St. Ignatius of Loyola

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 Early Life of Ignatius Loyola

Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola, known to history as St. Ignatius of Loyola was born in the Basque lands of northern Spain c. October 23, 1491, the year before the Alhambra, the last Moorish fortress in the Iberian peninsula surrendered to the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, and Christopher Columbus set sail on his momentous voyage.

Íñigo, the youngest of thirteen children, was the son of a knight and member of a family with a staunch sense of its Catholic identity. His education was chivalric and involved leaving home and entering into the service of King Ferdinand as a royal page at age fifteen. His late teens and twenties were years when the lust for fame and sensual pleasure largely dominated his life although never to the point of destroying his faith.

The spring of 1521 saw him defending the fortress of Pamplona, a member of the small band of Spaniards trying to hold off a large French army. He was the heart of Spanish resistance until a cannonball shattered his right leg and led to his capture. Admiring the brave knight, the enemy soldiers bore him on a litter to the family castle.

But Íñigo knew that a shattered leg would also shatter all his dreams of military glory and romantic adventures. The medics botched the effort to set the broken leg – the bone protruded “so much as to be something ugly”. He demanded that they break the leg again and re-set it. The agonizing operation took place without an anesthetic. At the end  one leg was still shorter than the other and Iñigo grimly faced the fact that he would limp for the rest of his life.

Up to this point in his life, the Basque nobleman’s entire existence had been dominated by aspirations of achievement in society through a position at the royal court, exploits on the battlefield, and relations with the female sex. Although he had met with some success in all of them, his ambitious nature desired more. The siege of Pamplona, which had promised to offer him fame and glory, ended by seemingly crushing any possibility of grandeur in the army, and therefore, in his case,in society also, Moreover his noticeable limp dashed his hopes of love-affairs. Thus, his vanity led to the desperate attempt to fix his broken leg regardless of the astounding degree of pain involved.


The raw matter on which God had to work to achieve a saint in his case appeared raw indeed. And yet, running through his shallowness of spirit, there was a sliver of pure idealism springing from the spirit of chivalry.  Chivalry had placed in the Basque’s mind an image of the ideal man, the heroic knight, who was noble of heart, pure of body, heroic of will. Within his imagination chivalry had left images of the historical and literary embodiments of the ideal: King Baudouin of Jerusalem, King Louis IX of France, Roland, and Sir Galahad.

All this was in the background of his mind and heart as he lay on the bed that day in his family castle at Loyola, convalescing from his battle wounds.The despondent patient, his earthly castles-in-the-air pulverized, nevertheless continued to dream of military exploits that would win him glory and a royal lady’s favor. He asked for chivalric romances to while away the time but none were available. Instead he was given Ludolph of Saxony’s  Life of Christ  and Jacopus de Voragine’s collection of the lives of saints, entitled The Golden Legend.

As he turned the pages of The Golden Legend, he came into contact with the biographies of men like Ignatius of Antioch, Francis and Dominic. Something stirred in his soul. With a shock he realized for the first time that these were real men and real heroes! Their exploits often surpassed in heroism and grandeur those of their military counterparts. Their risk-taking, pain, and endurance were not just in the heat of a single battle or war but stretched through an entire lifetime.  His astonishment grew, wonder flooded his soul, admiration filled his mind, and as he closed the volume and lay back on his pillow, a question began to formulate itself in his mind: “If these could do it, why not I?”

New dreams now filled his imagination. He would imitate Ignatius of Antioch, Francis, Dominic and the others. Nay, he would surpass them. These dreams renewed him, gave a new enthusiasm to his spirit, and opened up the view of a thousand different highways he could travel along to achieve heroic grandeur.  He would go into a country controlled by the infidels and allow them to do to him what the lions in the Colosseum had done to Ignatius of Antioch. He could enter a Carthusian monastery and spend his life doing extraordinary penance for the salvation of sinners. He could travel the roads like Francis preaching to souls. So many possibilities…

Inspired by the heroism of the saints, Íñigo underwent a religious conversion and resolved to dedicate his life to winning glory for God.

A New Life

As soon as the leg had healed enough to allow him to walk, he determined to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem so that he might “kiss the earth where our Lord had walked.”

On the way he gave away his aristocratic clothes to a poor man. Stopping at the mountain monastery of Montserrat, on the night of March 25, 1522 he prayed at this shrine of the Blessed Virgin Mary dedicating himself  to God’s service, leaving his sword and dagger at her feet. Then he decided to spend some time at the town of Manresa before embarking at Barcelona for the Holy Land. He ended up staying there for ten months, spending much time in a cave, praying for as long as seven hours a day. It was a tumultuous experience that brought him through dark valleys filled with remorse for his past sins, scruples, self-doubt, and depression even to the point of being tempted to suicide, before ascending to the heights of religious insight. He jotted down his experiences in a notebook that as the years went by he continually revised: the Spiritual Exercises.

In September 1523, he reached Jerusalem and hoped to stay there in order to convert the “infidels”  but was sent away by the Franciscans. On October 3 he set sail for Italy. In 1524, during Lent, realizing his need for education, he studied Latin at Barcelona – a thirty-three year old amid teenagers.

In 1528 he decided to study Arts and theology in Paris even though his knowledge of both French and Latin was minimal. The schedule was demanding. Students rose at 4:00 a.m. in order to attend classes at 5:00 a.m. followed by several hours of classes in the late afternoon. Gradually, with much effort, he progressed through the structured curriculum ‒ grammar, language, the arts, the sciences, philosophy and theology ‒  earning the master’s degree. The name on his diploma was no longer Iñigo  but “Ignatius”, a name he took in honor of the great St. Ignatius of Antioch, whom he so admired. The university refused his application to study for a doctorate on the grounds that he was too old and too physically weak (he suffered from stomach illness).

At the University of Paris, by divine providence, Ignatius gathered around him a circle of “Friends in the Lord,” as they called themselves, bonded by the Spiritual Exercises. This was the nucleus of the founding members of the future Society of Jesus: Francis Xavier, a Basque knight, Peter Faber, a youth from Savoy in southern France, James Lainez, Alphonsus Salmeron, Simon Rodriguez, and Nicholas Bobadilla. At Montmartre, on August 15, 1534, they took private vows of perpetual chastity, poverty (to be practised after they had completed their studies), dedication to the salvation of souls and the making of a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

During their attempt to reach the Holy Land, they received the tonsure and minor orders in Venice on June 10th, 1537 and the major orders on June 24th.  Due to a war between Venice and the Turks no ship could take them to Palestine so they went to Rome, decided to found a new religious order and presented their proposal to Pope Paul III who gave his initial approval on September 3, 1539. Ignatius spent the rest of his life until his death on July 31 1556 in Rome revising the Constitutions and directing the growth of the fledgling Society.