Born: c. October 23,1491 at Azpeitia, Spain (Basque country)
Died: July 31, 1556 in Rome, Italy
Beatified: July 27, 1609 by Pope Paul V
Canonized: March 12, 1622 by Pope Gregory XV
Feast Day: July 31
Attributes: Eucharist, chasuble, book, cross
Patronage: Society of Jesus, Dioceses of San Sebastián and Bilbao, Bisca and Gipuzkoa; Basque Country; Military Ordinariate of the Philippines; Belo Horizonte, Minas Gerais, Brazil; Junín, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and Antwerp, Belgium
Swashbuckler, soldier, ladies’ man – these words once aptly described the man we know today as St. Ignatius of Loyola. This dynamic, trail blazing saint was one of ten companions who founded the Society of Jesus (a.k.a. the Jesuits) on August 15, 1534. He went on to become its first Superior General and was one of the most influential figures in the Catholic Reformation. Today, the society is engaged in apostolic work and evangelization in 112 countries on six continents.
What I have always loved about Ignatian Spirituality is that there is no hidden agenda – no ‘end goal’ other than to help people draw closer to Christ. St. Ignatius taught that we have all been created by God as unique individuals; there is no one way to holiness. If our desire is to draw closer to the Lord – to have a deeper and more intimate relationship with Him – we must learn to discern His voice speaking to us in the ordinary circumstances of our lives. We must free ourselves of inordinate attachments and “make ourselves indifferent to all created things, … we should not prefer health to sickness, riches to poverty, honor to dishonor, a long life to a short life.”1 Through prayer and the discernment of spirits, we discover the path God has chosen for us, the way of life that will bring us the greatest fulfillment, peace, and joy.
St. Ignatius’ Early Life
St. Ignatius – baptized ‘Íñigo’ – was born in 1491 in the town of Azpeitia in the Basque country of northern Spain (about 40 kilometres southwest of San Sebastián).2 He was the youngest of 13 children born to Don Beltrán Yañez de Oñez y Loyola and Marina Saenz de Lieona y Balda. His family were members of the local nobility, and though his father hoped he would pursue a career in the Church, Íñigo was fascinated by the military exploits of his older brothers. In 1517, he followed in their footsteps, becoming a knight in the service of their family’s relative, Antonio Manrique de Lara, the duke of Nájera and viceroy of Navarre.
Íñigo had a tremendous love for military exercises and great aspirations to fame. According to one biographer, “Winning personal glory was his passion. He was a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough punkish swordsman who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes committed with his priest brother at carnival time.”3 But despite his ambitions, God had another plan, and Íñigo’s life took a dramatic turn when he was just 29 years old.
In the spring of 1521, the Spanish fortress at Pamplona was attacked by a large French army. The Spanish soldiers were badly outnumbered and ready to surrender, but Íñigo convinced them to defend the town. He fought with great courage but was gravely wounded on May 20 when a cannon ball passed between his legs, completely shattering one and leaving the other badly injured. For weeks, his life hung in the balance, and he would spend many long months at his family’s castle recovering from his injuries.
Once he felt strong enough, Íñigo asked if he could be given some books to help pass the time. Normally his favourites were “worldly books of fiction, commonly labeled chivalry,”4 but there was nothing of that kind in the house. Instead, they gave him a life of Christ and a book on the lives of the saints. He read these books many times during his long and tedious recovery, and “he became rather fond of what he found written there.”5
He also spent hours daydreaming – “[thinking] about the things of the world that he used to think of before.”6 Hours slipped away without him even noticing as he “imagined what he would do in the service of a certain lady; the means he would take so he could go to the place where she lived; the quips – the words he would address to her; the feats of arms he would perform in her service.”7 But at times, thoughts inspired by the books he had been reading about Our Lord and the saints would interrupt his daydreams. “What if I should do what St. Francis did, and what St. Dominic did?” he wondered.8
The Discernment of Spirits
As time went on, he noticed that there was a difference in how these conflicting thoughts impacted his state of mind. “When he was thinking of those things of the world he took much delight in them, but afterwards, when he was tired and put them aside, he found himself dry and dissatisfied. But when he thought of going to Jerusalem barefoot, and of eating nothing but plain vegetables and of practicing all the other rigors that he saw in the saints, not only was he consoled when he had these thoughts, but even after putting them aside he remained satisfied and joyful.”9 At first, he didn’t notice the significance of his reactions, but over time “he came to recognize the difference between the spirits that were stirring, one from the devil, the other from God.”10
This was the starting point for the Ignatian ‘Discernment of Spirits’, a means by which St. Ignatius taught us to distinguish whose voice is speaking to us: the Lord’s, the enemy’s, or our own.11 As we learn to recognize who is behind our thoughts, we are free to choose how we will respond. This attentiveness to interior movements of ‘desolation’ (thoughts that move us away from the Lord) and ‘consolation’ (thoughts that draw us closer to the Lord) would become an important component of his Spiritual Exercises.12
As time went on, Íñigo began to earnestly reflect on his past life, and he recognized his great need to do penance. Gradually, holy desires began to replace worldly thoughts, and he promised God that, with the help of His grace, he would dedicate his life to imitating the saints.
