St. Ignatius of Loyola: The Christian Soldier
“Imagine a king preparing to lead an army into battle. He is completely
dedicated to a noble cause; his goal is not worldly riches or power, but the common good.
He calls us to join him. But we must be content to eat poor food and wear rough clothing. We must work with him by day and watch with him by night, so that we may share in his victory.
What answer do we make to such a king?
“Now imagine Christ the King. He summons us all to join in the fight against
His enemy—the devil. If we are willing, we must join with Christ in suffering,
so that we may share in His glory. What answer do we make to the Eternal King?”
Soldier in an Earthly Army
Military service filled the mind of Inigo of Loyola. As a young soldier he was an inspirational leader; he was not afraid of overwhelming odds. Chivalry—the loyal and virtuous service to a lord—was his ideal. When the French attacked the Spanish city of Pamplona, in 1521, the Duke left town and the city council surrendered. The little castle on top of the hill should have surrendered too. However, despite being abandoned by King and countrymen, Inigo rallied the troops and convinced them to make a heroic last stand. The resistance lasted about six hours. The French attacked. A cannonball broke both of Inigo’s legs. Then his companions surrendered.
War often leads to disfigurement and death, but behind it is a glorious idea of fighting for a good cause. Inigo’s body was weaker than his spirit, and his ideas were only weakly shared by his military companions. The King of Spain was not there to support him. The failure was a result of putting too much confidence in human beings. Inigo was learning this lesson.
Healing of Body and Soul
The French picked up Inigo’s broken body, gave him some unskilled medical attention and then sent him home to Loyola where he could recuperate. Then it was realized that his legs were crooked; they had to be broken again, reset, and ever after he walked with a limp. While he was recovering, Inigo asked for books of romance and adventure. Fortunately, they were not provided to him. Instead, he was given a Life of Christ and Lives of the saints. Confined to bed, he read them. God gave this invalid the grace to accept the fact that he would never again be a soldier in the army of an earthly lord. He changed his name to Ignatius, in honor of an early martyr, and transferred his affections to Christ the King.
When he could walk again, Ignatius went on a pilgrimage to the sanctuary of our Lady at Montserrat. He made a good confession and then spent many months in a nearby cave, at Manresa, doing penance for his sins. During this time he began to write down his meditations, like the one which began this article, in a book—The Spiritual Exercises.
A New Way of Life
The Exercises are a tool for converting sinners and strengthening the just. Why are we here? What is life’s purpose? God is our goal. Sin is to be rejected. Then the focus shifts to the imitation of Christ. We consider His teachings, His sufferings, and finally the glory of Heaven. Ignatius gave these meditations a structure as a series of meditations to be considered during a month. These Exercises are the basis of the five-day Ignatian retreats preached by priests of the Society of St. Pius X.
Ignatius soon realized that to preach the Exercises properly he needed to be a priest. He wandered much, even making a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, before he entered the University of Paris. There he taught the Exercises to some of his fellow students, including Francis Xavier. He formed a group of friends who encouraged each other in virtue. Together they contemplated Ignatius’s rules for making a correct choice of a way of life: “1. Focus on the love of God. 2. What advice would I give to a stranger? I will do the same. 3 and 4. If I were now dying or at the Day of Judgment, what choice would I wish I had made?” Motivated by such considerations, on the feast of the Assumption 1534, at the church of St. Denis in Paris, they made three vows: poverty, chastity, and to journey to Jerusalem.
The part about Jerusalem was probably inspired by Ignatius’s earlier pilgrimage, but it never worked out for the group. Ignatius became sick and had to return to his home in Spain. He agreed to meet with his companions at Venice in 1537; from there they could sail to the Holy Land. But a war with the Turks closed this sea route. For a time they lingered in Venice, helping the poor. Eventually they decided to change their vow: instead of going to Jerusalem, they determined to go to Rome and offer their services to the Pope.
The First Jesuits
Ignatius had a vision while at prayer. Christ told him that everything would go well in Rome. So it did. The companions were formed into a religious order. They took a name: the Society of Jesus, now commonly called the Jesuits. They took the ordinary vow of obedience, and they took a special vow of obedience to the Pope, promising to do whatever he asked of them.
Suddenly they realized that this could be the end of their work. If the Pope sent most of them away on difficult missions, they would have no way to train new members to carry on their work. A rule of life was drawn up and a superior general was chosen—yes, our saint. He refused the first election, so they repeated the vote, but the result was the same. The Society of Jesus was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540. It began with seven members. Sixteen years later, at the time of Ignatius’s death, there were 1,000 Jesuits.
Special Duties of the Jesuits
The last stage of Ignatius’s life was the busy work of a superior. There was work to do, much work! Martin Luther, King Henry VIII, and other early Protestants had led whole nations out of the Church. A popular misapprehension claims that the Jesuits were founded in order to combat Protestantism. It was not that simple. Ignatius did send missionaries to Protestant countries, but he also sent them to Africa and Asia. He sent his sons wherever they were commanded to go by order of the Pope.
The Society of Jesus was a new kind of religious order; in external details they were much looser than medieval monks. Dominicans and Franciscans can be easily recognized by their color-coded habits. Jesuits do not have a special habit; they wear the clothing of ordinary priests. Monasteries have a strict daily rule with set times for prayer, meals, and work throughout the day. The Jesuits vary their rule from house to house. Even the prayer of the divine office is usually said in private. There are no Jesuit nuns; it is for men only. Other orders observe extra days of penance or special ceremonies of devotion. The Jesuits leave such matters to the piety of the individual.
How could such an organization hold together? In fact, the Jesuits are known as the best organized of all the religious orders. It was a matter of discipline. The training of a Jesuit lasts unusually long—from ten to twelve years. During that time good habits are developed and the hazard of moral failure is largely eliminated.
Perhaps more importantly, only the general is elected; local superiors are appointed or removed at the discretion of the superior general. This is a military method. Ignatius was a good leader, but even he made mistakes. He appointed Rodriguez, one of his early companions, as the superior of the Jesuit province of Portugal. Rodriguez was popular; in twelve years the province grew to over 300 members. Sadly, their spirit of obedience was lacking. Rodriguez was recalled to Rome and over 200 Portuguese Jesuits left the Society.
The first disciples of Ignatius had come together as students; many had their doctorates in theology. Education soon became an important work. If a Catholic prince could supply the funds and the school building, the Society of Jesus was ready to send trained teachers. Jesuit teachers formed strong Catholic laymen and, of course, more Jesuit priests.
Much of the popular enthusiasm for the new order came from its extraordinary missionary work. In 1540, King John III of Portugal requested missionaries for his colonies. Francis Xavier was sent to the colony in India. Within a month Francis converted more Indians than the Portuguese had so far done in 50 years. Then he was off, travelling to Indonesia and Japan. The good news of these conquests for Christ was sent to Ignatius in Rome and widely published. In 1556, as Ignatius lay dying, he chose Francis Xavier for his successor. But by the time the letter reached India, Francis was also dead. The two first Jesuit saints, Ignatius and Francis, were canonized in the same ceremony in 1622.