Ignatius of Loyola: Soldier, Saint, Scholar

Richard R. Super

You cannot miss him as you walk by. Placed practically at the center of the undergraduate campus, outside the Reinert Alumni Library, he stands seven feet tall, an imposing figure of molded bronze. He is the picture of strength, certitude, and resolve, with his cape billowing out behind him as if whipped by a stiff headwind—the “winds of change,” according to his sculptor. But he is fully upright against its buffeting, his gaze clearly forward, his left arm wrapped high around a weighty tome, his right arm out and down with its hand open, palm facing to the rear as he puts his past behind him. Clearly, this is a resolute man, one undaunted by the world swirling around him.

An eye-catching statue, for sure, but ask a hundred Creighton students passing by and forty will not be able to identify the figure. The other sixty will know that it is Ignatius of Loyola and most of these will recognize him as the founder of the Society of Jesus. Maybe that is because they have read the small plaque at the base that says so and further identifies him as “Soldier, Scholar, Saint.” Now ask those students to elaborate on that trio of titles and their voices will quickly trail off. It is in the three, however, that one finds the essence of the man, both in his extraordinary life and in the legacy that survives him.

Ignatius as Soldier
Born in 1491 into a noble, though not particularly wealthy, family of the Basque region of northern Spain, Iñigo, as he was christened, was first and foremost a sixteenth century Spaniard. Indeed, he would come to form and be formed by this tumultuous century in which European navigators introduced the previously separate worlds of Europe, Asia, and America to one another. These were likewise the years of the flowering Renaissance and the fracturing Reformation. For Spaniards, the times also marked the culmination of the Reconquista, the nearly eight-hundred-year Christian campaign to reconquer Iberia from the Islamic Empire, eight centuries in which the Spanish soul was born.

By the time Iñigo was born, the Spanish Reconquista, completed in 1492 by the united forces of King Ferdinand of Aragon and Queen Isabel of Castile, had long limited the career options for all but the eldest sons of Christian nobility. In this atmosphere, highly charged by religious fervor, the first-born son was sole heir to family lands, relegating segundones, or second sons, to the only other acceptably Christian choices: priest, professional, or soldier. For the high-spirited Iñigo, the youngest of seven sons (out of a reported eleven children in all), the choice was not long in doubt. By age sixteen, he was serving as squire in the household of Juan Velázquez de Cuellar, chief treasurer at Queen Isabel’s court. By day, he learned the military skills, acute sense of honor, exaggerated manners, and idealized attitude toward women of the chivalric knight. By night, attired in the dashing garb of his station, he caroused through the city streets, drinking, brawling, and often enjoying the charms of its real-life women.

In 1521, by then a member of the royal Spanish army, Iñigo found himself part of a force defending the besieged city of Pamplona, capital of the northern province of Navarre, against a much larger French army. Refusing to surrender the city and his honor without a fight, he rallied a group of his comrades-in-arms to hold out against superior numbers until a French cannonball, having no respect for Iñigo’s heroism or gallantry, shattered his right leg, thereby removing the leadership of the resistance and ending the battle. So impressed were the French by his courage that they assigned a detail to carry the wounded Spaniard back to his family at Loyola. That journey would launch the courtier-soldier on the road to sainthood.

Ignatius as Saint
Lying in bed at the family’s castle, Iñigo faced a long and arduous convalescence. The painful trip from Pamplona had been followed by two excruciating surgeries to repair his badly damaged leg. Both had involved rebreaking and setting the bones, once even sawing off a protrusion, all in a futile attempt to return the limb to its original shape so he might again wear the fashionably tight leggings of the nobleman. (In the end, his leg never healed properly and would cause him pain for the remainder of his life, through which he walked with a noticeable limp.) To help pass the long hours of tedious recuperation, Iñigo asked for something to read. What he wanted was one of the then-popular romances of chivalry—typically, a story of some valiant knight errant battling evil in the name of a noble lady whom he loved chastely from afar. What he was given instead was a book on the life of Christ and another on the lives of the saints.