Shortly after, this promise was confirmed by a vision of Our Lady with the holy Child Jesus that left him with such a loathing for his whole past life – especially for sensual desires – that it seemed to him that “his spirit was rid of all the images that had been painted on it.”13
From that moment on, Íñigo was a changed man, and he never again “gave the slightest consent to the things of the flesh.”14 His greatest desire now was to see the holy places in Jerusalem; he wanted to “kiss the earth our Lord had walked.”15 Although his brother tried to persuade him to give up all his holy intentions, as soon as he was sufficiently recovered, Íñigo set off alone – bound for the Holy Land, riding on a mule.
Íñigo and the Donkey
Íñigo was fired up with great zeal for the Lord, but he didn’t yet understand “what humility was or charity or patience, or the discretion that regulates and measures these virtues.”16 And so, one day, as he was riding down a dusty road on the way to Barcelona, he met up with a Moor (a Muslim man whose ancestors would have originally come from North West Africa; the Moors conquered the Iberian Peninsula beginning in the 8th century).
“They were discussing religion, and, not surprisingly, they disagreed on a few points. [The Moor acknowledged that it seemed that the Virgin Mary had conceived without the help of a man, but he couldn’t believe in her remaining a virgin after giving birth.] The Moor angrily ended the discussion and rode off. As a parting shot, he made some insulting remarks about the Blessed Virgin Mary. Ignatius was outraged. He thought it might be his knightly duty to defend the honor of Mary by killing the Moor, but he wasn’t sure that would be consistent with his new faith. He left the decision up to the donkey he was riding. They were approaching a crossroads. If the donkey took the road that the Moor took, Ignatius would follow and kill him. If the beast took the other road, he would let him go. The donkey took the other road.”17
Montserrat – Consecration to Our Lady
It was customary for new knights of that time to begin their chivalrous service to their lords with a prayerful vigil of arms. Íñigo resolved that when he arrived at Montserrat, he would leave his armour before the altar of Our Lady of Montserrat as a sign of his knightly allegiance to his new, heavenly King, the Lord of lords. When he arrived, he prayed and made a general confession in writing; he then met with a confessor and spent three days confessing his whole life. On March 24th, 1522, the eve of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, he gave his clothes to a beggar, dressed himself in a garment made of sack cloth, and knelt before the altar of Our Lady. After keeping vigil all night, he left secretly at daybreak. Leaving his donkey and armour behind, he walked 24 kilometers to the town of Manresa.
Mystical Grace at Manresa
Íñigo had initially expected to only spend a few days at Manresa. But it quickly became apparent that the Lord was working profoundly within him. He ended out staying close to a year (from March 1522 to February 1523), living in a cave and dedicating himself to prayer and penance. It was during this time that he had an illuminative experience that transformed his life.
One day, as he was sitting on the banks of the Cardoner River, “the eyes of his understanding began to be opened; not that he saw any vision, but he understood and learnt many things, both spiritual matters and matters of faith and of scholarship, and this with so great an enlightenment that everything seemed new to him.”18 The clarity he received in that moment was so great that Íñigo later claimed that, “in the whole course of his life … even if he gathered up all the various helps he may have had from God and all the various things he has known, even adding them all together, he does not think he had got as much as at that one time.”19
This experience was “the pinnacle of all the mystical graces that [Íñigo] received at Manresa. … From this time onward he adopted the principle of contemplative discernment as crucial for all action.”20 The vision became a touchstone for his whole life, and the revelations he received inspired a lifelong devotion to the Holy Trinity. It also shaped the writing of the Spiritual Exercises (largely written during his stay at Manresa) as well as the later Constitutions of the Society of Jesus.
