Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola was born in the Basque country of northern Spain near the Bay of Biscay in 1491, the youngest of 13 children. From a relatively young age, he served on the court of his patron Juan Velazquez de Cuellar and was, according to firsthand accounts, “careless about gambling, affairs with women, brawls, and the use of arms.” His participation in the doomed battle of Pamplona was largely due to an inflated ego, one with an insatiable attraction to vainglorious pursuits and dreams of worldly success. The cannonball that shattered his legs during the fighting not only ended such ambitions, but changed the course of world history.
During his convalescence from the injury, Iñigo passed the time by reading the only books to be found at Castle Loyola, histories of the saints and reflections on the life of Christ by medieval spiritual writers. He was deeply impressed by them. However, his ruminations on the lives of the virtuous men and women throughout Christian history often clashed with his earlier obsession with knightly esteem and romantic chivalry. Such psycho-spiritual ebbs and flows resonate with the simultaneity of faith and doubt which coexist within every human heart.
Gradually Iñigo came to realize that his imaginative and dueling reflections on the hopes for his future were not coequal. When he envisioned a life of worldly riches and glory, he often felt “dry” or “desolate” afterwards. In contrast, his hopes for a life committed to service of God, rigorous penance, and defense of Christianity in Jerusalem and beyond always left him consoled and content. Thus, his conversion had its roots in an affective, spiritual and mental self-examination, one of the hallmarks of Jesuit spirituality to this day.
Once recuperated, he made a pilgrimage to the shrine of the Black Virgin at Montserrat, leaving his sword and dagger before the statue as a votive offering. He then spent 11 months in the town of Manresa, tending to the sick and praying almost incessantly in a nearby cave. His notes and mystical experiences from this period led to the compilation of the Spiritual Exercises, the classic retreat director’s text which attempts to guide devout men and women through a similar self-evaluation to bolster spiritual decision-making and to strengthen one’s relationship with the divine.
After leaving Manresa, Iñigo traveled to Barcelona and on to Rome, Venice and Jerusalem. He spent time visiting the holy sites and deepening his faith. This period became crucial to his distinct style of prayer. Imagination, visualization and “application of the senses” are key components to Jesuit spirituality. In retracing Christ’s steps, Iñigo felt better able to help flesh out his own and others’ contemplation of the scenes of Jesus’ life.
Upon returning to Europe, he focused on educating himself to better evangelize others. He studied at Barcelona, Alcala, Salamanca and Paris. It was during his time at the University of Paris that he changed his name from the Basque Iñigo to the more recognizable Ignatius, taking as his patron the famed first century Antiochene bishop.
Collecting likeminded men around him, he eventually formed a group he called the Compañia de Jesús, translated into English as the Society of Jesus. The term “Jesuit” was originally coined as a disrespectful slur calling into question the group’s arrogance in assuming the name of the Lord, as opposed to that of their founder. However, the moniker stuck due to its brevity and convenience.
The group differed from other religious orders of the time. In addition to the traditional vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, the Jesuits took a special fourth vow, swearing a direct and unwavering allegiance to the pope and a willingness to go on any and all missions he would demand of individual Jesuits. They also did not recite the Divine Office as a group and did not demand any physical mortification, leaving such practices up to the individual’s discretion. While waiting for approval of the order from Pope Paul III, Ignatius made a typically spiritual and practical decision, insisting his followers storm heaven with their prayers while also flooding the desks of politically influential people with pleas for assistance. His trademark diligence and savoir-faire paid dividends; the pope approved the Society with the 1540 bull Regimini militantis Ecclesiae.
As the first Superior General, Ignatius left his permanent insignia on the Jesuit mission and identity. The “companions” were sent to all corners of the world to bring the light of the Gospel to every nation. They were taught to do all things Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam (my tattoo!), “for the greater glory of God” and to seek God in all things. Jesuits identified themselves neither as hermits, nor social workers, but rather as “contemplatives in action.” Some of the greatest minds and holiest men of the last 500 years have belonged to the Society of Jesus. They continue to have an impact on the world, for they are not only the largest Catholic religious order, but also engaged in every level of education, perform cutting edge scientific research (the director of the Vatican Observatory is a Jesuit), inestimably contribute to the arts, literature, and culture, and serve in apostolates of every conceivable size and discipline.
Despite some recent controversies (or perhaps even in a way through them), the followers of Ignatius continue their founder’s mission of being “men and women for others,” irrevocably committed to Jesus Christ’s Gospel and the eradication of evil and injustice (whether structural or individual) throughout the world.
In receiving degrees from three Jesuit universities, I have come to respect their scholarship and holiness, and feel blessed to call many members of the Society mentors, role models and friends. They truly practice and embody the cura personalis (“care for the entire person”) which characterizes their history and the life of their founder.
Michael M. Canaris of Collingswood is a Ph.D. candidate in systematic theology at Fordham University.