St. Ignatius of Loyola

Jesuit Founder St. Ignatius of Loyola – A True Mystic

By Rev. Fr. Eugene Lobo

On July 31, the Universal Church marks the feast day of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The Spanish saint is known for founding the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, as well as for creating the “Spiritual Exercises” often used today for retreats and individual discernment.

Rev. Fr. Eugene Lobo
Rev. Fr. Eugene Lobo

The sixteenth century was remarkable for its colourful parade of extraordinary personalities; personalities that were destined to influence, for good or evil, all succeeding generations. In that long, brilliant line of statesmen, scholars, reformers and revolutionaries, almost hidden from view, limping person, a short, bald-headed Spaniard. He had a small book tucked under his arm, and a spirituality buried deep in his heart. The man was Ignatius Loyola, the book was the Spiritual Exercises, and the spirituality was to be “contemplative in action” by “finding God in all things.”

Saint Ignatius of Loyola is best known as the founder and first Superior General of the ‘Society of Jesus’. Writer of the book ‘Spiritual Exercises’, Ignatius was a Spanish soldier in the early years of his life. However, a tragic incident changed the course of living for this brave man and ecclesiastic studies became the focus of his life. Ordained as a priest, St. Ignatius was a powerful man who fought the Protestant Reformation and promoted the Counter-Reformation.

When we look into the life of St Ignatius what strikes us the most is the genuineness of the man Ignatius. We know him as the man of prayer, man with a broad vision, who had a wide outlook of the world, man with a vision and a mission, a man of the church. A person dedicated to his task he could discover God’s will in all he did and said as a Jesuit and as a human person. Whatever he did was for the greater glory of God and the development of all. He lived the word Magis to the full. Magis means greater and he was never satisfied with ordinary things. He always wanted to reach out to the more or greater. But all this was within the church and being ready to obey the word of the Pope. Like him he wanted all his followers to find God in all things, to be contemplatives in action and to achieve Magis in their life.

Early Years

Ignatius is believed to have been born in 1491, somewhere before October 23 in the ancestral castle of the Loyolas in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa. He was baptized Íñigo, after St. Enecus. The thirteenth child of his parents, he was the youngest sibling. At the tender age of seven, Íñigo lost his mother. It was in 1506 that he adopted the last name ‘de Loyola’, in reference to the city where he was born. When Íñigo was sixteen, he was sent to serve Juan Velazquez, the treasurer of the kingdom of Castile. Two years later, he fought for Antonio Manrique de Lara, Duke of Nájera and Viceroy of Navarre. Somewhere around this time, he changed his name to Ignatius, a simple variant of his name.

The first twenty-five years of Ignatius’ life was given over entirely to the vanities of the world. He tells us that he took great delight in the use of military weapons, and had an almost insatiable craving for the praise and the glory of the world. Ignatius served the Duke by participating in many battles, none of which left him with an injury. His leadership qualities and diplomacy also proved to be very useful. By 1521, Íñigo had raised himself to the position of an officer, defending the fortress of the town of Pamplona. During the French attack, on May 20, 1521, a cannonball struck Íñigo, wounding one of his legs and breaking the other.

This event closed the first period of his life, during which he was, on his own admission, “a man given to the vanities of the world, whose chief delight consisted in martial exercises, with a great and vain desire to win renown”. Although his morals were far from stainless, Ignatius was in his early years a proud rather than sensual man. He stood just less than five feet two inches in height and had in his youth an abundance of hair of a reddish tint. He delighted in music, especially sacred hymns.

Spiritual Awakening

It is the second period of Ignatius’ life, in which he turned toward a saintly life that is the better known. After treatment at Pamplona, he was transported to Loyola in June 1521. Returning to the castle, he underwent several surgical operations. There his condition became so serious that for a time it was thought he would die. His situation turned from bad to worse and he was asked by doctors to prepare for death. It was on the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (29 June) that his condition started improving.

When out of danger, he chose to undergo painful surgery to correct blunders made when the bone was first set. The result was a convalescence of many weeks, during which he read a life of Christ and a book on the lives of the saints, the only reading matter the castle afforded. He also passed time in recalling tales of martial valour and in thinking of a great lady whom he admired. In the early stages of this enforced reading, his attention was centred on the saints.

