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Biography of Ignatius of Loyola, St.

Name: Ignatius of Loyola, St.
Bith Date: December 24, 1491
Death Date: July 31, 1556
Place of Birth: Loyola, Guipúzcoa, Spain
Nationality: Spanish
Gender: Male
Occupations: priest, soldier
Ignatius of Loyola, St.

The Spanish soldier and ecclesiastic St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) was the founder of the Society of Jesus, or Jesuit order.

Ignatius was born in the castle of Loyola in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa. His real name was Iñigo de Oñaz y Loyola, but from 1537 on he also used the more widely known Ignatius, especially in official documents. From the age of about 15 to 26 he lived at the fortress town of Arévalo as a page of Juan Velázquez de Cuéllar, a treasurer general for Ferdinand the Catholic. After 1516 he participated in military expeditions for the Duke of Nájera. On May 20, 1521, he was wounded in the defense of Pamplona.

During convalescence at Loyola, Ignatius read from the Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony and from the short lives of saints by Jacobus de Voragine entitled Legenda aurea. This resulted in a conversion, whereby he resolved to live as a knight wholly devoted to Christ and to go to the Holy Land. He abandoned Loyola in 1522 and lived for 11 months in austerity and prayer at Manresa. Here he had religious experiences which rank him among the greatest mystics of Christianity, and he composed at least the core of his famous Spiritual Exercises (published in 1548).

Through the intensive experiences of Manresa and later, Ignatius gradually developed a world view centered on cooperation with Christ and the pope as His vicar in efforts to achieve God's plan in creating and redeeming men. His constant endeavor was to lead men to give greater praise to God through both prayer and apostolic service. Hence arose his phrase, reiterated so often that it became a motto, "For the greater glory of God."

Ignatius reached Jerusalem in 1523 but could not remain because of the enmity between Christians and Turks. He returned to Barcelona and began studies (1524-1526) toward the priesthood. He then studied at the universities of Alcalá (1526-1527), Salamanca (1527), and Paris (1528-1535), where he received the degree of master of arts in April 1534. On the following August 15 he and six companions vowed to live in poverty and chastity and to go to the Holy Land or, should this prove impossible, to put themselves at the apostolic service of the pope. When war prevented passage to Jerusalem in 1537, they accepted a suggestion of Pope Paul III to find their apostolate in Italy.

Ignatius was ordained a priest on June 24, 1537. In Rome in 1539 he and nine companions drew up a "First Sketch" of a new religious order devoted to apostolic service anywhere in the world by means of preaching and any other ministry. On Sept. 27, 1540, Paul III approved this new order and its title, the Society of Jesus. In April 1541 Ignatius was elected its general for a lifelong term.

Chiefly between 1547 and 1550 Ignatius composed his Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, a classic both of spiritual doctrine and of religious law. This work reveals Ignatius's genius as an organizer and administrator. To secure better cooperation in charity, he stressed obedience, but he placed many democratic procedures within the monarchical structure of his order.

From 1537 on Ignatius lived in Rome, engaging in various forms of priestly work. Twelve volumes of his correspondence have been preserved. He founded a chain of schools for the Christian education of youth. Between 1546 and 1556 he opened 33 colleges (3 of them universities) and approved 6 more. He was the first founder of a religious order to make the conducting of schools for lay students a major work prescribed by the Constitutions.

At his death on July 31, 1556, the Society of Jesus had some 1,000 members distributed in 12 provinces. He was declared a saint by Pope Gregory XV on March 12, 1622.

Further Reading

  • St. Ignatius's dictated autobiography is in González de Cámara, ed., St. Ignatius' Own Story as Told to Luis González de Cámara, translated by William J. Young (1956). Paul Dudon, St. Ignatius of Loyola, translated by William J. Young (1949), is the most complete and scholarly life of the saint in English. Briefer and reliable is Mary Purcell, The First Jesuit (1957). Ignatius's religious experiences are described and analyzed in Joseph de Guibert, The Jesuits: Their Spiritual Doctrine and Practice (1964), and in Ignatius's The Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, translated with an introduction and a commentary by G. E. Ganss (1970).

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