Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) was born in northern Spain of a noble Basque family in the castle called Loyola. The year after his birth Ferdinand and Isabella conquered Granada, the last Moorish stronghold in Spain, and sent Columbus in search of China. A decade later two of Loyola’s brothers fought with the Spanish armies that conquered Naples, another helped crush a revolt in Granada, and a fourth sailed for America.
Loyola’s youth was spent mainly as a page at two noble courts, and during his twenties he served as a courtier and heard about how an obscure German friar, Martin Luther, was questioning the basics of medieval Christianity.
Loyola was not trained as a professional soldier, but as a courtier who was expected to take up his sword in an emergency. This Loyola did when the French invaded northern Spain in 1521. Loyola was wounded trying to defend the city of Pamplona; impressed by his valor, his French captors sent him back to Loyola Castle to recover.
There he began reading the lives of Christ and the saints when no novels of chivalry could be found. Gradually he came to realize that daydreams about imitating the saints in serving God gave more inward relish than daydreams of knightly deeds. He determined to go as a pilgrim to Jerusalem and live there. He headed for the port of Barcelona, but on the way he paused for a few days in the small town of Manresa to write some spiritual notes. The stop dragged on for ten months as he meditated on Christ’s life. His prayer gradually deepened into mystical experiences.
The notes he took down at Manresa became the nucleus of his great book The Spiritual Exercises, which allows others to share his insights and experiences. Over the next twenty years Loyola added to these notes and directed various followers through the Exercises, a spiritual retreat of thirty days. The Spiritual Exercises break into four “weeks”: the first deals with the purpose of life, the second with Christ’s public life, the third with his passion and death, and the fourth with his resurrection.
The first printed edition of The Spiritual Exercises appeared at Rome in 1548. Since then this little book, devoid of literary grace but potent in spiritual teaching, has enjoyed more than 5,000 editions in dozens of languages.
Traveling through Barcelona, Rome, and Venice, Loyola reached Jerusalem in mid-1523, but Church authorities insisted he return to Europe. He then decided that if he were to help others find Christ, he needed an education. At age thirty-three, surrounded by adolescent boys, he spent two years at a grammar school in Barcelona so he could master enough Latin to enroll in a university. He then attended the Universities of Alcala and Salamanca, but in both places his efforts to bring others to Christ aroused suspicion from the Inquisition and other authorities.
His efforts also cut into his study time. Loyola determined to go the University of Paris, where he would get more systematic training. At Paris, Loyola, like students through the centuries, had no money, and so he begged for his living from wealthy merchants.
Two years after his arrival he was assigned new quarters, where his roommates were Blessed Peter Favre and Saint Francis Xavier. Gradually he won them over to his spiritual ideals; in time he attracted four others. The seven companions were international from the beginning: two Basques, three from Castile, one from Portugal and one from Savoy. In 1534 these seven men pronounced vows of poverty and chastity and a promise to work for souls in Palestine when they finished their studies. If they could not go to Palestine, they would put themselves at the Pope’s service.
Loyola returned to Spain to settle his affairs and recover his health, then moved on to Venice to await his companions (plus several new recruits) and sail for Palestine. But a war between Venice and the Muslim Turks in 1537 prevented their departure. They put themselves at Pope Paul III’s service, who used them as preachers and teachers.
The companions decided they would need more structure if they were to serve God effectively. They discussed ways of organizing their work and life together; Loyola drew up a document reflecting their discussions and presented it to Pope Paul III, who gave his oral approval to the new religious order in 1540. His companions elected Loyola its first superior general. For the rest of his life Loyola worked on the 1540 draft until he finished the long and elaborate Jesuit Constitutions, which were approved two years after his death.
The new order grew very rapidly, adding a thousand members before Loyola’s death. Unlike earlier orders, the Jesuits did not sing in choir but only read privately the Divine Office traditionally said by priests. This allowed them to devote more time to their ministries, which soon branched out. Francis Xavier became the great missionary to Asia.
Reluctantly, the Jesuits opened schools and colleges, but education gradually became their main work. Several Jesuits served as nuncios, or papal ambassadors. Others preached, did parish work, and gave the Spiritual Exercises. Two of Loyola’s first companions from Paris served as chaplains in the forces of Emperor Charles V, one in Germany, the other in Africa.
For his last fifteen years Loyola was the mystic and administrator; he alternated his time between prayer and paper work—almost 7000 of his letters from these years survive. But also he found time for several personal ministries. He organized noble women to rescue young girls from prostitution, setting up a half-way house to rehabilitate them. He even opened a convent for ex-prostitutes. He set up a home for poor abandoned girls and refinanced a similar home for boys.
At the insistence of his followers, he wrote an autobiography of his early life, but burned most of his private spiritual notes shortly before his death on July 31, 1556.
He was canonized in 1622.