When we read the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), perhaps to our surprise, he seems to belong more to the early days of the desert Fathers, or, perhaps, to the mediaeval ‘fools for Christ’, who gave up all to follow Him – begging for alms, sleeping outside, pilgrimaging from place to place – than to the many urbane, uber-educated and, sadly, not often orthodox Jesuits of the modern day – I will name no names, as the reader perhaps knows more of them than I. Yet, as the largest Order in the Church – the Franciscans would be bigger, but they have divided so often they are now a myriad of Orders – the Jesuits also have had and still have many who are conservative, well-read, on-fire-for-the-truth, with sharp minds honed by the fine steel of the thought of Saint Thomas – as one Jesuit put it recently.
In fact, until the present epoch – say, 1950 or so – that was what one expected to find in a Jesuit. The nature of the institution that Ignatius founded inculcates a paradoxical spirit of independence in its members, while also a deep obedience, taking a fourth vow of such to the Holy Father, which has been interpreted in different ways through the ages.
Of course, it is the joy, as well as the cross, of many a founder to see the institution into which they have poured their blood, sweat and tears, and upon which they have impressed their very personality, to grow beyond, or, at time, even against, them. But such are the ways of God, which are most definitely not the ways of men, and Who brings good out of all things in the end.
Ignatius’ life is well known: He started off as a highly-disciplined, self-conscious soldier, quite aware of his own virtues and exploits, mired in the spiritus mundi, in all of its pomp and circumstances. But all that was shattered, quite literally, when, in the midst of the battle of Pamplona, a cannonball fractured his leg on May 20th, 1521, at the biblical age of thirty, when Christ began his own public mission.
As Ignatius convalesced, the only books available to pass the time were lives of the saints, and he listlessly perused their biographies, marveling at the momentous decisions made by such figures as Abbot Anthony and Friar Francis, all the while reflecting on his own life, and life in the general sense: What was it all about? What was the purpose, the end, the point not only of all his military victories, but of this transitory existence itself? Ignatius had this strange sensation that the joy of adventure and military prowess and all the delights of this temporal life were passing and ephemeral, while the peace he felt when he read of the deeper and more spiritual battles of the saints did not fade away.
As the future saint put it (referring to himself in the third person, as was his wont):
While reading the life of Christ our Lord or the lives of the saints, he would reflect and reason with himself: What if I should do what Saint Francis or Saint Dominic did? In this way he let his mind dwell on many thoughts; they lasted a while until other things took their place. Then those vain and worldly images would come into his mind and remain a long time. This sequence of thoughts persisted with him for a long time.
But there was a difference. When Ignatius reflected on worldly thoughts, he felt intense pleasure; but when he gave them up out of weariness, he felt dry and depressed. Yet when he thought of living the rigorous sort of life he knew the saints had lived, he not only experienced pleasure when he actually thought about it, but even after he dismissed these thoughts, he still experienced great joy.
And as he came to conclude:
Then he understood his experience: thoughts of one kind left him sad, the others full of joy.
Thus was the beginning of the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius – a very profitable means of discernment of one’s path – as well as the spiritual journey of Ignatius. He at first lived as a pilgrim, begging and wandering to various holy sites, with a desire to go the Holy Land, which he eventually did (another story in itself, as are many episodes in his remarkable life). His conversion was completed, however, at Monstserrat. He tells the story that a Moor – a Spanish Muslim – insulted our Lady. Ignatius pondered whether or not to challenge him to a duel as reparation for the blasphemy – the ‘old man’ and the ‘soldier’ were not quite mortified in him – so dropped the reins and let his mule decide. If the mule followed the Moor, well, poor Moor. If the mule went on to the shrine – well, God was leading him on a higher path. And that is just what God did.
Ignatius still had a lot to learn, so, after time in retreat and labour, God led him to Paris, where he studied for the priesthood at the university of Paris to study with freshmen much younger than he, his charism in attracting like-minded men to form a solid group – Francis of Xavier, Peter Claver and others – which they named after the Saviour, ‘The Companions of Jesus’ (later, the ‘Society’), taking vows at the Church of Montmartre in Paris on the solemnity of the Assumption, August 15th, 1534, the beginning of the Order, which was formally approved by Pope Paul III in 1540.
After Ignatius’ and the rest of his companions’ ordination to the priesthood on June 24, 1537, the Society grew by leaps and bounds, their history a highly varied one, but dedicated primarily to teaching (at all levels), preaching, missionary work, research, pilgrimage sites, innumerable martyrdoms, and anything else the Church – the Holy Father – would have them do. They certainly helped shore up the Church during the tumultuous times of the Protestant Reformation (more or less composing the documents of the Council of Trent), fought the errors of the Enlightenment, and brought the Faith to nascent nations across the globe, including our own here in Canada, and the early Jesuit missionaries are a testament to what a missionary should be. They strive to follow Saint Paul’s exhortation to be ‘all things to all men’.
Yes, all too many Jesuits have strayed from their original charism, and I need not belabour that truism, but many also, like their founder, remain faithful, zealous and ready to work, suffer and even die for the Faith – a list of their names would be too numerous for this brief reflection.
Saint Ignatius spent the latter part of his life in Rome, guiding the Order, now grown to thousands of members across the planet, and died on July 31st, 1556, at the age of 65, meriting quite a fine retirement. He was canonized on March 22, 1622, by Pope Gregory XV.
A few years ago, I had a number of Jesuit scholastics – those studying for the priesthood – at my house for dinner, and was impressed by their fidelity, humour, love for the Church and desire to do good in the truth. We may have confidence that Ignatius is watching over the Order from heaven, so may the Society of Jesus, semper reformanda, become once again what they were meant to be, and strive in all things, in fidelity to the Church, ad maiorem Dei gloriam
Saint Ignatius, ora pro nobis!