Ignatius of Loyola
Return to a troubled Europe
Iñigo’s great desire became to help others see the Lord working in the ordinary events of their own lives. His work was frequently looked upon with suspicion by the church authorities who saw heresy lurking behind every tree. For Europe of the time was in the throes of the Reformation.
Iñigo felt that the best way to be allowed to teach in the Church was by studying philosophy and theology and becoming a priest. So the pilgrim settled down to life as a student. In Barcelona, at the age of 33, he went back to school and joined classes of boys to learn Latin, the language of the universities.
Study and suspicion
In 1526 when he had mastered the basics of this ancient language he moved to Alcala University to study philosophy. He continued giving the Spiritual Exercises during this time of study. But Iñigo, now calling himself 'Ignatius', fell foul of the Spanish Inquisition and was imprisoned in 1527, for teaching religion before completion of the required training. Upon release from prison, Ignatius the student moved from Spain to the freer atmosphere of Paris and Montaigu College. But academic study alone could never satisfy this man. He gathered about him young men whom he fired with enthusiasm to serve the Lord and he gave the Spiritual Exercises while continuing his studies of philosophy at the University.
To finance his studies he would spend a little time each year in Flanders begging for alms, and in the summer of 1530 he went further afield to London. The generous Londoners gave him much more than he had collected previously - sufficient, in fact, to keep him for the whole year.
The companions take vows
Ignatius gathered around him a small band of six companions. On 15th August 1534, one of their number, Pierre Favre, said mass in a chapel on the slopes of Montmartre where they all took vows of poverty and chastity and, further, promised that upon completion of their studies, they would make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and agreed to meet in Venice to embark from there.
The agreed meeting took place, but the companions waited in vain for a pilgrim ship to the Holy Land since to the normal dangers of wind and weather was added that of war with the Turks. But what happened during the wait was more significant than any pilgrimage could have been. It was during this time that Ignatius and those of the companions who were not yet priests were ordained on 24th June 1537. Ignatius, however, waited until Christmas Day 1538 before celebrating his first mass, such was his devotion to the Eucharist and his low estimation of his own worthiness to celebrate it.
In July 1537 the companions left Venice for nearby Vicenza, still awaiting their passage. Here they began ministry, tending the sick and helping the poor, while they themselves lived in destitution. In order to attract an audience for their preaching they cavorted and threw their caps in the air to, and then in a hilarious mixture of languages these men from Spain and France preached to the Italians. During this period they were frequently cold, hungry, and ill, yet ecstatically happy. In bringing the love of Christ to the poor and sick, while themselves living the simplest of lifestyles, these men found the profoundest joy.
Early in 1538, the companions, whose number had now grown to nine, decided to go to Rome to put themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father. During the journey Ignatius had a memorable vision where God the Father 'placed him with his son' carrying His cross. Following Christ crucified, Ignatius continued to Rome.
The Society of Jesus
Ignatius and his companions considered long, hard and prayerfully whether to band together formally. Their decision was that they would be more effective together than apart and so, in 1540, with the blessing of Pope Paul III, the Society of Jesus was born.
They dedicated themselves to teaching, to preaching the word of God, to working with the poor and the sick in the slums of the cities of Europe, and to travelling to far-flung destinations, to preach Christ to people in lands new to European eyes. The new religious order had chosen to be flexible to meet the demands of the new age of Reform and Reformation. Gone was the monastic meeting together many times daily to sing God's praises as a community. Gone too was the requirement of wearing a distinctive habit; now each man worshipped God in the way he found best and was totally free to respond to the needs of those around him.
The Jesuit 'community' was for many maintained over vast distances by means of the pen. They were to be educated men who could debate with the reformers on their own terms; men who would not be seduced by worldly power and wealth; men who sought to convert whole nations to Christianity; willing to do anything for the greater glory of God.
Ignatius of Loyola was elected by his first companions as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, so he remained tied to an office desk in Rome writing letters to men who, like Francis Xavier, matched him in fame - letters which encouraged, which made requests, which chided; letters telling of everyday events, and of outstanding feats. The playboy, the soldier, the pilgrim had to learn to watch others doing the adventurous deeds while for sixteen years he supervised and organised the building up of the Society of Jesus and its movements across the world. Indeed he became one of the most prolific correspondents in Europe during the 16th century: over 7000 of his letters survive.
St Ignatius died on 31st July 1556 at the age of 65. He was beatified by Pope Paul V in 1609, canonized by Pope Gregory XV in 1622, and declared patron of all spiritual retreats by Pope Pius XI in 1922. Ignatius' feast day is celebrated on 31st July.