The version of the lives of the saints he was reading contained prologues to the various lives by a Cistercian monk who conceived the service of God as a holy chivalry. This view of life profoundly moved and attracted Ignatius. After much reflection, he resolved to imitate the holy austerities of the saints in order to do penance for his sins. The book contains quotes of St Gregory the Great, St Basil, St Augustine and the Venerable Bede, asking the reader to place himself at the scene of the Gospel story. This is a method of prayer called Simple Contemplation. Though Ignatius survived, his one leg had to be cut shorter than the other.

Farewell to his family

In February 1522 Ignatius bade farewell to his family and went to Montserrat, a place of pilgrimage in north-eastern Spain. He spent three days in confessing the sins of his whole life, hung his sword and dagger near the statue of the Virgin Mary as symbols of his abandoned ambitions, and, clothed in sackcloth, spent the night of March 24 in prayer. The next day he went to Manresa, a town 30 miles from Barcelona, to pass the decisive months of his career, from March 25, 1522, to mid-February 1523. He lived as a beggar, ate and drank sparingly, scourged himself, and for a time neither combed nor trimmed his hair and did not cut his nails. Daily he attended mass and spent seven hours in prayer, often in a cave outside Manresa.

Despite indulging in meditation and prayer, Ignatius lacked true wisdom and holiness. He did not understand the importance of moderation and true spirituality. In the process of outdoing the penance of other saints, Ignatius forced himself to undergo extreme penance, such as fasting. This disrupted his entire body system and ruined his stomach completely. Due to this, Ignatius suffered many problems in the later years of his life.

Ignatius resumed his journey from Manresa, crossing Barcelona and finally reaching Rome. After the meeting with Pope Adrian VI, he was granted permission to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, the Holy Land. Though Ignatius had wanted to remain in the Holy Land, the dangerous situations that were existing at that point of time, and the threat of being excommunicated, forced him to leave the place.

Period of Study

“After the pilgrim had learned that it was God’s will that he should not stay in Jerusalem, he pondered in his heart what he should do and finally decided to study for a time in order to be able to help souls”. So Ignatius, who in his Autobiography refers to himself as the “pilgrim,” describes his decision to acquire as good an education as the circumstances permitted. He probably could have reached the priesthood in a few years. He chose to defer this goal for more than 12 years and to undergo the drudgery of the classroom at an age when most men have long since finished their training. Perhaps his military career had taught him the value of careful preparation. At any rate, he was convinced that a well-trained man would accomplish in a short time what one without training would never accomplish.

Unfamiliar with Latin language, Ignatius, at the age of 33, enrolled himself in a school in Barcelona, to study language and grammar. After about 2 years, he gained admission in the University of Alcala. However, his over-enthusiastic nature became a problem. In the University, he used to gather students and adults, explaining the Gospels and teaching them the right way to pray. This act was not appreciated by the Spanish Inquisition and he was sent to prison, for about 42 days. Such restrictions made life difficult for Ignatius and he moved to the University of Salamanca. Even there, the Dominicans sent him to jail. Though there was not any serious charge against Ignatius, he was strictly instructed to teach children only. Unhappy with this, Ignatius left for Paris.

He arrived in Paris on Feb. 2, 1528, and remained there as a student until 1535. He lived on alms, and in 1528 and 1529 he went to Flanders to beg from Spanish merchants. In 1530 he went to England for the same purpose. In Paris Ignatius soon had another group of disciples whose manner of living caused such a stir that he had to explain himself to the religious authorities. This episode finally convinced him that he must abstain from public religious endeavour until he reached the priesthood.

During his long stay in the French capital, Ignatius won the coveted M.A. at the Collège de Sainte-Barbe. By 1534 he had gathered six key companions, all of whom he met as fellow students at the University—Francis Xavier, Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laynez, and Nicholas Bobadilla, all Spanish; Peter Faber, a Frenchman; and Simão Rodrigues of Portugal who were to be cofounders with him of the Society of Jesus. On Aug. 15, 1534, he led the little band to nearby Montmartre, where they bound themselves by vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, though as yet without the express purpose of founding a religious order. The new band of brothers, led by Ignatius, professed vows of poverty, chastity and obedience as well a fourth vow of going wherever the Holy Father would send them for the salvation of souls. These vows were made on the Feast of the Assumption in the 1534.