In the course of reading those two books, done so amid dreams of returning to his former life at court, Iñigo experienced a profound spiritual transformation. Years later, as Ignatius of Loyola, he recorded these moments in his Autobiography, writing of himself in the third person:
When he was thinking of those things in the world he took much delight in them, but afterwards, when he was tired and put them aside, he found himself dry and dissatisfied. But when he thought of going to Jerusalem barefoot, and of eating nothing but plain vegetables and practicing all the other rigors that he saw in the saints, not only was he consoled when he had these thoughts, but even after putting them aside he remained satisfied and joyful.

This initial experience of “discernment of spirits,” which would become a hallmark of Ignatian spirituality, was repeated in the weeks to come, sometimes intensified all the more by mystical encounters with images of the Virgin Mary and the infant Jesus. In all, by the time he set out from Loyola in late February, 1522, Iñigo had been transformed into what he termed “a new soldier of Christ,” on fire with the love of God, Whom he was determined to serve with the same fervor, devotion, and honor that he had once served the Spanish king.

For the next sixteen years, Iñigo gained a reputation as “the Pilgrim.” Leaving Loyola, his first destination was the mountaintop Benedictine monastery of Montserrat, near Barcelona. There, kneeling in an all-night vigil before the shrine of the famous Black Virgin, he shed his knightly clothing and arms and assumed the coarse garment, the sandals, and the staff of the pilgrim. For much of the next year, he remained close by, near the small town of Manresa, spending his days in prayer, fasting, begging, and doing penance for his previous life. During these months, he experienced one of his most vivid mystical visions, penned the basics of what would become his renowned Spiritual Exercises, and—tormented by scruples—punished his body so severely that he would suffer stomach ailments for much of his life. In the spring of 1523, Iñigo attempted to pursue in earnest his original plan to devote his life to serving God in the Holy Land. But after only three weeks in Jerusalem, the established Franciscan missionaries there, probably not knowing what to make of this ragged, passionate pilgrim, sent him back to Europe. No less determined to devote himself to “helping souls,” he returned to Spain, where he sought to gain the education that he had previously disdained. He first attended classes in Barcelona, and then at the illustrious Spanish universities in Alcalá and Salamanca—all the while preaching in the streets and attracting his first followers. Consequently, however, the Pilgrim also caught the attention of the Spanish Inquisition, which more than once threw him into prison on unsubstantiated charges of preaching heresy. In 1528,convinced that he would not  be able to preach or teach in Spain, Iñigo made a momentous decision. Packing his books and meager possessions on a mule, he headed for the University of Paris.

The Latin Quarter of the University of Paris, where Ignatius—adopting the Latinized version of his name—would spend the next seven years, was in the sixteenth century at once both miserable and magnificent. It was, as one scholar described it, “a marketplace of learning where superstition and science rubbed shoulders . . . a glorious hubbub from which there somehow emerged whatever a denizen of this ingenious century needed to know in order to be a little more human.” Here was the center of the intellectual and artistic movement known as the Renaissance—the rebirth of scholarship and the arts, particularly of Greco-Roman focus on and appreciation for human nature and human agency in this life. For Ignatius, Renaissance-based humanism would serve not only as the foundation of his own intellectual development, but also of the religious order he was to found. Indeed, the idea that one could be in the world but not of it, that one could find God in all of His creation, and that all of this could serve the greater glory of God became a hallmark of the Ignatian mission.

