In the Company of Ignatius

Therefore every scribe instructed in the Kingdom of Heaven, is like to a man that is a householder, who bringeth forth out of his treasure new things and old. ” (MT 13:52)

Throughout the long history of our Catholic religion, holy men and women have dedicated their lives to God. While it is (or should be) the aim of every serious Catholic to live his life in the service of God, no matter what his calling, the finger of the Creator has tapped some of them into His ranks to labor only for Him. The Fathers of the first century mention virgins who led lives of Christian perfection by renouncing the world and its attractions for the love of Christ. Indeed, we read of the early martyrs who died for the sake of Jesus rather than repudiate their vow of virginity. Somewhat later, holy men began to imitate the women. St. Cyprian, Origen, St. Clement of Rome, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Polycarp, and others lived lives of poverty and chastity. They came to be called “confessors” by the Latin Church.

By the third century, solitary men and women began to lead austere lives physically apart from the rest of the world. Often the oldest, wisest, or holiest among a group — St. Pachomius was one of them — became the leader and gathered a group of like-minded followers under one roof. Thus began the cenobitic life. Community life was not only safer, but also offered the opportunity to practice the virtue of charity to one’s neighbor. The following century saw the Rule of St. Augustine written in the form of a letter from the great Doctor to a group of monastic nuns. This rule is today kept by many religious orders.

Due credit must be given to the fourth-century Doctor of the Church, St. Basil the Great, known to history as the Father of Eastern Monasticism and to St. Benedict of Nursia of the early sixth century, the Father of Western Monasticism. While much can be said of these two great saints, suffice it to say for our purposes here that the reason for their monastic rules was the achievement of personal holiness and perfection apart from the temptations of the world.

As the centuries passed, more and more groups of religious began to be formed, either in answer to some specific need of that particular time in the Church or to fulfill the demand to practice the evangelical counsels of poverty, chastity and obedience. By the sixth century, we find monks in the East and the West living by various particular rules; by the seventh there appeared the canons regular*, priests and other clerics who were attached to a church and living in common; the thirteenth century witnessed the rise of the great mendicant orders — the Franciscans, the Dominicans, the Augustinians, the Servites, and the transplantation of the Carmelites from Asia to Europe. In addition to these better known groups, there were the military orders, such as the Knights of Malta and the Knights Templars, who actually manned forts and outposts in hostile territory where they fought the infidel; hospitaller orders who cared for the sick; and those orders that were founded for the ransom of Christian captives in pagan or Moslem lands, such as the Trinitarians and Mercederians.

A New World

The subject of our essay, Iñigo de Loyola, or, as the world knows him, St. Ignatius of Loyola, was born into a new world. In the year after his birth, 1492, an entire New World was found. Millions of souls there had not heard of Jesus Christ and the means to eternal salvation. His native Spain was a prime mover in the spreading of the Faith to the other half of the globe. Every informed Spaniard of the day was caught up in that stunning fact. By the time Iñigo had grown into adulthood, other global forces had come into play as well. By the early years of the sixteenth century, the high Renaissance (bringing a humanistic view of man and his earthly capabilities), the growth of capitalism, the onslaught of the Protestant Revolt, and the rise of scientific knowledge, in addition to the discovery of the Americas, all brought the Church into violent conflict with the currents of the day. Gone — or rapidly going — was the medieval attitude that man’s every thought and action should be directed toward his heavenly reward. The challenge to the Catholic Church, then, was this: How could the Church adapt itself to the new era and yet not forsake the essentials of its beliefs and its morality?

In once totally Roman Catholic Europe, three momentous events occurred to change the complexion of the Iberian Peninsula and, in fact, of all Christendom. The first occurred in 1453, before the birth of our subject, but it caused great repercussions throughout Western Europe. That event was the fall of Constantinople to the Turks. The magnificent thousand-year-old center of eastern Christendom was now in the hands of the infidel. Christians by the thousands fled to Europe, bringing with them the great learning of their empire, spurring on the High Renaissance. The second event that put a new face on the Iberian Peninsula was the final defeat of the Moors in 1492, ending the War of Reconquest that had occupied Catholic Spain for almost eight centuries. Spain was finally a kingdom , a Catholic Kingdom, with the marriage of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile. Add to that the discovery of the New World, done in the name of the Kingdom of Spain, and you have the European, and particularly the Spanish, dynamic in a state of frenzy.

