Who is Saint Ignatius of Loyola?

30 May, 2016

Iñigo de Recalde de Loyola (the name is actually a copyist error that was accepted by the Bollandists because it was so pervasively used) was born in Loyola Castle, Azpeitia, Guipuzcoa, Spain, around 1491. He was the youngest of twelve children.

He was a page at the court of the provincial governor before he began his career as a soldier in the army of the Duke of Nagara. At the siege of Pamplona in 1521, he was so seriously injured that he needed to convalesce for months. During this time he read a life of Jesus and other lives of the saints. “Since these men were as human as I am,” he noted, “I could be as saintly as they were.” After his recovery, instead of re-enlisting as a soldier, he exchanged his military dress for the clothing of a beggar, and at Montserrat in Barcelona visited the famous portrait of the Virgin in the Benedictine monastery; there he hung his sword before her.

Ignatius then retired to a place called Manresa, and in deep prayer and discipline wrote the first draft of his famous Spiritual Exercises, a manual for training the soul to grow nearer to God.

The saint then went on a pilgrimage to Rome and to Jerusalem, riding from Jaffa to the Holy City on a donkey. He returned to Europe, and for the next seven years – at Spanish universities and at Paris – devoted himself to study. In Paris he laid the foundation for the great Society of Jesus. Six students joined him in vowing poverty, chastity, ad obedience, in joining themselves altogether by means of the Spiritual Exercises and in determining once their studies were over to preach Christianity in Palestine.

War in the Middle East made this last plan impossible. Instead Ignatius and his followers offered their services to Pope Paul III. In 1540, the pope formally approved the Society of Jesus. Ignatius lived sixteen more years. During which he tirelessly watched over the development of the Jesuits which grew from a handful of men to over 1,000 throughout Europe, working as missionaries and in universities and other schools. He died on July 31, 1556, and was canonized in 1622; he was subsequently declared patron of Spiritual Exercises and retreats by Pope Pius XI.

St. Ignatius of Loyola was the neither the most brilliant, nor the most erudite, nor the holiest of men—in fact, one who knew him could wonder why he was ever canonized. He was, of course, zealous and devout, but so were many saints we know. But perhaps this is why he was singled out for the distinction of canonization: he was a man who recognized that ordinary gifts can be used in extraordinary ways by God once an individual allows the Master Artist to use His powers and creativity in him. He took a group of ordinary men, put them under the power of God, taught them how to listen to His voice, and formed a new sword for the Church of unequalled sharpness and strength. The daring projects of the order he founded were carefully considered, using the virtue of prudence or wisdom, before drawing upon an almost superhuman courage and endurance to implement them.

In art, Saint Ignatius is a bearded Jesuit, often with a book of the Jesuit Rule, kneeling before Christ. He may also be shown (1) with Christ bringing him a Cross; (2) with Christ as the Good Shepherd; (3) with Christ and Saint Peter before him (Feed My Lambs); (4) holding the Rule, with Saint Francis Xavier or other Jesuit saints (IHS -the Name of JESUS- on his breast); (5) in Mass vestments, his hand resting upon his Rule, light in the heavens; (6) with a dragon under his feet; (7) holding the Rule, IHS, and a Heart pierced by three nails.

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