That mission would find expression in the Society of Jesus. Throughout his years in Paris, Ignatius had gathered around him a small group of men, mostly fellow students, who were attracted by the passion of this scruffy graybeard and the power of his Spiritual Exercises. Including the relatively serene Peter Favre and the dashing, once-scornful Francis Xavier, both of whom had roomed with Ignatius at Paris, these companions numbered ten in 1540 when Ignatius approached Pope Paul III with a petition to be recognized as a religious order which would serve the Papacy wherever and however needed. The pope, it is said, saw the offer as “indeed the hand of God,” despite a general belief that there were too many such orders already. Moreover, this one promised to be highly unorthodox. Its members were dedicated not only to serve the poor, the sick, the illiterate but also to live with them as individuals and not together in a monastery. This order would even call itself the Society of Jesus, taking for itself the name of the Savior, rather than the name of its founder. At the same time, Paul III immediately saw the value of this ragged but highly educated band for a Catholic Church faced with the mounting challenge of the Protestant Reformation, a challenge which could no longer to be dismissed as “a squabble among monks.” In April of the following year, with a constitution in place and a reluctant Ignatius elected as its first superior general, the Society of Jesus became a reality.

Ignatius as Scholar
Even before the Society of Jesus was officially established, the outlines of its historic mission were being formed. However Ignatius might have perceived it originally, the Companions (only much later did the term “Jesuits” gain usage) would primarily become missionaries and educators. At the request of the Portuguese king, Francis Xavier—probably Ignatius’ closest friend among the first Companions—departed in 1540 for Lisbon and then the mercantile colonies of Portugal in India; the two would never see each other again. Before succumbing to illness at the very edge of the Celestial Empire of China, Xavier had introduced Christianity into India, Malaysia, and Japan, setting a pattern for a world-wide missionary enterprise, still active in its scope and its dedication today.

Education likewise soon became a hallmark of the Society. What began as a few small schools attached to existing universities and founded to educate the many young men seeking to join the order, quickly expanded into separate entities and enrolled the student sons of the wealthy who recognized the extraordinary quality of the education being offered. Already by 1548, the first Jesuit school primarily for secular students was established at Messina in Sicily; ten Companions, including the later-renowned Peter Canisius, comprised the staff. Within ten years, more than thirty such schools were offering classes. By the end of the century, a general plan of studies (the Ratio Studiorum) was promulgated as a standard curriculum and pedagogical approach for them all, the first organized system of education in the Western world.

From his small three-room quarters near the Vatican, Ignatius guided this booming endeavor, once modest, now massive. Often driven to his bed by gall stones or a stomach ulcer, he seldom limped far from these simple lodgings. The passion remained, but now it was strictly government by the pen. To his Companions in far-flung schools and missions, as well as to popes, kings, and cardinals, his carefully crafted letters went out to advise the hesitant, debate the contrary, and admonish the rebellious. Assisted by his longtime secretary, Juan de Polanco, a fellow Spaniard with the requisite loyalty and patience to serve his sometimes warm, sometimes irascible superior, Ignatius dictated or wrote thousands of missives. Meanwhile, he recorded his Autobiography and painstakingly composed the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, the latter an inspirational document establishing the structure by which the Society would be organized and operate, a “way of proceeding” for Jesuits then and now. Along with the Spiritual Exercises, the Autobiography and the Constitutions constitute an enduring and influential corpus of work. The once-undereducated Spanish courtier-soldier, who always struggled with his Latin and never became a polished speaker of Italian, had become a scholar.

 His strength waning, Ignatius spent the last years of his life in increasing seclusion. Several times, he seemed near death, only to recover. Finally, one night in late July, 1556, with none of his caregivers especially alarmed, he supposedly murmured, “My God, my God” and died. Of this quite extraordinary man, Polanco would record, “He departed this world in the most ordinary way.” Actually, he left it in much the way he had inhabited it—expressing the desire and purpose of the life that he had embraced so many years earlier on his bed of pain at Loyola. It is an expression that is woven more than one hundred thirty times into the Constitutions, a phrase by which the Society of Jesus still explains its mission to the world:  “Ad majorem Dei gloriam,” that is, “To the greater glory of God.”

 Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus, was canonized a saint of the Roman Catholic Church in 1622. His feast day on the liturgical calendar is July 31.

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