St Ignatius of Loyola

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.

Early life

Ignatius is believed to have taken birth in 1491, somewhere before October 23. Born in the municipality of Azpeitia, at the castle of Loyola (Spain), St. Ignatius of Loyola 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.

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, a cannonball struck Íñigo, wounding one of his legs and breaking the other. Returning to the castle, he underwent several surgical operations. 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.

Though Ignatius survived, his one leg had to be cut shorter than the other. During his recovery, he resorted to reading books. With no other option available, he was forced to read books on saints and the life of Christ. Ludolph of Saxony’s ‘De Vita Christi’ influenced his life greatly. The book is a commentary on the life of Jesus-Christ and on the Gospels borrowing extracts from the works of over sixty of the Fathers of the Church. 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 (also seen in the ‘Spiritual Exercises’ of Íñigo, in the later years).

St Ignatius of Loyola

St Ignatius of Loyola

The Conversion

After reading Ludolph’s book, Ignatius was inspired to lead a life of self-denying labor and imitate the heroic deeds of great monastic leaders, such as St. Francis of Assisi and others. He had set a new mission for himself – converting the non-Christians to Christianity. After complete recovery, he visited the Benedictine monastery, Santa Maria de Montserrat, in 1522, to give up his military vestments, right from his sword and knife to his fine clothing. Dressed in simple clothes and a staff at hand, Ignatius proceeded to a cave near the town of Manresa, Catalonia, to practice the most rigorous asceticism.

It was during his time in the cave that Ignatius started envisioning ideas that shaped the ‘Spiritual Exercises’. He also started having visions that played one of the most significant roles in his life. These visions, though never revealed, are said to be represent Ignatius’ encounter with God. Through them, he was able to picture God in all things, one of the central characteristics of Jesuit spirituality. For Ignatius, since God was everywhere, all times were times of prayer. He never imposed the fact that there should be a definite time or duration of prayer.

Around this time, the idea of forming ‘Society of Jesus’ shaped in his mind. However, there were differences between Ignatius and other founders in relation to the society, leading to a conflict between them. The main reason for the opposition to the formation of the ‘Society of Jesus’ was based on the fact that Ignatius proposed the act of chanting of the Divine Office in choir as unnecessary. A deviation from the customary practice, the proposition was not well-accepted by the people, for whom “every religious order had to be held to the recitation of the office in common.”

Journey Continued

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.

Back to School

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.

Move To Paris

In Paris, Ignatius started studying Latin grammar and literature, philosophy and theology. In the meantime, he became friends with Francis Xavier and Peter Faber, who were also his roommates. With a few other fellow students, whom Ignatius had inspired, the group decided to take vows of chastity and poverty and move to the Holy Land. However, the rivalry between the Christians and Muslims at Jerusalem made it almost impossible for them to move there. Ignatius, along with his fellow students, started working in the hospitals and teaching catechism. Though he was ordained as a priest, he did not say Mass deliberately, as he wanted to say his first Mass in Jerusalem.

Society of Jesus

See also: Reflections of St. Ignatius of Loyola

Ignatius, Peter Faber and James Lainez left for Rome, as they thought that the best deal would be to place themselves 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 favorable to him in Rome. In Rome, the Pope assigned the threesome with the task of teaching scripture, theology and preaching. On Christmas morning, Ignatius said his first Mass at St. Mary Major, in the Chapel of the Manger.

In 1539, during the month of Lent, Ignatius invited his former companions to Rome. After much discussion and prayers, the group came to unanimous conclusion, of forming a community. It was decided that they would appoint a superior general, who would hold office for life and to whom they would vow obedience. The group would adhere to the wishes of the Holy Father and travel wherever He should wish to send them for whatever duties. After receiving the approval from Pope Paul III, in 1540, the order was formed and came to be known as the Society of Jesus. Though reluctant himself, Ignatius became the superior, as he was unanimously elected by other members. 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.

Later Years

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.

Manresa, Chapel in the Cave of Saint Ignatius where Ignatius practiced asceticism and conceived his Spiritual Exercises

Manresa, Chapel in the Cave of Saint Ignatius where Ignatius practiced asceticism and conceived his Spiritual Exercises

Spiritual Exercises, Jesuit Constitution & Jesuit Schools

From 1522 to 1524, Ignatius wrote Spiritual Exercises, a simple 200-page set of meditations, prayers and various other mental exercises. In 1540, the Jesuit Constitution was adopted. Written by Ignatius, the doctrine stressed absolute self-abnegation and obedience to Pope and the superiors. The main motto of Jesuits became ‘Ad maiorem Dei gloriam’ i.e. for the greater glory of God. Ignatius had opened schools in Italy, Portugal, Netherlands, Spain, Germany and India, basically for the education of the new young Jesuit recruits.

In 1548, at the request of magistrates of Messina in Sicily, Ignatius opened a school at Messina, for lay as well as Jesuit students. In the very same year, his book ‘Spiritual Exercises’ was also printed. In the year 1550, the ‘Society of Jesus’ was confirmed by Pope Juluis III. Around this time, he offered to resign as the ‘Superior General, because of his diminishing influence. Starting in 1553, and continuing over the next two years, Ignatius dictated his life story to his secretary. This autobiography, an invaluable piece, was kept as an archival for almost 15 decades, after which it was published in Acta Sanctorum.


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.


On July 27, 1609, Ignatius was beatified by Pope Paul V. After 13 years, on March 12, 1622, he was canonized by Pope Gregory XV. His feast day is celebrated on July 31st every year. St Ignatius has been venerated as the Patron Saint of Catholic soldiers, the Ordinariate of Philippine Military, Basque country and various towns and cities in his native region. Basilica of St Ignatius of Loyola was built next to his house in Azpeitia, the Basque Country. Pope Benedict XVI, on April 22, 2006, announced that St Ignatius of Loyola institutions, are dedicated to St Ignatius. Jesuit schools, today, have its centers all around the globe.

St. Ignatius of Loyola

St Ignatius of Loyola Timeline:

1491 – Ignatius was born

1506-16 – Worked as a page at Arevalo, near Valldolid

1516-21 – Became Gentil hombre of the Viceroy of Navarre

1521 – Wounded during the Seige of Pamplona

1522 – Under took trip to Montserrat and Manresa

1523 – Made pilgrimage to Rome and Jerusalem

1524 – Began studies in Barcelona

1526 – Examined by the Inquisition in Alcala

1527 – Arrested at Salamanca

1528 – Left Spain, for University of Paris

1534 – Took first vows for companions in Montmartre

1535 – Left for Rome

1537 – Ordained as a priest

1539 – Gather his companions in Rome

1540 – Founded the Society of Jesus

1541 – Elected as the Superior General of ‘Society of Jesus’

1548 – ‘Spiritual Exercises’ approved by Pope Paul III

1550 – ‘Society of Jesus’ confirmed by Pope Juluis III

1551 – Offered to resign as the Superior General

1556 – Left for the Heavenly abode

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