any pilgrimage could have been.

The companions became "fools for Christ". In early 1537 the little group left Venice and arrived outside the walls of Vicenza. The Masters of Theology from the most prestigious university in the world cavorted and thew their caps in the air to attract attention, then in a hilarious mix of languages these men from Spain and France preached in "Italian". But more than preach, they tended the sick and helped the poor, while they themselves lived in destitution. Each in turn was sick, all were cold, hungry, yet ecstatically happy. In bringing the love of Christ to the poor and sick, while themselves living in the simplest lifestyles, these men found the profoundest joy.

St Ignatius PreachingEarly in 1537 the companions, who had now grown to nine, decided to go to Rome to put themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father. A few miles from the Holy City, at La Storta, Ignatius had a vision where God the Father "placed him with His Son" carrying His cross. Following Christ crucified, Ignatius continued to Rome.

Ignatius and his companions considered long, hard and prayerfully whether to band together formally. The decision was that they would be more effective together than apart, so in 1540, the Society of Jesus was born. They dedicated themselves to teaching, to preaching the word of God, to working with the poor and the sick in the slums of the cities of Europe, and in travelling to exotic destinations preaching Christ to people in lands new to European eyes.

The new religious order had to be flexible to meet the demands of the new age. Gone was the monastic meeting together many times daily to sing God's praises. Early in 1537 the companions, who had now grown to nine, decided to go to Rome to put themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father. A few miles from the Holy City, at La Storta, Ignatius had a vision where God the Father "placed him with His Son" carrying His cross. Following Christ crucified, Ignatius continued to Rome.

Ignatius and his companions considered long, hard and prayerfully whether to band together formally. The decision was that they would be more effective together than apart, so in 1540, the Society of Jesus was born. They dedicated themselves to teaching, to preaching the word of God, to working with the poor and the sick in the slums of the cities of Europe, and in travelling to exotic destinations preaching Christ to people in lands new to European eyes.

The new religious order had to be flexible to meet the demands of the new age. Gone was the monastic meeting together many times daily to sing God's praises as a community, "Office in Choir" as it is called. Now each man worshipped God the way he found best, and was totally free to respond to the needs of those around him. The "Jesuit" community was for many maintained over vast distances by means of the pen. They were to be educated men who could debate with the Reformers on their own terms; poor men who would not be seduced by worldly power and wealth; men who sought to convert whole nations to Christianity; willing to do anything "For the greater glory of God".

St Ignatius on Death BedIgnatius of Loyola, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, remained tied to an office desk in Rome, writing letters to men who, like Francis Xavier, outstripped him in fame. Letters of encouragement, requesting, chiding; letters telling of everyday events, and of outstanding feats. The playboy, the soldier, the pilgrim became used to others doing the adventurous deeds. He died alone in his room, save for the presence of his Lord, in the early hours of the 31st July 1556 at the age of 65.

 

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