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Who is Ignatius?

St. Ignatius Loyola

Community life in the Society of Jesus is based on the companionship of Ignatius of Loyola and the graduate students he befriended at the University of Paris. Seven students gathered in a chapel on Montmartre Hill in 1534 and vowed to continue their companionship after finishing their degrees. They would live in evangelical poverty and go on a mission to Jerusalem. They called themselves "amigos en el Senor" - friends in the Lord.

"It's always said that the Jesuits were founded by Ignatius of Loyola, but I like the thought that the Jesuits were founded by a committee, not by one man. And it's crucial because if the real mainspring of Jesuit spirituality is companionship, then our being together in a company is really right out of that reality, that we are together in a companionship."

-Father Joseph Tetlow, S.J. (from Shared Vision: Jesuit Spirit in Education)

Inigo de Loyola y Onaz, who later took the name Ignatius, was born in 1491 the youngest son of a nobleman of the mountainous Basque region of northern Spain. Trained in the courtly manner of the time of King Ferdinand, he dreamed of the glories of knighthood and wore his sword and breastplate with a proud arrogance.

Europe of the late 15th Century was a world of discovery and invention. European explorers sailed west to the Americas and south to Africa, and scholars uncovered the buried civilizations of Greece and Rome. The printing press fed a new hunger for knowledge among a growing middle class. It was the end of chivalry and the rise of a new humanism. It was a time of radical change, social upheaval, and war.

At Manresa Ignatius is inspired to write the Spiritual ExercisesIn an attempt in 1521 to defend the Spanish border fortress of Pamplona against the French artillery, Ignatius’ right leg was shattered by a cannon ball. His French captors, impressed by the Ignatius’ courage, carried him on a litter across Spain to his family home at Loyola where he began a long period of convalescence where he had little to distract him. All he could find were a few romantic novels and two religious books, "The Imitation of Christ", and "The Golden Legend of the Saints". Ignatius observed an interesting difference in his interior state as he read these various books. While reading the romantic tales of chivalry and courtly life, he was filled with excitement. But afterwards he found no lasting satisfaction or interest. On the other hand, when he read the religious books, not only did he find himself charged with energy while considering the exploits of the saints, but afterwards he realized that the feeling persisted for long periods. In this experience he discovered the basis for his later reflections on the Discernment of Spirits.

These books and the isolation of the recovery period brought about a conversion which led to the founding of the Jesuits. Ignatius began to pray. He fasted, did penance and works of charity, dedicated himself to God and, after some troubles with the Spanish Inquisition, decided to study for the priesthood. He recorded his spiritual experiences and shaped them in such a way that others could share in them. This collection of spiritual activities became known as the Spiritual Exercises.

As a student in Paris he drew a small band of friends to himself and directed them in extended prayer and meditation according to his Spiritual Exercises. After further studies, the first Jesuits were ordained to the Catholic priesthood in Venice and offered themselves in service to Pope Paul III. In 1540, Paul III approved the Institute of the Society of Jesus. At the time of Ignatius’ death in 1556, the Society of Jesus had grown to over 1000 members, operating in 20 different countries in the Old and New Worlds.