When companions were sent on various missions by the pope, Ignatius remained in Rome, consolidating the new venture, but still finding time to found homes for orphans, catechumens and penitents. He founded the Roman College, intended to be the model of all other colleges of the Society.


Early in 1535, before the completion of his theological studies, Ignatius left Paris for reasons of health. He spent more than six months in Spain and then went to Bologna and Venice where he studied privately. On Jan. 8, 1537, his Parisian companions joined him in Venice. All were eager to make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, but war between Venice and the Turkish Empire rendered this impossible. Ignatius and most of his companions were ordained on June 24, 1537. There followed 18 months during which they acquired experience in the ministry while also devoting much time to prayer. During these months, although he did not as yet say mass, Ignatius had one of the decisive experiences of his life.

Ignatius, Peter Faber and James Lainez left for Rome, as they thought that the best deal would be to place them at the disposal of the Pope. During the journey, the trio stopped at a chapel at La Storta. It was here that Ignatius had his second mystical experience. God, the Father, told Ignatius that He would be favourable to him in Rome. In Rome, the Pope assigned the threesome with the task of teaching scripture, theology and preaching. 

He related to his companions that on a certain day, while in prayer, he seemed to see Christ with the cross on his shoulder and beside him the Eternal Father, who said, “I wish you to take this man for your servant,” and Jesus took him and said, “My will is that you should serve us.” On Christmas Day 1538 Ignatius said his first mass at the Church of St. Mary Major in Rome. This ends the third period of his life, that of his studies, which were far from a formality. Diego Laínez, a cofounder of the Society of Jesus and an intelligent observer, judged that despite handicaps Ignatius had as great diligence as any of his fellow students. He certainly became in the difficult field of ascetic and mystical theology one of the surest of Catholic guides.

Founding of the Jesuit Order

he final period of Ignatius Loyola’s life was spent in Rome and around Rome. In 1539, during the month of Lent, Ignatius invited his former companions to Rome. They decided to form a permanent union, adding a vow of obedience to a superior elected by themselves to the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the Roman pontiff that they had already taken. In 1540 Pope Paul III approved the plan of the new order. Loyola was the choice of his companions for the office of general.  On April 22, 1541, the Friday of Easter week, the friends pronounced their vows in the newly formed Order, at the Church of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls.

The Society of Jesus developed rapidly under his hand. When he died there were about 1,000 Jesuits divided into 12 administrative units, called provinces. Three of these were in Italy, a like number in Spain, two in Germany, one in France, one in Portugal, and two overseas in India and Brazil. Loyola was, in his last years, much occupied with Germany and India, to which he sent his famous followers Peter Canisius and Francis Xavier. He also dispatched missionaries to the Congo region and to Ethiopia. In 1546 Loyola secretly received into the society Francis Borgia, duke of Gandía and viceroy of Catalonia. When knowledge of this became public four years later it created a sensation. Borgia organized the Spanish provinces of the order and became third general.

Loyola Left His Mark on Rome

He founded the Roman College, embryo of the Gregorian University, and the Germanicum, a seminary for German candidates for the priesthood. He also established a home for fallen women and one for converted Jews.

Probably the most important work of his later years was the composition of the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. In them he decreed that his followers were to abandon some of the traditional forms of the religious life, such as chanting the divine office, physical punishments, and penitential garb, in favour of greater adaptability and mobility; they also renounced chapter government by the members of the order in favour of a more authoritative regime, and their vows were generally of such a nature that separation from the order was easier than had been usual in similar Catholic groups.

The Society of Jesus was to be above all an order of apostles “ready to live in any part of the world where there was hope of God’s greater glory and the good of souls.” Loyola insisted on long and thorough training of his followers. Convinced that women are better ruled by women than by men, after some hesitation he resolutely excluded a female branch of the order. The special vow of obedience to the pope was called by Loyola “the cause and principal foundation” of his society.