A Basque Dandy

Iñgo (his Basque name) was a man of the times. As he was from a large, noble, but poor family, his father early on sent him to work in the royal court of Ferdinand and his new queen, Germaine de Foix. The latter was a real “party girl” who was only fifteen years old when the king married her, the serious and very religious Isabella having died in 1504. Iñgo was somewhat of a dandy, learning courtly ways, attracted to the ladies, and very particular about his manner of dress and appearance. He learned the craft of soldiering, always carried his sword, and was not shy about brandishing it should his honor or that of a lady of his acquaintance be questioned. Nothing in his early life would lead one to suspect what he would become. He lived for the day, or for the battle of the day; his favorite reading materials were chivalric romances; and, while he was of course Catholic, he was known for “sowing his wild oats,” as the polite saying goes.

In 1517, Iñgo joined the army of the Duke of Navarra at the age of twenty-six. Several years later, in May of 1521, he was fighting for the defense of the fort in the Basque town of Pamplona against the overwhelming armies of the French King, when a cannonball passed between his legs, shattering his right and badly wounding his left. For Iñigo, the fight was over — permanently. His French captors graciously repaired (badly) his shattered leg and allowed him to return home to recuperate in the care of his brother and sister-in-law. The story is well known. To repair his leg, Iñigo suffered through four more surgeries without anesthetic, a process he later pithily referred to as “butchery.” Being the brave and fearless knight, he uttered not a sound during any of his operations. At one point he was near death and was advised to make his final confession. That night he prayed very hard to St. Peter, promising that if he recovered, he would devote his prowess as a knight to his glory. Within three hours, he was out of danger. While regaining his strength under the watchful eye of his brother’s wife, Magdalena de Araoz, Iñigo asked for reading material. Of course, he wanted the romances of chivalry. Magdalena, a very cultured and religious woman, did not have time for such drivel and gave him the only books she had in the house, a four-volume Life of Christ , written by Ludolph of Saxony, and the well-known Golden Legend , a popular collection of lives of the saints.

A Changed Man

During the long months of convalescence in 1521, Iñigo underwent a profound conversion. The reading material Magdalena had provided him and, undoubtedly, the divine grace which God showered upon him during this time caused him to experience a purification — special communications of strength in will, enlightenment in mind, and orientation of spirit. In January of 1522, he left his native Guipuzcoa a changed man, disgusted by his previous life and determined to live only for Jesus Christ. He sought out a confessor, spent three days making his general confession, gave his fine clothes to the poor, and, for a time, lived in a cave in Manresa, Spain, in a state of semi-starvation to atone for his past sins. Indeed, his purification was agonizing. During one low point, he was tempted to throw himself off a precipice. Iñigo came to realize that his private battle was a composite of the eternal warfare that goes on between God and Satan for each human soul. Amazingly, he began to take notes during this anguished struggle. He added to and refined these notes, leaving to the world the great gift of his Spiritual Exercises . Having undergone his spiritual purging, Iñigo resolved to live as Christ did and, if possible, in the land of Christ.

For a while, Iñigo wandered about Spain, traveling first to Barcelona to try to secure passage. He traveled with nothing — not money, not food, not a change of clothing — living only by begging. In Barcelona he began to attract followers eager to live a Christ-like life. He also attracted the attention of several wealthy and highly-placed ladies of the city, who became important benefactors of his “company,” as he began to call his men. Unfortunately, he attracted some unwanted attention as well: he was the subject of derision from most onlookers as he stood on street corners in ragged clothes teaching about Our Lord. The local hierarchy was not fond of him, and he caught the eye of the Inquisition, which imprisoned him for some time on suspicion of heresy.

