The founder of the Jesuits was on his way to military fame and fortune when a cannon ball shattered his leg. Because there were no books of romance on hand during his convalescence, Ignatius whiled away the time reading a life of Christ and lives of the saints. His conscience was deeply touched, and a long, painful turning to Christ began. Having seen the Mother of God in a vision, he made a pilgrimage to her shrine at Montserrat (near Barcelona). He remained for almost a year at nearby Manresa, sometimes with the Dominicans, sometimes in a pauper’s hospice, often in a cave in the hills praying. After a period of great peace of mind, he went through a harrowing trial of scruples. There was no comfort in anything—prayer, fasting, sacraments, penance. At length, his peace of mind returned.
It was during this year of conversion that Ignatius began to write down material that later became his greatest work, the Spiritual Exercises. He first began it at Manresa in 1522, and it was finally published in Rome in 1548, with papal approval. In essence, it is an application of Gospel precepts to the individual soul, written in such a way as to arouse conviction of sin, of justice, and judgment. The value of systematic retirement and religious meditation, which the book sets forth, had always been known, but the order and method of meditation prescribed by Ignatius were new, and, though many of the maxims he repeats had been laid down before by the Fathers, they were here singularly well arranged, explained, and applied. To perform the Exercises as directed requires a month. The first week is given to consideration of sin and its consequences; the second, to our Lord’s earthly life; the third, to His Passion, and the fourth, to His Resurrection. The object is to induce in the practitioner such a state of inner calm that he can thereafter make a choice “either as to some particular crisis or as to the general course of his life,” unbiased “by any excessive like or dislike; and guided solely by the consideration of what will best forward the one end for which he was created—the glory of God and the perfection of his own soul.”
He finally achieved his purpose of going to the Holy Land, but could not remain, as he planned, because of the hostility of the Turks. He spent the next 11 years in various European universities, studying with great difficulty, beginning almost as a child. Like many others, his orthodoxy was questioned; Ignatius was twice jailed for brief periods.
In 1534, at the age of 43, he and six others (one of whom was St. Francis Xavier) vowed to live in poverty and chastity and to go to the Holy Land. If this became impossible, they vowed to offer themselves to the apostolic service of the pope. The latter became the only choice. Four years later Ignatius made the association permanent. The new Society of Jesus was approved by Paul III, and Ignatius was elected to serve as the first general.
When companions were sent on various missions by the pope, Ignatius remained in Rome, consolidating the new venture, but still finding time to found homes for orphans, catechumens and penitents. He founded the Roman College, intended to be the model of all other colleges of the Society.
Ignatius was a true mystic. He centered his spiritual life on the essential foundations of Christianity—the Trinity, Christ, the Eucharist. His spirituality is expressed in the Jesuit motto, ad majorem Dei gloriam—“for the greater glory of God.” In his concept, obedience was to be the prominent virtue, to assure the effectiveness and mobility of his men. All activity was to be guided by a true love of the Church and unconditional obedience to the Holy Father, for which reason all professed members took a fourth vow to go wherever the pope should send them for the salvation of souls.
Ignatius directed the Society of Jesus for fifteen years. At the time of his death there were 13,000 members, dispersed in thirty-two provinces all over Europe, and soon they were to be established in the New World. The Society of Jesus served as the chief instrument of the Catholic Reformation. Its pursuits as a trading firm, followed for some years, reaped high returns but were disapproved by the papacy. Exclusive of the period of its suppression by papal brief, 1776-1814, and its suppression by various countries at different periods, largely by reason of these commercial activities, it has flourished in virtually all parts of the globe; its educational institutions are famous, and many individual Jesuits have achieved distinction as teachers and writers. Towards the end of his life Ignatius became so worn and feeble that he was assisted by three fathers. He died, after a brief illness, on July 31, 1556. Father Laynez succeeded him; he and Father Francis Borgia gave the Society its direction for years to come. In 1622 Ignatius was canonized by Pope Gregory XV, and in our own time Pope Pius XI declared him the patron of all spiritual exercises. His emblems are a chasuble, communion, a book, and the apparition of the Lord.
O Lord, our God, you poured forth into your Church a spirit of renewal in prayer and life through the work of Saint Ignatius and the Society of Jesus. Grant us the spirit of discernment so that we may hear the still, small voice of your Word speaking in the depths of our heart, and, hearing may obey. We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ your Son, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God for ever and ever. Amen