The following story appeared in the June 25 Idaho Catholic Register.
by Emily Woodham
Inigo Lopez de Loyola, known as Ignatius, was born in his family’s castle, in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa, Spain, on Oct. 23, 1491.
His mother died when he was a child, and his father died when he was 16. The youngest of 13 children, he was tutored to become a priest. After his father’s death, he was sent as a page to a nobleman named Velasquez. He was treated as one of Velasquez’s own 12 children. However, thoughts that Ignatius would become a priest were cast aside. He and Velasquez’s sons enjoyed pursuing young women and the worldly life of court.
While visiting one of his older brothers, who was a priest, Ignatius was a participant in a brawl that included attacks on the local parish clergy. The judge called Ignatius “bold and defiant, cunning, violent and vindictive.” But some say that his abilities to be persuasive and charming resulted in the case being dismissed.
Although trained in arms, Ignatius was not a professional soldier. He loved tales of chivalrous knights, and his honor was extremely important to him. His experience on the battlefield was limited to his time when he served the Duke of Najera, from 1518 to 1521. The king of France decided to invade Spain by way of Pamplona, a crucial part of the Duke of Najera’s territory. Although the odds were against the Spaniards at Pamplona, Ignatius refused to surrender and convinced the officers to remain with him to fight. The fighting lasted six hours, during which a shot shattered Ignatius’ right leg.
The French won. Following the codes of chivalry, the French dressed Ignatius’ wounds and sent him back to his family at Loyola. A second operation was needed to reset his leg. During recovery, he almost died. On June 28, 1521, Ignatius had a vision of St. Peter helping him. So he prayed to St. Peter, promising to devote his life to him as a knight. Within a few hours, he was better.
However, his leg did not heal perfectly from the second surgery. A bone jutted out, upsetting Ignatius. He insisted on another surgery so that he could properly wear his boots. Bored while recovering from surgery, he began reading a Spanish translation of “The Golden Legend,” a book of saint stories from the 13th century. He would sometimes pass his time in bed reflecting on the lives of the saints. At other times, he mused on winning over a beautiful noblewoman. With nothing else to do, he had time to dwell on these thoughts and their effect. He realized that when he thought about being like the saints, he was happy. When he thought about pursuing vainglory and romance, he was unhappy.
Then one night he had a vision of the Blessed Mother with the Child Jesus. He was filled with lasting joy over the vision and a complete hatred of his sinful life. From then on, he was changed.
Just as his conversion to being dedicated to Christ took time, his journey toward maturity in Christ was not immediate. He went to the monastery at Montserrat, Spain. He talked to a confessor for three days, confessing all of his past sins. Then on the Solemnity of the Annunciation, he renounced his worldly life. He went to the town of Manresa, near the monastery, and lived a life of poverty, chastity and prayer.
It was during his time at Manresa that he began to reflect on his spiritual journey. However, the overflowing joy he had from his conversion turned to worry and scruples (obsessive concern over sin and failure). He struggled for months with self-hatred, even suicidal thoughts. He fasted and constantly went to confession, confessing old sins over again. He prayed for hours each day, but he could not rid himself of the horrible dread he felt. Finally, the misery left him. He vowed to never fall into the temptation of being scrupulous again.
Ignatius slowly gathered followers of men and women, praying with them and helping them in their spiritual lives. Some religious leaders, jealous of his simplicity and success, reported him to the Inquisition, an office of the Vatican meant to rid the Church of heresy. He was found innocent.
After a visit with friends to the Holy Land, he returned to Spain and continued to make friends and gather followers. Over the years, he would be reported to the Inquisition several times, and each time he was exonerated. Although he bore the humiliation from the accusations with grace, the suffering of being unjustly accused weighed heavily on him.
He entered the University of Paris when he was 37, much older than most of the students. He was ordained a priest when he was 45. He and his companions hoped to go back to the Holy Land, but the pope insisted they stay and realize the value of serving the Church through Rome.
Ignatius and his friends formed the Society of Jesus, also known as the Jesuits, which would influence the world for Christ through its missions and schools. The many nobles and well-educated men who joined the order were bound to vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. They engaged in serving the poor, the sick and the vulnerable of society, especially poor women and orphaned children.
The Jesuits were champions of the Counter Reformation, the Church’s rebuttal to the Protestant Reformation. Because of that, the Jesuits were often singled out by Protestant countries for more harsh persecutions than other Catholics.
Ignatius was known for being compassionate with the fallen, but with his closest friends, he could be harsh and demanding. The more mature someone was in his or her spirituality, the more Ignatius expected. Despite his sometimes stern demeanor, he was also known for telling jokes and having a good sense of humor. His book, “The Spiritual Exercises,” which he refined for years, continues to be a cornerstone for spiritual direction and discernment.
Ignatius often struggled with illness and died on July 31, 1556. An autopsy revealed that he had gall stones in his portal vein. Doctors surmised he had been in excruciating pain for years. He was canonized in 1622. Many of his friends are also canonized.
St. Ignatius is the patron saint of many cities and universities, but is especially known as the patron saint for the Society of Jesus. His feast day is July 31.
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