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St. Ignatius of Loyola 

Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (For the Greater Glory of God)

St. Ignatius of Loyola

St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491 – 1556) was born into Basque (Spain) nobility in the family castle of Azpeitia, the youngest of thirteen children. Baptized Iñigo Lòpez de Loyola, his childhood dream was one of chivalry and adventure. His father (Beltran de Loyola) performed deeds of valor in the final years of the Reconquista (the Christian re-conquest of Spain from the Moors). His older brother, Juan, sailed with Columbus on the explorer’s second expedition to the new world. Some of his other brothers fought (and some died) in France, Naples, the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and parts of northern France and western Germany) and the Americas. Like his brothers, St. Ignatius longed to sacrifice himself for a great king, serve faithfully a beautiful lady and win immortal fame in the eyes of the world. His early adult life was marked by gambling, womanizing and fighting. He longed to prove himself in battle.

In 1516, Ignatius went to Pamplona and obtained a position in the army of the local duke. Spain and France were fighting over a land that both claimed to be their own. France attacked the city with an army of 12,000 men and heavy artillery. The city council surrendered, but St. Ignatius and his troops refused to give up. The fighting continued for another six hours, and St. Ignatius was ready to fight to the death. He stood with his sword in hand at the fortress wall when a cannonball passed between his legs, shattering one and wounding the other. As St. Ignatius fell to the ground, his troop’s courage did too. They surrendered to the French commander who spared the lives of St. Ignatius and his men and sent his own army doctors to treat St. Ignatius.

After two weeks, St. Ignatius was sent back to his parent’s home (castle) to recuperate. The doctors said St. Ignatius’ leg had been badly set by the army doctors and that it would have to be broken and reset. (St. Ignatius describes the procedure in his autobiography as “butchery.”) When the wounds healed and the bone mended, St. Ignatius found, to his dismay, that one leg was shorter than the other. His bone protruded causing St. Ignatius to not be able to wear the tight-fitting hose and boots that were fashionable at the time. St. Ignatius commanded his doctors to saw off the offending lump of the bone and stretch his leg – all without anesthesia.

As he convalesced, he asked for some novels on chivalry, but his sister-in-law (Magdalena) who was caring for him, said she had none. The only two books in the house were one on the life of Christ and the other on the lives of the saints. As he read these books, St. Ignatius’s heart was gradually transformed. He became ashamed of the vanity, pride and lust that ruled his life. While recuperating, St. Ignatius underwent a conversion, but he did not let go of the chivalric ideals of suffering and self-sacrifice. He shifted his focus from winning honor in this world to winning salvation in the next. One night, it is said, that he had a vision of the Blessed Virgin and the Christ Child in his room, which filled him with an intense joy for several hours, but also a feeling of shame over his former ways. He was determined to change. He decided, as soon as he was well enough, to set out for Jerusalem as a humble pilgrim. On his way he stopped at a Benedictine monastery in Montserrat. He exchanged his knight’s clothes (giving them to a beggar) and took on the clothes of a poor pilgrim. Imitating the chivalric ceremony in which a gentleman prepared for knighthood, St. Ignatius laid down his sword before the altar of the Virgin of Montserrat and spent the night in prayer. His next stop was Manresa, where he planned to spend only a few days. Plans changed and he remained there for nearly a year. He lived in a cell in a Dominican Friary where the Dominican’s introduced him to Thomas á Kempis’ Imitation of Christ and taught St. Ignatius the basics of religious formation. In his effort to repent for his past sins, he embraced an austere program of fasting and physical penance. He gradually came to experience an inner peace which he claimed to have enjoyed the rest of his life – a peace that he said comes from knowing that one is doing the will of God. (This becomes a critical component of his “discernment of spirits.”)

