David's Weekly Reflection #18


St Ignatius of Loyola may well be called the most influential man of the 16th century and thereafter. His creation, the Society of Jesus, was the Church’s major instrument of the Counter Reformation, the reform of the Catholic Church and her fightback against the Protestant Reformation spreading across Europe since 1517. The first generation of Jesuits would play a leading part in recovering large parts of Europe from Martin Luther’s teaching.

Íñigo López de Loyola was born in October 1491 at the ancestral castle of the Loyolas in Azpeitia, part of the Basque country in Northern Spain, close to the Pyrenees mountain range. Íñigo, named after a local saint, Abbot Enecus of Oña, belonged to a noble family, famous for its military exploits in the service of the King of Spain. It was natural that the young man would grow up to be a soldier, inspired by tales of valor of El Cid, the knights of Camelot and the Song of Roland.

As a teenager, he was known to be a fancy dresser, a womanizer and all too prone to avenge an insult, real or imagined, by drawing his sword, and fighting to death. Not the obvious material of a future saint. 

In 1509, aged 18, he joined the court of Antonio Manrique de Lara, Duke of Nájera who became the viceroy of Navarre. He took part in many battles and wars until 1521 when the towns of Navarre rebelled against the king of Spain and with French help besieged the castle of Pamplona where Íñigo was the military governor. He led the defence of the castle until he was badly injured by a cannonball that smashed his right leg. This was to be the turning point of his life.

Back home in the castle of Loyola, Íñigo underwent great suffering in the rough surgery of his time to set, break and reset the bones of his leg, at one time thought to be in danger of death. He finally recovered but would always walk with a pronounced limp for the remainder of his life. 

During his long convalescence, unable to walk, he asked his sister-in-law to find him something to read. Reading was not high on the agenda in his family and she could only find two books, a life of Jesus and a collection of biographies of the saints. 

What started as an unwelcome necessity, became the start of Íñigo’s religious conversion, replacing his dreams of power and glory with a desire to do great things in the service of the Lord Jesus. Sufficiently recovered in 1522, he made a pilgrimage to the famous monastery of Our Lady of Montserrat where he spent three days confessing his past sins. He then gave his fine clothes to the poor and hung up his sword at the Virgin’s altar during an all-night vigil. 

Now, totally dedicated to God, he walked to the nearby town of Manresa, where he lived in a cave for a year, begging in the streets and doing menial work at a hospital to support himself. He followed a way of life of prayer and penance, and in his efforts to discern his future began to develop his famous Spiritual Exercises, that turned into a blueprint for an individual’s conversion for life. 

In 1523 he acted on an intense desire to “kiss the earth where our Lord had walked” and journey to the Holy Land, intending to settle there as an evangelist to Muslims. After three weeks, the Franciscans who had papal jurisdiction for pilgrims persuaded him, not without a few threats that his plan was too dangerous for himself and for them, and he must return to Europe.

By this time Íñigo or Ignatius as he now called himself, became convinced that he needed a thorough education in theology and the humanities, if he was to preach Christ successfully and help the Church to withstand the Protestant revolution and the pagan Humanism of the Renaissance. From 1524 to 1528 he studied at the University of Alcalá, and then moved to the more famous University of Paris where he gained his Master of Arts degree in 1535. There he met some students who shared his evangelical zeal to preach the Gospel, including St Francis Xavier. On August 15, 1534, Ignatius and six companions made solemn vows of poverty and chastity to devote themselves to the service of God as the Company of Jesus. 

In 1536, still determined to go as a missionary to the Holy Land and convert the Muslims, Ignatius waited for a ship at Venice, but the wars in Europe made sea travel impossible. After a year’s fruitless waiting Ignatius accepted that this endeavour was not the will of God, so he went to Rome where Pope Paul III permitted Ignatius and his six companions to be ordained priests. 

At last, after 15 years of searching, Ignatius began to understand his vocation and the purpose of his Society—to serve the Church and the Pope. He instituted the fourth special vow of obedience to the Pope.  In 1540, Pope Paul III approved the Society and the rules and constitutions written by Ignatius, and in the following year Ignatius was chosen by his companions to be the Father General of the Society, a post he held until his death in 1556.  Ignatius remained in Rome guiding the almost miraculous expansion of the original six companions. When he died in Rome, the society had grown to 12 provinces, 101 houses and had nearly one thousand members. He was 65 years old, and would be canonised in March 1622. 

The Jesuits, as they soon were named, were a new type of religious priests and brothers, needed for the new age of the 16th century. They were not bound to a convent or church, did not wear special clothes, or follow a fixed daily routine of community prayers like old orders of monks and friars. Carefully trained in theology and the humanities, schooled in almost military obedience, they were ready to go to a new post at a moment’s notice, and equipped to take on whatever task awaited them. In a few decades they established schools and seminaries for the new learning, founded missions across the world, and returned Poland and southern Germany to the Catholic faith. They were the Pope’s emergency team, on call for the Greater Glory of God. Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, the motto and motive for the life and work of St Ignatius of Loyola. 

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