For the next 15 years, Ignatius did what he loved doing – teaching catechism to children, directing adults in the Spiritual Exercises, and working among the poor and in hospitals. The eight-member ‘Society of Jesus’ transformed into a huge organization with almost thousand members. It had colleges and houses all over Europe, even extending to countries like Brazil and Japan. Earlier, Ignatius wrote his letters himself, but the enormous growth of the organization made it impossible for him to communicate on his own. So, in 1547, he appointed a secretary, Fr. Polanco. For Ignatius, the ‘Society of Jesus’ was based on communication between members of the Jesuits.

Meanwhile, Fr. James Lainez, one of the Ignatius’ original companions, had become the provincial head in northern Italy. However, the former did several things that Ignatius was wary of. So, Ignatius decided to write a letter to Lainez, expressing his suspicion. The letter made a powerful impact on Lainez and he realized his mistake. Cilicio, a bishop, had ill feelings towards the Society. He would excommunicate anyone performing Spiritual Exercises and refused to have this new Order in his diocese. Though the Jesuits were anxious about what was to be done, Ignatius calmly said them that the best option was to wait.

While general of the order, Loyola was frequently sick. In January 1551 he became so ill that he begged his associates, though to no purpose, to accept his resignation as superior. Despite his condition he continued to direct the order until his death in July 1556. Since his days at Manresa, Loyola had practiced a form of prayer that was later published in The Spiritual Exercises and appears to have rivalled that of the greatest mystics.

The stomach problem, which started early in the life of Ignatius, gave him much trouble. During the summer of 1556, the pain worsened. Though he asked his secretary to get the papal blessing for him, the latter did not pay heed to the advice, thinking Ignatius would survive. However, on July 30th, 1556, around midnight, the stomach pain of Ignatius worsened. Sometime later, he left for the heaven abode, making the date of his death to be 31st July.

A Man of Determination

When he undertook to do something he led it to its completion. When he wanted to do something special he sacrificed his military career and became much a monk and remained in a cave. When he had to learn to be a priest he went to the grammar school to study with little children. He went to Jerusalem to fight the moors and planned to remain there but was sent back. He did his masters in theology and other necessary studies needed to be a priest. He held his men together to form a religious community and he built all institutions with deep planning and strength. In his determination he was aided by the experience of God.  The Spiritual Exercises were a sign of his God experience. He found him in the quietness of the cave of Manresa. He tells his followers that it is not enough to know about God but they have to know God.

He lived for the greater glory of God with Magis as his motto. It is not just great or greatest but the greater glory of God. He called his followers to find God in all things. The contemplation to obtain love leads the retreatant to discover God in every activity and encounter him in all things. He told all formed Jesuits that they are to find God in every situation.

A Man of Hard Work

He showed it in his studies and in his ministry. He was above the age of his companions in class and certainly not as intelligent. But he worked hard to keep abreast with others. He never left Rome after he was elected general and in spite of his ill health he worked till the end. Even on the day he died it is said he sent out 250 letters to different places.

He centred his spiritual life on the essential foundations of Christianity—the Trinity, Christ, the Eucharist. His spirituality is expressed in the Jesuit motto, “ad majorem Dei gloriam” —“for the greater glory of God.” In his concept, obedience was to be the prominent virtue, to assure the effectiveness and mobility of his men. All activity was to be guided by a true love of the Church and unconditional obedience to the Holy Father, for which reason all professed members took a fourth vow to go wherever the pope should send them for the salvation of souls.

Throughout most of his life, Ignatius suffered from a stomach ailment which kept him constantly sick and in pain. In 1556, this ailment became much worse. His physicians thought he would live through the rest of the summer of 1556, however, on June 30, Ignatius knew he would be taking a turn for the worse. He sent his secretary to the pope to receive the pope’s blessing before he died. Thinking he had more time, the secretary did not leave right away. He told Ignatius that he was busy with his usual work and that he would leave first thing the next morning. Ignatius preferred that he went right away but did not insist. That night, Ignatius died. He was beatified on July 27, 1609 by Pope Paul V and he was canonized by Gregory XV on March 12, 1622 (O’Neill, 2010).