It was during this time that he began writing what later became the Spiritual Exercises (one of the classics of Western spirituality). The Spiritual Exercises lay out a program (usually for thirty days, in solitude) of examination of conscience, contemplation, meditation based on a vivid representation of scriptural events and discernment of God’s will in one’s life. After the Manresa experience, the Inquisition examined the Spiritual Exercises for heresy and revisions were forced to be made.

St. Ignatius was drawn to the monastic life, but decided that his own vocation was to be an active apostolate, one built on the foundation of personal conversion and individual sanctification. In 1523 he left Manresa for Jerusalem. Intending to stay in the Holy Land for the rest of his life with the implicit mission to convert Muslims, his plans were derailed when a Franciscan guardian of the holy places ordered him to leave the city to avoid capture and even death at the hands of the Turks. When St. Ignatius refused, the guardian responded that the pope had authorized him to excommunicate disobedient pilgrims. So St. Ignatius returned to Spain where he enrolled in the university with his first step toward his long-term goal of ordination to the priesthood. He was thirty-three at the time.

His zealousness to bring souls to God led him to teach university students and adults how to pray and how to interpret the Gospels. It was at this point in his life he began to show the moderation that had been absent from his own previous spiritual life and which would become the hallmark of Jesuit confessional practices and approaches to moral theology. He and his group of disciples (men and women alike) began to wear clerical dress and a tonsure (traditional practice of clerics and monastics of cutting or shaving the hair from the scalp [while leaving some parts uncut]). Since he was a layman with no formal training of any kind of theology or biblical studies and he was not part of a religious order, this behavior drew the attention of the local Inquisition. He was summoned before it and released only on the condition that he and his friends not dress as members of a religious order. The Inquisition summoned him again for his makeshift religion classes, and he spent 42 days in an Inquisition prison before he was cleared of any suspicion of heresy. He was released under the conditions that he wear the dress of an ordinary student and not hold meetings. He could not accept the latter condition and so he moved to Salamanca, Spain, where he ran into similar problems. During that time, he was imprisoned for three weeks while his Spiritual Exercises were examined. He was again cleared of heresy, but St. Ignatius concluded he had to leave Spain entirely. He moved to Paris in 1528 where he studied philosophy for three years and graduated with a Master of Arts degree in 1534 from the University of Paris.

In Paris, he was joined by other followers who were to become the core of his group. He shared rooms with St. Francis Xavier (the great missionary-to-be) and St. Peter Faber. Under St. Ignatius’ influence, both men abandoned their plans for worldly careers in favor of a life dedicated to God. As the group grew to eight, the little band decided to take private vows of poverty and chastity and also one to go to Jerusalem to convert the Muslims, or failing that, to place themselves at the service of the pope.

“The companions” worked among the sick and dying in Paris. Their plans to travel to Jerusalem were postponed due to an outbreak of war between the Turkish Empire and Venice, and they took advantage of the delay to become ordained and make a long retreat together. They split into twos and threes to work in different cities on the Italian peninsula. Though not formally a religious order, when people asked who they were, they said they were the “Compaña de Jesús" or in Latin, the Societas Jesu (in English, the Society of Jesus).

In November 1537, on his way to Rome to offer their services to Pope Paul III, St. Ignatius had a vision of God the Father in which He promised, “I will be favorable to you in Rome.” God was favorable and St. Ignatius and his companions, St. Peter Faber and James Lainez impressed Pope Paul III. The pope assigned Faber and Lainez to teach theology and Scripture at Rome’s Sapienza University while St. Ignatius carried out his own impromptu ministry of preaching, teaching and bringing souls to God.

By now, St. Ignatius and his companions began to see themselves as a distinct religious congregation of teachers of Catholic doctrine, ready to do anything and to go anywhere at the command of the pope. St. Ignatius spent time drawing up an initial constitution for the companions in 1539. The apostolate was to focus on preaching, hearing confessions, teaching and caring for the sick, but it involved none of the traditional elements of a religious order such as praying the Divine Office in common or other prescribed prayers and penances. The element of direct obedience to the pope was also a novel feature. While the lack of prayers said in common was highly criticized, St. Ignatius insisted that his company must have sufficient flexibility to engage in the apostolate, wherever and whenever they were needed. Pope Paul II gave formal approval to the Society of Jesus on September 27, 1540. St. Ignatius was elected superior in 1541.

