Ignatius of Loyola

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Ignatius of Loyola

c. 1491
Guipuzcoa, Spain
July 31, 1556
Rome, Italy

Religious leader, founder of Jesuits

"The safest and most suitable form of penance seems to be that which causes pain in the flesh but does not penetrate to the bones, that is, which causes suffering but not sickness."

Ignatius of Loyola in Spiritual Exercises, quoted in The Columbia World of Quotations. [Online] Available http://www.bartleby.com/66/17/47917.html, April 5, 2002.

Ignatius Loyola was the principal founder of the Society of Jesus (known as the Jesuits), a Roman Catholic order for men. Prior to having a spiritual awakening, Ignatius was a vain and worldly young soldier who loved a life of adventure. In 1521, at the Battle of Pamplona in Spain, he suffered serious injuries and, while recuperating, turned his mind to religion. During the next two decades he wandered penniless through Europe, made a pilgrimage (religious journey) to Jerusalem (site of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity), and studied for the priesthood in Paris. During this time he gathered a growing number of followers and wrote Spiritual Exercises. An outline of methods of prayer and religious self-discipline, Spiritual Exercises became the handbook of the Jesuits. Ignatius's frequent visions of Jesus and Mary (Jesus's mother) also enhanced his reputation for saintliness. The Jesuits, which he founded in 1540, spread throughout Europe, gaining great political and religious influence. The order became a prominent force in the Catholic Reformation (also called the Counter Reformation) a reform movement within the Roman Catholic Church.

Embarks on religious life

Ignatius was born into a noble family in Guipuzcoa, part of the Basque country on the Spanish side of the Pyré nées Mountains. Baptized Iñigo de Oñaz y Loyola, he adopted the name Ignatius in about 1537, in honor of Saint Ignatius (died c. a.d. 110) of Antioch, an early Christian martyr (one who sacrifices his or her life for a cause). After receiving a limited education, he became a soldier. His brief military career ended in 1521 when he was wounded in battle at Pamplona, Spain, during the Italian Wars (a conflict between France and Spain over control of Italy; 1494–1559). His fellow soldiers, recognizing their position as hopeless, had urged their commander to surrender. Ignatius's passionate appeals for a heroic defense changed the commander's mind. Ignatius then led the soldiers into battle until a cannonball hit him in the legs, smashing the right and gashing the left. When he fell, the Spanish surrendered. The French victors knew Ignatius by reputation, so they took good care of him. They did what they could to set his bones and bandage his wounds, then sent him to his family castle in Loyola to recover.

While recuperating, Ignatius had a series of religious experiences that changed the course of his life. He wanted to pass the time reading romances, but he found only books on the lives of the saints. He turned to them for lack of anything more exciting to read. Ignatius remembered later that his worldly daydreams had left a bitter aftertaste, whereas his religious reveries had filled him with joy. He concluded that the first pleasures came from the devil, the second from God. During this period of enforced meditation he made plans for a pilgrimage to Jerusalem. First, however, he learned that his bones were not setting properly. Rather than go through life disfigured and limping, he ordered that the bones be rebroken, a bone spur sawn off, and the bones reset, despite the incredible pain and the risk of infection.

During his recovery, Ignatius began a program of asceticism (strict self-denial) for which his Jesuit followers later honored him. He sometimes went days at a time without food and walked barefoot in winter. He deliberately neglected his long hair, which had once made him proud, until it was matted and filthy. He wore a hair shirt (garment made of rough animal hair worn next to the skin) and sometimes a nail-studded belt turned inward to his body. The effect of these torments was to weaken him and give him a pale and haggard appearance, which terrified both strangers and acquaintances. It also caused him lifelong stomach problems.

Ignatius lived for a time in Manresa, Spain, where he prayed six or more hours a day and spent a few hours a day begging for alms (money or food). He also worked in hospitals, caring for the poor. He had sold all his property and given away the proceeds to the poor. As a local nobleman, however, Ignatius was still well known in the community. His social status, along with his growing reputation for spirituality, led to frequent invitations to nobles' houses to dine and to give religious instruction. He refused to stay with the nobility, however, and retired to humble lodgings to sleep.

Begins writing Spiritual Exercises

Ignatius tried to confess and do penance (an act to show sorrow or repentance) for all the sins of his earlier life. When he found he had committed so many sins that he could not count them all them, a priest suggested writing them out. Beginning in 1522 he spent a year in seclusion at the small town of Mansera outside Barcelona. During this time he put his ideas on paper, forming the background of Spiritual Exercises, which was published in 1548. This short but influential book outlines a thirty-day regimen (systematic plan) of prayer and self-abasement (acts of self-denial and punishment) that focuses on devotion to God.

