St. Ignatius of Loyola, priest, Founder of the Jesuits

St. Ignatius of Loyola, St. Ignatius of Loyola,  (© Compagnia di Gesù)

Pride shattered

            Iñigo López de Loyola thirsted for fame and glory. The boy, born in 1491 into the lesser nobility in Spain’s Basque country, learned sword-fighting and all things military. As he grew, he danced, got into fights, toyed with women, and dreamed of imitating Spain’s knight-hero, El Cid. It seemed as if his dream was being realized for a time: the man Iñigo was esteemed as a courageous soldier.

            But in 1521, at Pamplona, a French cannonball shattered his leg. The leg was set poorly and was healing crooked. The soldier, concerned with his looks and prowess, begged the doctor to break it again. It was a long convalescence. Iñigo begged for chivalric romances to read to while away the time. There were no such books in his family’s castle, however, so he was brought books he had no desire to read: a life of Jesus and lives of the saints. Boredom got the better of him, however, and at last he opened these volumes. It was like opening the covers onto a new world.

            Iñigo began to imagine the life of Christ as he prayed, picturing the scenes. He began to think that people like St. Francis were braver than the bravest soldiers he knew. He still dreamed of knightly glory, but noticed that these dreams left him with a bitter aftertaste. Thoughts of the Lord or of the saints’ sacrifices, on the other hand, were hard but left him with an abiding peace. He was being taught, he realized later: it was his first introduction to the discernment of spirits.

A new kind of knight

            When he could walk, Iñigo wanted set out on pilgrimage to the Holy Land. But first he stopped at a monastery, where the well-dressed nobleman exchanged his clothes with a beggar. He brought his sword to the shrine of the Virgin of Montserrat and laid it before her, keeping vigil all night, as men do before they are knighted. For Iñigo the soldier had begun to understand: he would be a different kind of knight, serving a different Lady, a different Lord.

He lived in nearby Manresa for a year in great poverty, praying and doing penance. He had to come to terms with his past life and come to know the new King who had called him. While there, his “education” continued. He had moments of great consolation, when prayer was sweet, and moments of terrible desolation. At times, he was driven to near despair. Slowly, he began to see a pattern: the thoughts that remained and brought peace, even if they were hard, were from God. Those that glittered but were ephemeral, or that brought on later disconsolation, were not. His notes became the basis for a degree of insight into the spiritual life that has few parallels in the Church, and provided the foundation for his Spiritual Exercises.

There were gifts: one day, he had a kind of vision of the Trinity so beautiful that it left him in tears. The beauty of that vision remained with him all his life. It was part of his “curriculum” as he learned to see God in all things.


Iñigo, who began to go by the name of Ignatius, did make it to the Holy Land, but he soon returned to Europe. He started preaching. This was not looked upon kindly by the Inquisition, which interrogated him but at last set him free. He set off for Paris to study. At the university there, he found roommates: another Basque, Francis Xavier, and the Frenchman, Peter Faber. On August 15, 1534, Ignatius, his roommates, and four others took vows. If they could not go to the Holy Land, they promised to place themselves at the service of the Pope in an obedience that was simply an expression of love. Five years later, that small group of friends adopted the name, “the Society of Jesus.” The Jesuits were born.

Now a priest, Ignatius became the Jesuit’s first Father General, until his death on July 31, 1556. He sent his companions on mission, some to faraway lands. Wherever they went, they carried with them what Iñigo had learned at Manresa: man was created, not to seek glory, but to love, serve and praise. To give glory, or to live “for the greater glory of God.”