Iñigo and several of his followers finally were able to make it to Jerusalem, only to be turned back by the local Catholic primate. The Holy Land was now in the hands of the infidel, and the kidnapping of Christians became big business for Moslem thugs. This latter detail immeasurably complicated life for the primate in that the poor bishop felt obliged to ransom the captives. Frustrated in their initial goal, the little group returned to Barcelona to regroup and decide on their future mission. Our now-transformed subject was about thirty-three or thirty-four. He realized that if he were to help others live like Christ, his first duty was to become a priest. To achieve this goal, he began study at universities in Spain, then moved on to the largest and most famous of the European universities, that of Paris. It was at this time that Iñigo latinized his name to Ignatius, since classes were taught in Latin. Revolutionary fever was beginning to seethe all over Europe, especially among the teachers in universities. This was a great disappointment to him, but it taught him a valuable lesson: He must pursue priesthood for himself and his companions if he were to fight this new worldly trend, for only with the ability to bring the Mass and sacraments to the faithful would they be able to defeat Satan on his own battleground. He was ordained in 1537. He was then about forty-three years old.

His personal holiness and great insight into the truths of the Catholic Faith, especially his understanding of the Blessed Trinity, coupled with his early military training, allowed him to form a totally new concept of spirituality — one that has come to be understood as uniquely “Ignatian.” There would now be a new balance between spirit and matter, between contemplation of the divine mysteries and implementation of their meaning in concrete actions. The Kingdom to which Ignatius the soldier now owed his allegiance was that of Jesus Christ, the Supreme Commander. It would require love of the Leader, service to His Kingdom, war against the enemy, the necessity of total education, and complete and unquestioned obedience to His general on earth. His basic operating principal became Quo universalius, eo divinius: The more universal your operation is, the more divine it is.

New Spirituality, New Treasures

The term “universal” meant not only encompassing the wide world. It meant as well that Ignatius’ “company,” as they were still called, would have to be greatly enlarged in numbers. Their field of expertise would not be only assisting the poor, or bringing the Faith to unbelievers in foreign lands, or teaching children, or the life of inner prayer, or parish work, or caring for the sick, or helping orphans and other unfortunates, or defending the Faith from heresies. They would be experts in everything . How could this radical departure from any other religious order in existence be accomplished? Ignatius now realized that he would have to enlarge vastly and form into a cohesive unit his company of men in order to have the force necessary to win the battle for Christ.

To accomplish this monumental task, he would do three things that had never before been done in the history of the Church: First, all the men under his command would have to subjugate and transform their intellects, religious beliefs, perceptions of themselves and the world — their entire being — to the direction of their earthly leader. Absolute and unquestioning obedience would be required of each candidate, and the process of formation of each man would take much longer than in the ancient orders. The most minute and seemingly inconsequential aspect of each command would be obeyed as though it were coming from the mouth of Our Lord Himself. Second, each individual priest or lesser position in this new Company would become not only a total spiritual slave of Christ, but an expert in whatever field was his particular talent. They would become — besides holy priests — chemists, biologists, zoologists, linguists, explorers, teachers, university professors, geographers, astronomers, mathematicians, preachers, diplomats, confessors, intelligence agents, couriers, philosophers, theologians, public relations experts, popular writers, artists, Indian swamis, Chinese mandarins, farmers, architects, and army commanders. They would do all these things — not for the great glory of God, but “for the greater glory of God.” And this was to become the motto of this great order of men: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam .

The third aspect of the developing Company was absolutely unique. Ignatius realized that to be truly universal, their earthly commander would have to be the supreme Catholic leader on earth, the Holy Father himself. When the reigning pope, Paul III, was presented with this scenario by our subject, the Roman Church had been beset with the awful heresies of the Protestant Revolt. In many countries of Europe, the faithful were leaving the Mother Church in droves. Pope Paul, for twenty years, from 1520 to 1540, had agonized over how to recover his lost sheep. The ancient religious orders did not seem fit to stem the tide of revolt. Now, here in all humility was a small group of men (only seven of them) pathetically poor and seemingly undernourished, who would swear a fourth religious vow — one of obedience to his every command. They would be his soldiers to fight for the cause of Christ. Ignatius had presented to His Holiness his Formula for the Institute . When the pope signed the document on September 27, 1540, the CompañEDa de JesFAs — in Latin the Societas Jesu — was officially formed. Paul III declared that he saw the hand of God at work in these men and this new order.

