Saint Ignatius of Loyola was the “Founder of the Society of Jesus. Drawn by the reading of pious books, he left his arms and knightly ideals and accomplished great feats for the greater glory of God. His Spiritual Exercises continue giving vocations.”
“Take, O Lord, all my liberty; receive my memory, my understanding, and my whole will. All that I am and all that I have come to me from Thy bounty; I give it all back to Thee, and surrender it all to the guidance of thy holy Will. Give my Thy Love and Thy Grace; with these, I am rich enough and ask for nothing more.” This is the profound prayer of this Saint, with which the Spiritual Exercises culminate. Small of stature, grandiose of heart, and of proverbial obedience, he was born in the Castle of Loyola, Guipuzcoa, Spain in 1491 into a family of the nobility. The youngest of eight siblings, he was educated in the home of Juan Velazquez, senior accountant of the Catholic Monarchs. His contact with the Court marked a stage in his life of dispersion and desires for glory.
In 1517, after the death of Juan Velazquez, he began a military career. However, in 1521, perhaps on May 20, in the course of a battle in Pamplona against the French, a cannonball struck his right leg just under the knee. While convalescing from one of the interventions he endured, which left him lame for life, to distract himself he asked for books on chivalry, but there weren’t any, and he was offered the life of Christ and a calendar of Saints days. These modified his existential perspective. “I imagined that I should compete with certain Saints in fasting, with others in patience, and with still others in pilgrimages.” These were the feats of Christ’s courageous followers, which were not at all what the fierce soldier knew. He was drawn by them and converted. He repented of his past and decided to live with evangelical radicalism to which he felt called.
Those around him were aware of the change in the intrepid military man who, all of a sudden, spoke only of religious subjects. And, although he was unaware of the steps he would have to take, it was clear that they would lead to consecration. For the time being, he secluded himself in Montserrat. With a knight’s spirit, he deposited his arms at Mary’s feet, after doing an all-night vigil before Her image with his new companions on the way, wearing a coarse tunic and staff, signs of a pilgrim. He was already dreaming of Jerusalem. He wished to be in the land of Jesus, whom he “wanted to know better, to imitate and follow.” Then he went to Manresa to pray and do penance. And while there, founded on his personal experience, he wrote the Spiritual Exercises. One night the Virgin appeared to him with the Child Jesus and he was invaded by her sweetness. When he left the place, he departed with a spiritual patrimony that marked him for life.
In 1523 he went to the Holy Land. He wanted to stay in the Holy Places but, in face of the many dangers that threatened pilgrims, the Franciscans dissuaded him and practically obliged him to return to Spain. Without yet knowing what path to take, when he arrived in Barcelona in 1524, he was determined to engage in studies to “help souls,” studies that he completed in Alcala de Henares and Salamanca. The spread of the Exercises brought him many sufferings: prosecution, prohibition to preach, scourges, prison. The Inquisition was after him, but he accepted all joyfully out of love for Christ. Now in Paris, where he received a Licentiate in Arts, with a group of seven companions, including Francis Xavier and Peter Fabre, he established the foundation with the motto Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam. He shared with his companions his experience in Manresa, what he learned from reading the lives of the Saints and, especially, the Gospel. They agreed to go to Palestine to evangelize. If this objective was hindered for some reason in the deadline year they gave themselves, they would put themselves at the mercy of the Pontiff. They made their vows at Montmartre in 1534.
Then they met in Venice, as they had agreed. However, in 1535 new health problems obliged Ignatius to return to Spain. They all dreamed of establishing themselves in Palestine, but the War against the Turks made it unfeasible. So, finding themselves in Venice in 1537, now with Ignatius at the head, the group, which had grown in number, went to Rome and placed themselves under Paul III’s protection. The Pope received them, ordaining as priests that year those that had not received the Sacrament In the Chapel of Storta, some kilometers from Rome, Ignatius had a Trinitarian vision and Christ said to him: “I want you to serve Us.” In 1540, with the Pope’s approval, the Society of Jesus became an ecclesial and canonical reality, although the writing of the Constitutions that Saint Ignatius undertook was prolonged until 1551. To their vows of chastity and poverty, they added obedience to the highest Superior, who in turn would be subject to the Pontiff. It was one of the signs of the military spirit that formed part of the education and life of its Founder, and which he wished to transmit to the Society with a new spiritual slant.
With this foundation, they prepared themselves to fight to counteract Protestantism and social deficiencies, spreading the Catholic faith.
Soon the formidable work of these Religious was seen to halt the nefarious effects of the Luther-driven Reformation. The essential forms of apostolate were care of the sick and teaching, which the first members carried out, stimulated by Ignatius’ strength and enthusiasm. They elected him unanimously as General of the Society in 1541. Young men were attracted by the charism. Some joined who were of exceptional stature.
Limited by serious health problems, Ignatius stayed in Rome in retreat and prayer. He embodied his purpose: “To love and serve in everything.” He remained at the head of the Society, which spread to Europe, America, and Asia. Ignatius continued to write formative works and to create prestigious academic centers, all for the greater glory of Christ and His Church. In 1551 he wished to resign as General, but he was not allowed. In early July of 1556, he suffered a fever attack, but his apostolic spirit continued unconquered. He died serenely and unexpectedly on the 31st of that month. Paul V beatified him on December 3, 1609, and Gregory XV canonized him on March 12, 1622.