Saint Ignatius of Loyola was the founder of the Society of Jesus; through his extraordinary life, his teachings, and his example he created an order which over the last five centuries has created innovators and thinkers, and spread faith and charity across the globe.
He was the youngest of thirteen children, born to a noble family in the Basque town of Loyola in 1491. Iñigo Lopez de Loyola, who later changed his name to Ignatius, was a page in service of one of his relatives, before joining the army at seventeen. For more than a decade he served in the military, and was knighted at twenty six.
In 1521, while defending the castle of Pamplona against an invading French force, he was wounded, struck in the leg by a cannonball. While recovering from this injury in his father’s castle, Loyola began reading religious works on the life of Jesus and on lives of saints, such as Francis of Assisi. This period of convalescence allowed him time to reflect, and he found within himself a desire to help those in need and to spread the word of God. This realisation had a profound effect on him; when he had recovered enough to travel he went to the Benedictine monastery of Santa Maria de Montserrat where he spent a night in vigil and hung his sword before an image of the Virgin Mary, a symbolic ending to his previous way of life.
After this Loyola lived for several months in the small town of Manresa, where he begged for his food and spent much of his time in a cave, in solitude and prayer. During this time he began writing down his thoughts and experiences with prayer; this would become his Spiritual Exercises, a work in which he details a series of prayers, meditations, and mental exercises.
After undertaking a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Loyola returned to Western Europe and studied theology, first in Barcelona, before finally moving to Paris where he obtained a master’s degree. It was while studying in Paris that he changed his name to Ignatius, and gathered together a collection of followers; like-minded students including Francis Xavier and Peter Faber. Together they took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, and founded the Society of Jesus, which was officially approved by Pope Paul III in 1540, with Loyola chosen as the first Superior General.
Influence of his previous life in the military is evident in the Society Loyola created; he and his followers swore absolute obedience to the pope and within the order abide by a rigid hierarchical structure. The Jesuits were founded with the ideals of serving those in need, wherever in the world their service was best required. One important area Loyola focused much time and resource in was the foundation of schools and of an educational system. Following the founding of the Society of Jesus, Saint Ignatius spent much of his time in Rome, where he governed the rapidly growing order and trained new Jesuits until his death in 1556.
By the time of his death it is estimated there were around 1000 Jesuits spread throughout Europe and further afield, and 35 schools had been founded by the Society. Saint Ignatius of Loyola was beatified in 1609 and canonised in 1622, and is the patron saint of spiritual retreats and of soldiers.
A note on Ignatian spirituality
In his book What Does It All Mean?, Richard Leonard SJ refers to Ignatius’ wisdom on helping people tune into their deepest desires. “Ignatius says the spiritual quest starts with our desires, asking, ‘What do I really want in my life?’ Our desires are pivotal to our search. We often look for all the right things in all the wrong places, and some pay for it for the rest of their lives. Unlike what many people think today, Ignatius would not rate ‘being happy’ as the most important desire to have and possess… When he emerged from the darkness of that cave [at Manresa], Ignatius knew that happiness would be the welcome by-product of living out the highest goals in life: to be the most loving, hopeful, and faithful person possible.”