Immediately, enemies began disparagingly to call this strange band “Jesuits ,” a term usually used to insult persons who played fast and loose with the Holy Name. Soon, however, the Jesuits began to use the label themselves, considering it a fitting one for their lives which were lived only for Christ and His Church.

The Society Burgeons

Ignatius now began the work that occupied the remainder of his life, forming his men and writing the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. In the early years of the Society, the founder approached the rules of his Company in a rather tentative, almost trial-and-error way. Since the vision of the new order was so different from any of the ancient religious orders, he wanted to be sure that what was committed to paper in its final form was workable and correct. From1541 until 1547, Ignatius, now Father General of the Jesuits, having been elected by approbation in 1541, governed his men by rules drawn up from his own experience, from his idea of what he wanted his world-wide order to become, and, undoubtedly, with inspiration from the Holy Ghost. It is said that in all the years that he spent drawing up the rules and then the Constitutions , the only book he had in his sight was the Missal. Given the fact that he was favored with a deeply contemplative, experimental understanding of the Mystery of the Holy Trinity, it certainly does not require a stretch of the imagination to attribute his final document to divine inspiration.

The Society of Jesus ranks among religious institutes as a mendicant order of clerks regular, that is, a body of priests organized for apostolic work, following a religious rule and relying on alms for their support. Recall the extreme poverty of Ignatius’ early days after his conversion. Since the Society’s scope and purpose were so much wider, Ignatius insisted on many radical departures from older institutes. Among these changes were the following: Jesuits were not allowed to accept ecclesiastical dignities, i.e., none could aspire to or accept a bishopric. A greatly prolonged period of formation was required to prepare the candidate to become a proper Jesuit. The usual requirement to keep choir* was eliminated. There would be no distinctive habit, simply the black clerical garb of parish priests. No corresponding women’s order would be allowed. (Interestingly, on this last point, there were several women Jesuits in the very early days, one of whom was Ignatius’ old friend and benefactor, Isabella Roser, from his early days in Barcelona. She petitioned the Pope to be admitted. When the Holy Father consented, Ignatius, against his better judgment, was forced to admit her. She brought two or three other ladies with her, and when it didn’t work out, he graciously and gratefully released them from their vows saying “They caused me more trouble than the whole of the Society!”)

Perhaps the most radical difference with the Society of Jesus is that it was the first order to undertake officially and by virtue of its constitutions active works such as foreign missions at the Pope’s bidding, the education of youth of all classes, the instruction of the poor and ignorant, and ministering to the sick, prisoners and other unfortunates. Besides the vows of poverty, chastity and obedience, a fourth vow was required of professed Jesuits — that of obedience to the wishes of the Holy Father — to be sent anywhere and to do anything he required of them short of disobeying the moral law.

To achieve the state of absolute and total obedience to his orders from on high, the candidate’s own will had to be completely subjected to that of the Father General, who governed for life and was answerable only to the General Chapter, (an assembly of all the professed Jesuit priests which met very rarely). After being schooled in the Spiritual Exercises , candidates (who had to be in good health) underwent lengthy and rigorous training designed to subjugate their own desires and wills to that of Christ, who, after all, was the true “General” of the Society. Because each man was educated according to his own talents for his priestly work, and his training must make him expert in his field, the education of each Jesuit was longer and more arduous than in the ancient orders. Unquestioning obedience was called by St. Ignatius “corpselike obedience,” a term not uncommon to religious orders, but taken by their detractors to designate Jesuits as “brainwashed.” Nothing could be further from the truth, for the Jesuit Constitutions are inspired throughout by an exalted spirit of charity and zeal for souls. Nothing in them is unreasonable for the man who fits the mold.