In 1524 Ignatius set out to visit Jerusalem. At Barcelona, Spain, he persuaded the captain of a ship bound for Italy to take him on board, though he had no money for his passage. He took food only reluctantly, seeing starvation during the voyage as another opportunity for self-denial. After begging in Italy, he took a ship from Venice to Cyprus, then from Cyprus to Syria. From there he walked to Jerusalem to visit the Christian holy places, which were under the control of Muslim Turks (inhabitants of Turkey who followed the Islam religion). Ignatius asked the few Christian guardians of the holy places to permit him to remain near the sites of Jesus's life and death. Fearful that his militant Christian zeal would cause problems, they denied his request. After a farewell visit to the Mount of Olives to see what were alleged to be Jesus' footprints, Ignatius tried to find passage home "for the love of God" rather than for money. When the captains of both a large Venetian ship and a large Turkish ship would not accept him as a passenger, he boarded a smaller ship. The Venetian and Turkish ships sank a few days later in a Mediterranean storm, whereas the smaller ship carrying Ignatius weathered the storm and returned him safe to Venice. This good fortune on a hazardous voyage, as well as his experiencing several more visions of Jesus, became the basis of legends of his holiness. When Ignatius encountered hostility from soldiers and citizens in Italy, he went back to Spain.

Imprisoned by Inquisition

Ignatius decided he needed a better education if he was to do his work effectively. He began to study Latin at Barcelona, then moved in 1526 to the recently founded university at Alcalá de Henares. Finally he spent a short time at the University of Salamanca. While Ignatius was at Alcalá de Henares and Salamanca, Catholic officials suspected him of being involved in the Protestant reform movement headed by the German priest Martin Luther (1483–1546; see entry). Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500–1558; see entry), who was also the king of Spain, was unable to stop the spread of Protestantism in Germany. He therefore used the Inquisition (church court established to find and punish heretics, or those who disobey church laws) to stamp it out in Spain. The Inquisition had been powerful and merciless in Spain since the late fifteenth century. Under its influence Muslim Spaniards (called Moriscos) were forced to convert to Christianity and Jews were expelled from the country in 1492. At autos da fé (pronounced awh-tohs deh FAY; acts of the faith), the Inquisition paraded sinners in public squares and burned condemned heretics at the stake.

Although Ignatius does not appear to have known about Luther, he was imprisoned without a trial or formal charges on several occasions. An usual prisoner, he made no effort to get a lawyer and refused to complain even when he was jailed on flimsy charges. On one occasion, the inmates of the prison broke out, and all but Ignatius and one of his followers escaped. The next day they were found in their cell with the door wide open. A growing number of townspeople in Alcalá, Barcelona, and Manresa, the towns he frequented, were learning of his spiritual gifts and his visions of Jesus and were becoming his followers. When several high-born women followed his example of turning to alms-begging, Ignatius had to endure allegations that he was a seducer (one who lures another person into sexual relations). Ignatius was usually found blameless despite his unconventional practices.

In 1528 Ignatius left Spain and went to the University of Paris, which was then the center of theological training in Europe. Again he lived on alms, begged in Flanders and England between academic sessions, and studied continuously. While in Paris, he met six of the men who were to form the nucleus of the Jesuits. At the same time, Ignatius had become seriously ill after fourteen years of fasting, flagellation (whipping oneself as a form of public penance), and other self-inflicted sufferings. Doctors told him that his only hope for recovery was to return home and rest. His followers in Paris bought him a donkey, and on it he undertook the 555-mile journey back to Spain. Arriving at Azpeitia without mishap in 1535, he rejected an invitation from his family to stay with them. Instead he went to the local poorhouse, where he again began to preach. By the middle of the year Ignatius was attracting huge crowds that listened to him preach each day. Several people later claimed he had performed miraculous cures, and many recalled that he had the gift of settling arguments between husbands and wives or fathers and sons. Ignatius left Spain shortly afterwards, never to return.

Pope approves Society of Jesus

Ignatius was ordained a priest in 1537. He then requested that Pope Paul III (1468–1549) allow his group to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where he hoped they might remain as hospital workers. The pope was delighted by the group's zeal and funded their journey. They planned to take a ship from the port of Venice to Syria, but Turkish pirates (ship robbers) in the Mediterranean prevented any pilgrim ships from setting sail that year. This was the only year in the past half century that pilgrim ships did not leave Venice for Syria. The "Company of Jesus," as Ignatius and his followers now called themselves, took it as an omen (warning sign) that their future work did not lie in the Holy Land. Apart from taking short trips, Ignatius spent the rest of his life in Italy.

Rome, like much of Italy, was in need of both material and spiritual reform. The Protestant Reformation was a response to widespread and genuine abuses within the Catholic Church. Examples of such abuses are the buying and selling of Church offices, indulgences (the Roman Catholic Church practice of granting a partial pardon of sins in exchange for money), and relics, and the practicing of simony—the promotion of family members to high church positions by influential families. The popes were members of feuding families: the Sforzas, Borgias, Farneses, and others. Repeatedly since 1500, Italy had been swept by warring armies that brought famine and plague in their wake. In 1527, Rome itself had been sacked (robbed) and half burned down by a mutinous, or rebellious, army of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. As a result of Charles's attack on Rome, Pope Clement VII had to flee for his life.

