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The Life of St. Ignatius

The man who would eventually be known as St. Ignatius of Loyola was born Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola in the Basque region of Spain in 1491. He was the youngest of thirteen children in a family of minor nobility, and his mother died when he was a child; as a result, Ignatius was raised mostly by his elder brothers, and received the training and education typical of courtiers of the period. In his youth, Ignatius was -- by his own later description -- “a man given to the follies of the world; and what he enjoyed most was exercise with arms, having a great and foolish desire to win fame.” He set about pursuing that fame and fortune in the context of sixteenth-century Spanish nobility, engaging in gambling, the occasional sword fight or brawl, and dreaming up elaborate demonstrations of devotion to impress ladies of high standing.

Exterior and interior of the Loyola family castle as they appear today

When Ignatius was thirty years old, a French army besieged the nearby fortress of Pamplona. Among the Spanish soldiers defending Pamplona was Ignatius, who convinced his fellows to engage in battle despite the overwhelming odds against them. In the fray, Ignatius was struck by a French cannonball, shattering one leg and gravely wounding the other. The French soldiers, admiring Ignatius's courage, carried him back home to Loyola to heal.

Ignatius's convalescence was long and difficult. His broken leg was improperly set on the field and had to be re-broken and re-set, but it still healed poorly and shorter than the other; Ignatius walked with a limp for the rest of his life. His condition worsened so much that his doctors advised him to prepare for death. He finally began to recover, however; and while alone and confined to his chamber, he requested some reading for entertainment. He especially enjoyed tales of chivalry and daring, but none were to be found in the castle. Instead, he was provided with a book about the life of Christ and a collection of lives of the saints.

Reading these stories, he began to imagine himself imitating the holy deeds of saints like St. Francis of Assisi and St. Dominic. He found that these daydreams brought him peace and happiness, while imagining more worldly exploits of chivalry and honor left him feeling dissatisfied. This experience of reflecting on his desires and emotions formed the basis for what would eventually become the process of Ignatian discernment.

Nine months later, Ignatius was well enough to leave Loyola. Inspired by what he'd read and imagined, he was determined to dedicate his life to God and to achieve great deeds of holiness. At Montserrat, he laid his sword at the feet of the monastery's famed statue of the Madonna and Child, a symbolic action indicating a total surrender of his life and prior ambitions in order to pursue a new purpose. In Manresa, he spent hours each day in solitary prayer in a cave and on the banks of the Cardoner river. There he had a mystical experience that instilled in him a profound sense of wonder and recognition of the presence of God in all things.

L-R: The Black Madonna of Montserrat; Ignatius's cave in Manresa, now a chapel; Ignatius's vision on the banks of the Cardoner (Rubens)

Ignatius's travels took him far and wide, from Spain to the Holy Land and eventually to the University of Paris, where he studied for a theology degree. While in Paris, he gathered around himself a small group of like-minded men, "Friends in the Lord," who were companions in a life of prayer and service to God, dedicated to "helping souls." Eventually, these Friends in the Lord would become the earliest members of the Society of Jesus, and the order was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. Ignatius, despite his objections, was elected its first Superior General and served until his death.

In his later years, Ignatius was a prolific writer; he sent thousands of letters to Jesuits and friends all over the world from his small residence in Rome, expressing not only counsel and advice but deep affection and pastoral care. By the end of his life, there were one thousand members of the Society of Jesus and the order had founded 35 schools. Beset by chronic illness and probable malaria, Ignatius died peacefully in his chambers in Rome on July 31, 1556. His feast day is celebrated each year on the anniversary of his death.

L: Ignatius as Superior General (Zurbarán); R: The rooms of Ignatius where he spent the last years of his life

Today, the legacy of Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola reaches across five centuries and the entire globe. With around 16,000 priests, brothers, scholastics and novices worldwide, the Society of Jesus is the largest religious order of men in the Catholic Church. Hundreds of secondary and tertiary Jesuit schools span every continent except Antarctica. And countless women and men have encountered the gifts of the Spiritual Exercises and Ignatian spirituality as guideposts to finding God in all things.

A Prayer for the Feast of St. Ignatius

By Cameron Bellm

St. Ignatius, teach us not to fear

The holy cannonballs that burst into our lives,

Blessedly interrupting our plans and priorities.

St. Ignatius, lead us with you into the cave at Manresa,

Where we may suffer and yet emerge transformed.

St. Ignatius, let us sit beside you on the banks of the Cardoner River,

And be awash, as you were, in revelation.

St. Ignatius, lock us with you in a cell run by Inquisitors

And set alight in us your devotion to growth,

Even when met with distrust and disapproval.

St. Ignatius, send us out into the world like you did your first companions,

Making every moment a monastery

And finding God in all things.

Amen.