St. Ignatius spent the rest of his life in Rome, administering the Society and caring for the poor, the sick, orphans and prostitutes. He was a prolific letter writer and would keep in touch with his members through correspondence. He also wrote to people in high places to provide spiritual direction and to win financial support for the society’s work. His governing style was collegial rather than authoritarian. He preferred to leave decisions to the judgment of those closest to the situation (subsidiarity). Since all the members had experienced and knew how to integrate the Spiritual Exercises into daily life, St. Ignatius felt that was sufficient for decisions to be made at the local level. However, he regarded obedience as the best means of self-denial. The model was always Jesus, who was “obedient to death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:8). St. Ignatius placed such a high premium on obedience and as a result, stressed the importance of selecting the right people for positions of leadership in the Society.

In the Society of Jesus’ constitution, the amount of study required of Jesuits would be more extensive than in other orders and solemn vows were to be postponed until an aptitude for such study had been tested. St. Ignatius was convinced of the need for an educated clergy and of the importance of an educated laity as well. The first of many colleges and universities founded by the Jesuits was opened in Padua in 1542. Courses in philosophy and theology leading to ordination were added in 1553 and the famous Gregorian University in Rome was born. Institutions of higher education were spread throughout the world including Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, India, Brazil and Japan within a decade after his death. Today there are Jesuit colleges in 42 different countries. In the Unities States alone, there are 28 Jesuit colleges and universities.

St. Ignatius died suddenly on July 31, 1556 and was buried next to the high altar in Santa Maria della Strada. When the church was later demolished, his remains were enshrined in the Church of the Gesú, in Rome, Italy (the Mother Church of the Jesuits). He was beatified in 1609 and canonized in 1622, along with St. Teresa of Avila, St. Philip Neri, St. Francis Xavier and St. Isidore the Farmer. St. Ignatius is often associated with the following words, which is the motto of the Jesuits, “ad majorem Dei gloriam” which means “For the Greater Glory of God.” We celebrate St. Ignatius’ feast day on July 31.

Resources on St. Ignatius Loyola

Broderick, S.J. James. The Origin of the Jesuits. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1986

Craughwell, Thomas J.  Saints for Every Occasion:  101 of Heaven's Most Powerful Patrons.  Charlotte, NC:  C.D. Stampley Enterprises, Inc., 2001.

Delaney, John J.  Dictionary of Saints.  Garden City, NY:  Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1980.

Fagin, S.J., Gerald M., S.J. Putting On the Heart of Christ: How the Spiritual Exercises Invite Us to a Virtuous Life. Chicago, IL: Loyola Press, 2010.

Gallagher, Paul.  “St. Ignatius.” Making All Things New: Transforming the Whole Person. Entry posted May 2010. (accessed June 10, 2012)

Goncalves da Câmara, Luís, S.J.   Remembering Iñigo:   Glimpses of the Life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola; The Memoriale of Luís Goncalves da Câmara.   Translated by Alexander Eaglestone and Joseph A. Munitiz, S.J.    Saint Louis, MO:    The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2004.

Martin, James, S.J.   The Jesuit Guide to (almost) Everything: A Spirituality of Real Life.   New York, NY:   HarperCollins Publishers, 2010.

McBrien, Richard P.  Lives of the Saints:  from Mary and St. Francis of Assisi to John XXIII and Mother Teresa.  San Francisco, CA:  HarperSanFrancisco (Division of HarperCollins Publishers), 2001.

Walsh, Michael, ed.  Butler's Lives of the Saints.  Concise Edition.  New York, NY:  Harper & Row Publishers, 1985.