Who Was Ignatius of Loyola?

The life of St. Ignatius (baptized "Inigo") begins in the family castle in Loyola, Spain (b. 1491) and ends in Rome, Italy (d. 1556). The youngest of 13 children, Inigo was raised among a noble family in the Basque region (northeast Spain).

His single desire as a young man was to achieve notoriety and fame for himself. His chief desire at the end of his life was that the nascent Society of Jesus might serve the Church's greatest needs, and to the greater honor and glory of God (Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam--the motto of the Society).

The initial catalyst for this personal transformation occurred in 1521 in Pamplona, Spain amidst a battle between the Spanish and the French. Inigo, who desired to achieve fame as a soldier and served in the court of the Duke of Najera, was wounded in the battle, a cannon ball shattering one of his legs. While convalescing in his family home in Loyola, he began to read a Life of Christ and the Lives of the Saints--no other reading material being available.

While reading, young Inigo began to ask himself, What if I lived as St. Francis or St. Dominic who followed Jesus so unsparingly? These thoughts left him very much consoled, and for considerable lengths of time. While other thoughts about achieving his own fame and notoriety, apart from Christ, left him consoled only for a short time. Soon those thoughts became quite empty.

This experience led Inigo to choose to follow Christ in the manner of the saints. (It also served as the basis for his theory of discernment of spirits, fully developed in his Spiritual Exercises).

After his leg healed--a leg which had to be broken twice more, due to its improper mending--Inigo left his home and family wealth and became a "pilgrim." He practiced severe ascetical disciplines, begged alms, and chose to stay in the poorest of places (hospices), first in Monserrat and then Manresa, Spain.

In Manresa (1521-23) Inigo began to take notes of his religious practices or exercises that led him to God. Overtime, these exercises further developed into his book, the Spiritual Exercises, first formally published in 1548.

Inigo's--or the pilgrim's--one hope was to do penance for his sins and travel to Jerusalem. Along the way, however, he began to draw much consolation from what he called "helping souls." He also discovered that if he wanted to help souls, he must take care of his physical appearance (which had become quite disheveled and rugged), and to moderate his spiritual and ascetical practices. He also discovered that he needed more education.

Thus, returning from Jerusalem and begging alms to afford the tuition, he attended school at Alcala, Spain (studying as an adult among children) and ultimately attained a Master's Degree in theology at the University of Paris. While in Paris, Inigo attracted fellow students, such as Francis Xavier and Peter Faber, to his cause by way of the Spiritual Exercises.

This was the beginning of a group, gradually increasing in number, who referred to themselves as "companions in the Lord." They set out to "help souls" by serving in hospitals, giving the Exercises to those deemed ready, and offering basic catechesis to the unlearned in the Catholic faith. Because most of these early companions were not ordained priests at the time, they drew the attention of the Spanish Inquisition. Inigo was investigated several times, and sometimes even imprisoned during the investigations, during which he successfully proved the orthodoxy of his teaching and the Exercises.

Eventually, Inigo and companions--6 of them--made vows of poverty and chastity in Montmartre, France, outside of Paris (1534). The group--called by outsiders, "Iniguistas," after Inigo--would eventually decide to travel to Rome, seeking to place themselves in obedience to the Pontiff or Pope.

On the way, Inigo had an experience that the Lord would be favorable to the companions in Rome, and they decided to name themselves after the holy name of Jesus, i.e., as the Company (or Society) of Jesus.

The Society of Jesus was formally approved as a religious order in 1540 by Pope Paul III. Most of the companions, who had studied theology at the University of Paris and elsewhere, were now ordained priests.

Inigo, who Latinized his name to "Ignatius," was elected the first Superior General of the Society of Jesus, despite his objections.

He spent the last 16 years of his life in Rome, largely engaged with composing the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus, a document that addresses the life of Jesuits in religious community, in their formation and service to the Church.

Ignatius died in 1556 and was canonized a saint in 1622. His annual feast day is July 31, the day of his death. He is the patron saint of soldiers and retreat houses.

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