Witnessing the disarray in Italy, Ignatius saw an opportunity to do his work closer to home. He invited his companions from around Italy to join him in Rome. The time had come, he told them, to establish a new Catholic order, the Society of Jesus, that differed from older orders, such as the Benedictines, Carthusians, Franciscans, and Dominicans. First, his group would be loyal to the pope. Second, they would not live a monastic life with regular hours of prayer and choral singing. Third, strict obedience to leaders of the order would be the foremost priority. (One of the oldest Jesuit tales is about a mortally ill novice on his deathbed, asking the novice-master for permission to die.) The organization's task was to act as "trumpeters of Christ." Members of the order were to be made strong and adaptable through prayer, self-surrender, and a very long training period. At first some influential Roman clergymen opposed Ignatius's plan, but the pope approved the establishment of the Society of Jesus as an order of the Catholic Church in 1540.

Jesuits lead Catholic Reformation

In 1541 Ignatius was named the first superior general of the Jesuits. The order eventually grew from the original six followers to more than a thousand. One of the original members, Francis Xavier, became a missionary to India, Indonesia, and Japan (see accompanying box). Several Jesuits acted as experts at the Council of Trent (a series of meetings held to decide upon church reforms). Pierre Favre (Peter Faber; 1506–1546), another of Ignatius's earliest companions, was the first Jesuit to go to Germany. Rather than conflict, he advocated reconciliation with Protestants. Some Jesuits became missionaries in the New World (the European term for North and South America) and others went to Poland. The Jesuits also moved into the field of education, founding colleges in Italy, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Germany, and India. These colleges became the basis of the Jesuit educational system that has continued to the present. By maintaining good relations with the popes, Ignatius was also able to improve conditions in Rome. For instance, he set up Saint Martha's, a refuge (safe place) for reforming prostitutes (women who engage in sexual intercourse for money). For most of the last fifteen years of his life he worked a twenty-hour day, resting only to recover from increasingly severe illnesses. He finally died after a day of hard work in 1556. Ignatius was declared a saint in 1622. By that time the Jesuits had become the most powerful force of the Catholic Reformation.

Franicis Xavier

Francis Xavier (1506–1552) was one of the six original followers of Ignatius of Loyola. He was born into a noble family at the castle of Xavier in the kingdom of Navarre (a region between France and Spain). Francis was a student at the University of Paris when he met Ignatius in the late 1520s. In 1534 Francis and the five other men took vows and formed the Society of Jesus under the leadership of Ignatius. The order was formally recognized by Pope Paul III in 1540.

When King João III of Portugal (1502–1557) issued a request for missionaries in Asia, Ignatius chose Francis to go to India. From 1542 until 1549 Francis ministered to Portuguese settlers and newly converted Indians in various parts of the country. He reportedly baptized more than ten thousand people in Travancore (a region in southwest India) alone. He also did mission work in Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Spice Islands. In 1549 he became the first Catholic missionary to Japan, where he stayed for two years. During that time he wrote a Japanese catechism (religious instruction in the form of questions and answers) in the Latin alphabet. In 1551 Francis became head of Jesuit missions in the region from the Cape of Good Hope (an extension of land at the tip of South Africa) to China and Japan. Hoping to bring Christianity to China, he set sail from Goa, India, in 1552. He accompanied the Portuguese ambassador's party. When they reached Malacca (Melaka) in Malaysia, however, the governor of that region would not let them continue on their journey. Francis then attempted to enter China secretly via the island of Chang-chuen (Saint John) near Macao (an island southeast of China). Arriving at Chang-chuen in late August, he became ill and died the following December.

During his work in Asia, Francis emphasized that it was essential for missionaries to learn the languages and customs of the people they hoped to convert. He also advocated training native people as clergymen. Francis was declared a saint in 1622, and in 1927 Pope Pius XI named him patron of all missions.

For More Information


The Autobiography of St. Ignatius Loyola. John C. Olin, editor, and Joseph F. O'Callaghan, translator. New York: Fordham University Press, 1993.

O'Malley, John W. The First Jesuits. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993.

Purcell, Mary. The First Jesuit, St. Ignatius Loyola (1491–1556). Chicago: Loyola University Press, 1981.

Web Sites

"Loyola, Saint Ignatius of." Britannica.com. [Online] Available http://www.britannica.com/eb/article?eu=50361&tocid=0&query=ignatius%20loyola, April 5, 2002.

"St. Ignatius Loyola." Catholic Encyclopedia. [Online] Available http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/07639c.htm, April 5, 2002.

"Saint Ignatius of Loyola." The Columbia World of Quotations. [Online] Available http://www.bartleby.com/66/17/47917.html, April 5, 2002.

The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. [Online] Available http://www.ccel.org/i/ignatius/exercises/exercises.html, April 5, 2002.