A-Z of Saints: Ignatius of Loyola

Among the few well-remembered ‘I’ saints, one formidable character stands out: Inigo Lopez de Loyola, better known as Ignatius, and founder of the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits.

Ignatius was the youngest of 13 children, born to a noble family in the castle of Loyola in the Basque country. He was named Inigo after St Eneco, an 11th century Spanish hermit. Few details of his early life are recorded, but it seems that he became a cleric young, and served as a page in the household of his relative Juan Velazquex de Cuellar, treasurer of the kingdom of Castile in the time of Ferdinand and Isabella of Columbus voyage fame.

Ignatius later confessed to a dissipated life in these early years, affected of dress and fixated on personal glory. Perhaps this is what led him to join the army in 1517 (along with the death of Velasquez). In 1521, Inigo’s legs were both badly wounded by a cannonball that passed between them during the French siege of Pampeluna on 20 May. He was returned to Loyola by the French, to whom the Spanish forces had surrendered, where one leg was broken and reset, with part of the bone being sawn off – a gruesome era for surgery.

Having recovered from the fever that attended this ordeal, Inigo asked for fiction (the chivalric romances of the day) to aid his convalescence. When none was available, he was left with the lives of Christ and the saints to read. Competitive by nature, he imagined rivalling the saints for their feats of endurance, fasting or pilgrimage, but then had a vision of Mary and Jesus which made him realise how shallow his worldly view had been (to the concern of his worldly older brother). He now became resolved to emulate the saints’ self-denial and to emulate their better deeds, and decided to dedicate himself to converting non-Christians.

He followed this change of heart by visiting the monastery at Montserrat in 1522, where he gave away his rich clothes, and then lived in a cave in Catalonia for a few months to purify himself, where he had visions of the Virgin. Here he developed the first version of his series of meditations, the Spiritual Exercises. He then embarked on his planned pilgrimage to the Holy land, only to be rebuffed by the Franciscans there and sent home after a long and arduous voyage.

In 1528, he joined the University of Paris, after a brief and troubled period (many people did not accept his new holy way of life) at the University of Salamanca. In Paris he spent seven years refining his education and attempting to persuade others to practice his Spiritual Exercise. After six years there he had attracted half a dozen followers and together, on 15 August 1534 at Montmartre, they founded the Society of Jesus ‘to enter upon hospital and missionary work in Jerusalem, or to go without questioning wherever the pope might direct’.

Ignatius’ companions travelled to Venice on their way to the Holy Land, but war with the Turks prevented further progress. Ignatius, meanwhile, was compelled to return to Spain due to his ill health. The group were all ordained in Venice in 1537, with the approval of Pope Paul III. In 1540 the Pope approved their order in Rome, though limited it to 60 members – a limit removed three years later.

Ignatius himself was appointed the first Superior General of the Jesuit order (though this term was only used by their detractors), and sent his colleagues across Europe as missionaries to found schools and seminaries. His Spiritual Exercises became a cornerstone of their philosophy, and were published in 1548 (although led to a brief enquiry by the Inquisition).

In 1554 his Jesuit Constitutions affirmed the order’s commitment to self-denial and Papal authority, with the motto Ad maiorem dei gloriam, ‘for the greater glory of God’. In the 1550s Ignatius also wrote his autobiography, though it was not published for 150 years.

Ignatius spent his later years administering the society, and his attempted retirement in 1551 was not accepted. His original companions meanwhile travelled to India, Ireland, Germany, Scotland and Ethiopia, among others. He died in Rome after a bout of fever in 1556, by which time the Jesuits had already grown to 1000 members – today there are more than 30,000. He was canonised in 1622.

Ignatius is patron of the Basque country, of retreats, of soldiers and, naturally, of the Society of Jesus. His memorial day is 31 July, the date of his death.

Other ‘I’ saints

  • Saint Innocent of Alaska (1797-1879) was a Russian Orthodox priest and later archbishop of Moscow and all Russia, who was a significant linguist and greatly advanced studies of Alaskan languages – he was a major missionary to this often inaccessible area. He was made a saint in 1977 and is celebrated on both 6 October and 31 March.
  • Saint Isidore of Seville (560-636) is known as ‘the Schoolmaster’, as a major scholar of the Middle Ages – he wrote an encyclopedia, a dictionary and various histories, and introduced the works of Aristotle to Spain. He is now the patron of the internet and computer users, as well as schoolchildren and students. His memorial day is 4 April.