Christened as Inigo, this founder of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) was born into a Basque noble family in Northern Spain. Like other children of his class he was trained in the arts of war and groomed for a military career. In 1521 he was wounded in battle and spent over a year recovering from a crushed leg. During this recovery he had several religious experiences and he realized that he wanted to help other Christians. He entered into a year of isolation, during which he kept a spiritual notebook. This collection of his prayers and spiritual observations would later become the basis from which he wrote his Spiritual Exercises, a great classic of devotional literature.
Once his recovery was complete, Loyola went on pilgrimage to the Holy Land and realized that he needed a better education if he was going to realize his dream of helping his fellow Christians. He enrolled in the university at Barcelona to study Latin and later moved on to the universities of Alcalà and Salamanca before finally ending up as a student at the University of Paris, Europe's premier theological institution. In Paris, he attracted a group of disciples, and this group later formed the core of the Society of Jesus. Among Loyola's earliest followers in his student days were Francis Xavier (1506–1552), who would become a great missionary to the Far East, and Diego Laynez, who was a distinguished theologian of the Catholic Reformation. By 1540, others had joined them, and the group based itself in Rome. In that year the pope approved the order officially, and a year later the group elected Loyola as their leader, a position in which he served the Society of Jesus for the remainder of his life. His tenure oversaw the Jesuits' expansion from the handful of 1540 to more than a thousand members at the time of his death.
Despite the time he spent at universities in Spain and France, Loyola was never an intellectual. He possessed only a passing familiarity with the educational innovations of humanism and with the fine theological distinctions that were developing at the time as a result of the Council of Trent. His genius consisted in identifying those who could help him in his efforts and in recognizing the talents of those who surrounded him. From the start the Jesuits envisioned themselves as a missionary order that would fulfill Christ's charge to evangelize the world. As a result they stipulated in their first constitution that members were not required to meet daily for common prayers, nor were they required to dress in a common habit. These innovations granted them greater freedom and they attracted many highly educated, highly motivated men to the group. In 1548, the Society took on a new dimension when it founded its first secondary school at Messina in Italy. The Jesuits' educational role grew over the next several decades and established the order at the forefront of Catholic educational trends over the coming centuries.
The core of a Jesuit's religious training consisted in the Spiritual Exercises, which was a devotional guidebook to a month-long retreat that all Jesuits undertook once in their life. Ignatius Loyola first published the book in 1548. The prayers and meditations that are outlined in this short book provided a common core of experience for all Jesuits and helped to forge an identity within the group. Loyola's Spiritual Exercises also spread outside the order to lay people and members of other religious orders. The central insight of their teachings lay in their notion that a time of isolation and intensive self-examination might provide a person with the defenses needed to avoid sin. Throughout the work Loyola's early experiences in the military shaped the language of the Exercises in describing the Christian life as a battle against sin. For each of the thirty days of these devotions, the Jesuit was expected to keep vivid images of Christ's suffering and passion before his eyes. In imagining the lashes that raised Christ's blood or the thorns that pierced his brow, the practitioner was to acquire a lifelong distaste for wrongdoing. Besides participation in the Spiritual Exercises, the Jesuits also required that their recruits endure one of the longest probationary periods of any order in the Catholic Church. They desired to weed out those who were unsuitable for missionary or educational efforts, and their constitution stressed absolute obedience to the authority of the church and to superiors in the order. For this reason they have long been likened to a military force within the Catholic Reformation.
Ignatius Loyola also identified missions as an important dimension to be pursued by the Society, and the missionary expansion of the Society of Jesus into Asia and the New World began during his tenure. In 1542 he sent Francis Xavier to India where he worked to establish a strong Jesuit presence. Xavier moved on to Japan in 1549, planting the seeds of Christianity on that island. One of the innovations of the Jesuits allowed those they converted in other countries to enter into their society, and Japanese Jesuits soon found their way into the life of the order. In the same year Xavier arrived in Japan, Jesuit missionaries also went to Brazil. By the time of his death, not all the mission fields in which the Jesuits would work had been opened up, but Loyola had led the order into the missionary work he prized.
The final years of Ignatius Loyola saw an increasing number of problems. Portuguese Jesuits rebelled against his authority, and the election of Pope Paul IV, an enemy of the order, complicated Loyola's administration. Despite these problems the Society continued to prosper and expand, and Loyola even received recognition in his life as an exemplary Christian. In death his reputation only continued to grow, and he was named an official saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1622.
J. Delumeau, Catholicism between Luther and Voltaire (London, England: Westminster Press, 1977).
J. O'Malley, The First Jesuits (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1993).