St. Ignatius of Loyola
St. Ignatius of Loyola founded the Society of Jesus—known as the Jesuits today—and transformed Christian spirituality with his life of prayer.
He was born in Spain to a family of nobility in 1491, the youngest of 13 children. As a boy he served as a page in the royal Spanish court, and grew up to become a soldier. In a battle with the French in 1521, a cannon ball broke his leg. It was badly set on the field, and required several other operations. In the end, his leg was permanently damaged—he walked with a pronounced limp for the rest of his life.
He spent months in a hospital bed recovering from this wound. He asked for books to read about knights and romances, but he only had access to two works—a collection of stories about saints, and a telling of the life of Christ. He read them reluctantly just to pass the time, but became enthralled by the heroism of holiness. He said to himself, “These people were of the same stuff as I am, why shouldn’t I do what they have done?”
He resolved to spend his like seeking holiness and went to live near a house of Dominicans, finding shelter in a simple hut and sometimes in a cave. He spent a year growing in prayer and discipline. During this time, he began to experience turbulence in his spiritual life—he saw visions and had great consolations, yet within a year was nearly driven to despair by fear. He began to keep a record of his spiritual life and his prayer, which led him to eventually compose his famous “Spiritual Exercises.”
Prayer and meditation have always been a part of the Christian way of life, but not until Ignatius had someone written a structured program for prayer. His Exercises describes an order for meditations and suggests guidelines and insights about the experience of prayer. Discernment is the ultimate aim of the Exercises—the clarification of what will most glorify God and lead to perfection.
Ignatius later decided to travel to Rome and the Holy Land to see if he could help the cause of Christianity there. He took on the clothes and lifestyle of a pilgrim and dedicated himself to God, but returned not knowing what he might do with his life.
At the age of 33, he decided to pursue an education as a way to help him learn better how he could serve others, but he had to start at the beginning. He sat in a classroom with young boys and began learning basic Latin grammar. He progressed in his studies, and traveled to several different schools, finally earning a masters degree at the age of 43 at the University of Paris.
He lived a humble life as a student, begging for food and living in a common hospice. He served the poor, and gathered children to teach them the faith. Several other students were attracted to his way of life, and a community was formed. They gave themselves to the service of God, and, if asked who they were, they decided to tell people that they were “in the company of Jesus.” The Society of Jesus was born, and the order came to place a priority on education as the arena for their work and ministry.
Ignatius spent the rest of his life organizing and leading this new society. He was known for his deep affection for people, and for his simplicity and humility. The first band of men who had gathered around him had been sent to the corners of the known world, and in his 15 years of leadership, the order grew to more than 1,000 members.
Ignatius was frequently ill during his life, and so no one paid special notice when he fell sick in July of his 65th year. His death on this date in 1556 surprised everyone—he had not even been anointed.
Today the Jesuits are the largest order of priests and brothers in the world. They are well-known for their ministry of education—the order has some 17,000 members, and leads more than 500 universities and colleges. They teach hundreds of thousands of students every year.
Ignatius adopted the IHS symbol, a Greek monogram for the name of Jesus Christ, as an emblem for the order. He is shown in this mural from the Basilica holding a book with this symbol and with the words, Ad maiorem Dei gloriam, which is Latin for “To the greater glory of God,” a phrase that he often used. St. Ignatius is also depicted in a stained glass window in the Dillon Hall chapel, and his relics rest in the reliquary chapel in the Basilica.
St. Ignatius, who was inspired by the lives of the saints to give his life for the glory of God, pray for us!