St. Ignatius of Loyola

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St. Ignatius of Loyola


Scholar and missionary


Military Background. The founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was born into a noble Basque family in northern Spain. Raised in the typical manner of his class, trained for war with little formal education, St. Ignatius of Loyola volunteered for service during a conflict against the French for control of Navarre. In 1521 he suffered a crushed leg from a cannon ball and lay in bed at his family castle for nearly a year while his leg was twice rebro-ken in hopes of straightening it, but he always walked with a limp.

Time to Reflect. He spent his time reading religious books; his favorite was Thomas a Kempis's Imitation of Christ. When he was sufficiently healed, he spent another year as a hermit meditating about his purpose in life. Loyola's experiences during that year laid the foundation for his major work on religious life, the Spiritual Exercises. He then went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, where his hopes to stay on and convert the Muslims were dashed when the city authorities refused to allow him to remain. When he returned to Spain in 1524, he decided to become a priest. He had to return to grammar school in Barcelona with boys less than half his age to become proficient in Latin. He entered the University of Acala, where his unusual lifestyle caught the attention of the Spanish Inquisition; but there were no consequences. In 1528 Loyola went to the University of Paris and received a master of arts degree five years later. He then began the study of theology but never finished a degree.

Papal Approval. While at Paris, Loyola gathered around him six young men, mostly Spaniards, whom he directed in his Spiritual Exercises. In 1534 they took a vow to go to Palestine as missionaries to the Muslims. On their way to the Middle East in 1537, they had to remain in Italy because of war in the Mediterranean. Loyola and his followers decided to organize a new religious order, which they called the Society of Jesus, and its members became known as Jesuits. They asked Pope Paul III to give it official recognition, but they ran into resistance from those who felt that the name was highly presumptuous and who objected to the new order's innovative rules. In particular, there was opposition to Loyola's proposal that the members not be required to assemble regularly during the day for common prayer as was true for all monks up to his day but be allowed to say those prayers by themselves. This innovation had the effect of allowing the Jesuits to be active in the world, for they did not have to return to their houses several times a day. The refusal to adopt a habit, unlike other religious orders, had a similar effect. Paul III, persuaded probably by Loyola's promise to place his group completely under the obedience to the pope, gave his approval to the Society of Jesus in September 1540.

Obedience and Hierarchy. Loyola was immediately elected superior general of the new order and took up permanent residence in Rome. In 1547 he produced the Society's Constitutions, which was the first significantly new rule for a religious order since the Rule of St. Benedict from the sixth century. Although the general body of the Society did not formally accept the Constitutions until 1558, two years after Loyola's death, they were followed from the Society's beginning. Authority within the Society was concentrated in the hands of the superior general, who was elected for life by all of the full members. Regarded as essential was obedience to the superior general and to the men to whom he delegated authority in the Jesuit provinces. The society's emphasis on obedience and its tightly hierarchical organization has been often described as based on the military, although Loyola's actual time in the army was brief.

Preaching. Loyola was determined to create an order of Catholic elite through rigorous rules for admitting new members. Prospective members were carefully screened for intelligence, good health, and social skills before being accepted for a lengthy probationary period of testing. New Jesuits were expected to receive a college education, often becoming masters of theology, and undergo Loyola's Spiritual Exercises. Only after nine years of proving that they were committed to accepting the Society's discipline and living up to its goals were they permitted to become full members by taking a fourth vow of obedience to the papacy along with the traditional three vows of a monk. While Loyola himself was not a good preacher, his new order attracted many excellent ones, and the earliest mark that the Society made was through preaching, especially in areas where there was a growing Protestant presence. Loyola did not intend for the Society to become “the cutting edge of the Counter-Reformation,” as it has been described, but the talented men it attracted could not help but be drawn into the religious controversies of the era. Nor did he expect that the Jesuits would become prominent as confessors to the Catholic rulers of Europe, which gave them great influence in politics but also created deep resentment against them.

Education. Loyola did intend from the beginning that the Jesuits would be involved in education. Jesuit colleges, promoting a balanced education in religion and humanism, acquired immediately a reputation for the quality of the education they provided mostly to the sons of the Catholic elite. Loyola never lost sight of his original goal of missionary work, but it was not to the Muslims but to the inhabitants of the lands the Europeans were then exploring that Jesuit missionaries were dispatched. The first, St. Francis Xavier, “the Apostle of the Indies,” was on his way to Asia even before the Pope had recognized the Society in 1540.

Last Years. As the Jesuits increased rapidly in number, reaching perhaps one thousand by 1556, Loyola had to deal with an enormous range of problems, and his surviving correspondence is the most extensive from any sixteenth-century figure. His last years were made difficult by a rebellion against his authority in the Portuguese province and the election in 1555 of volatile anti-Spanish Pope Paul IV, who had opposed approving the society. Loyola died while at prayer. The Catholic Church canonized him a saint in 1622.


Jean Delumeau, Catholicism Between Luther and Voltaire: A New View of the Counter Reformation (London: Burns Sc Gates; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1977).

William Meissner, Ignatius of Loyola: The Psychology of a Saint (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).

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

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St. Ignatius of Loyola

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