The hierarchy of the Society is quite different from that of other religious institutions as well. After the election of the Father General by the General Chapter, he is the ultimate authority and governs for life, or until he resigns due to illness or incapacity. Only the General Chapter can remove or elect a Father General. Everyone else in the chain of command is appointed or removed by him. There are no local “chapters” convened for the governing of houses or geographical entities. Ignatius insisted on this to grant his men great mobility and to facilitate the chain of command in far-flung places. Because of the simplicity of its structure and its smooth operation world-wide, critics and enemies have often accused the Society of Jesus of being a front for a lethal and power-hungry elite, plotting to take over the liberties and assets of all free men — in this writer’s eyes a sort of papist form of Freemasonry! Of course, what these badly intentioned critics do not see is the real Christian souls of Ignatius and his companions, fighting Lucifer on his own battleground.

An Interesting Aside

Because of their unprecedented success in achieving world-wide cohesion in so short a period of time, a mystique began to surround the idea of Jesuitism. If only one could squeeze out the “secrets” of the Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions , leaving the spiritual aspects aside, one could get at those secrets so cleverly locked away and apply them to controlling others with less-than-holy intentions. Amazingly, in the past century, Heinrich Himmler, Adolph Hitler’s close collaborator, attempted such a thing. He assembled an extensive library about the Jesuits and planned to train his Waffen SS elite troops along Jesuit lines. He purged the Spiritual Exercises of all that is Catholic and substituted Nordic paganism hoping to introduce that inner subjugation of will and intellect that St. Ignatius gave his Jesuits. While the plan did not succeed, Hitler joked about Himmler as “our very own Ignatius Loyola.”

Another twentieth century parallel to St. Ignatius’ ideas has been made to Lenin, founder of Soviet Communism, but, while both knew that a single structured organization, absolute obedience to a central authority, and military discipline were all vital to their ends, Lenin’s “renunciation” of all things material left nothing at all to the proletariat. Ignatius’ men worked for the greater glory of God!

Truly Global

During the remainder of Ignatius’ lifetime, he continued to perfect the Constitutions , completing them just before his death in 1556. The Constitutions have remained ever since as he left them.* At that time there were forty professed Fathers out of one thousand Jesuits. In 1581, God’s Providential Hand guided the General Chapter to elect, as the fifth Father General, the Italian, Claudio Acquaviva, only thirty-seven years old, charismatic, brilliant, and bold. He governed the Society for thirty-four years. Under his guidance, membership in the Society of Jesus increased from just over five thousand in 1581 to more than thirteen thousand in 1615. Jesuits worked all over Europe, in some African countries and in the Middle East. They expanded to the Philippines, Indonesia, and Indochina, and they had extensive missions in Canada, Paraguay, and Japan. There were, three hundred schools and colleges, thirty-three provinces, one hundred twenty residences and five hundred fifty communities. This Golden Age of Jesuitism gave us Saints Robert Bellarmine, Peter Canisius, Aloysius Gonzaga, Peter Claver, Alfonzo Rodriguez, as well as many holy scholars and spiritual writers — Suárez, á Lapide, Molina, de la Puente, and others. Every country in Europe and the Americas felt the Jesuit influence. They were on the front lines in the battle against the Protestant Revolt and in bringing the Faith to the pagan. Always their leader was Jesus Christ Himself. With such a General, who can lose?

Every successful Jesuit strove, and was urged on all his life, to deepen his personal relationship with the living Jesus; to ascend by prayer and devotion interwoven with hard, unremitting work, so as to arrive at a burning love of Him whom Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins hailed as “hero of Calvary . . . Christ, King, Head . . . Jesu, heart’s delight, Jesu, maid’s son . . . Christ of the Father compassionate. . . .” St. Ignatius truly found in his household a great “new treasure”! St. Ignatius Loyola, pray for us!

Author’s note: For the complete and colorful story of the Society of Jesus and how one of their number believes they have betrayed St. Ignatius’ goals, read Malachi Martin’s The Jesuits: The Society of Jesus and the Betrayal of the Roman Catholic Church, Simon and Schuster, 1987.