Years of Study, 1524-1536
After leaving Manresa, Íñigo headed for Barcelona where he boarded a ship for Jerusalem. There, he visited all the holy places and would have liked to stay, but he was unable to secure permission from the Franciscan provincial. Although he was disappointed, he accepted this as God’s will for him. Back in Spain, he realized he would need an education if he was going to be able to continue his work with souls. Latin was the language used in all the universities, and he began studying it alongside little boys.
Íñigo studied first at Barcelona and Alcalá, and then went on to study philosophy in Paris; he graduated with the equivalent of a doctorate degree in 1534. Wherever he went, he was always talking to people about God and giving the Spiritual Exercises. It was in Paris that he met Pierre Favre and Francis Xavier, and it was through the Exercises that he won them over to the service of God. His activities soon attracted the attention of the Inquisitors and he was jailed on several occasions.21 But though they examined his work in detail, they never found any error in his life or teaching.
Founding of the Society of Jesus
Ignatius’ ‘companions’ were now seven in number, and before he left Paris for Spain (in 1535), they all made a vow to “go to Venice and to Jerusalem, and spend their lives for the good of souls; and if they were not given permission to remain in Jerusalem, then return to Rome and present themselves to the Vicar of Christ, so that he could make use of them wherever he thought it would be more for the glory of God and the good of souls.”22 By August 15, 1534 – the Solemnity of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary – three more young men had been added to their number, and together these ten companions renewed their sacred vow, becoming the founding members of the Society of Jesus.
Ignatius arrived in Venice in 1536 and spent the year studying theology. In January 1537, he was re-joined by his other companions. On June 24, 1537 he, along with the six companions who had not yet been ordained, were ordained priests and given faculties; in addition, they all made vows of chastity and poverty. They had intended to travel to Jerusalem after their time in Venice, but no ships were sailing then due to political instability in the Mediterranean. They agreed to wait a year to see if peace would be restored, and dispersed in groups of two or three to minister to people in nearby cities; Ignatius, Favre, and Laínez went to Vicenza.
For Ignatius, Vicenza was like a second Manresa. He had many spiritual visions and “great supernatural experiences like those he used to have when he was in Manresa.”23 His years of study finally over, he could finally give his full attention to “finding God both by prayer and by spiritual work for others.”24
Vision at La Storta
After the agreed upon time had passed with still no possibility of finding passage on a ship to Jerusalem, Ignatius, Favre, and Laínez set out for Rome to fulfill their vow to offer themselves and their companions in service to the pope. Ignatius had not said Mass during the year following his ordination because he was “preparing himself and praying Our Lady to deign to place him with her Son. One day, a few miles before reaching Rome, he was at prayer in a church and experienced such a change in his soul and saw so clearly that God the Father placed him with Christ his Son that he would not dare doubt it.”25
“Ignatius’ vision at La Storta had a profound and confirming effect on the foundation of the Society and the shape it took. He perceived himself intimately united to Jesus, and he wanted to found a society totally dedicated to him, bearing his name, and carrying on his work. Its members should be intimately united to Jesus in prayer and enrolled under the banner of the cross, to ply in a corporate manner his work for the service and glory of God and the welfare of their fellow men and women.”26
Society of Jesus
The three companions arrived in Rome in late November 1538 and met with Pope Paul III. Although the pope considered missioning them singly or in small groups to Italian cities, after prayer and reflection, the companions asked permission to form themselves into a new religious order. Ignatius submitted a document entitled “A First Sketch of the Institute of the Society of Jesus,” and the Pope gave his formal approval for the new order on September 27, 1540. Ignatius and his companions were now “a new religious order of clerics regular in the Church, the Society of Jesus.”27 On April 6, 1541, Ignatius was elected Superior General by a unanimous vote.
“Whoever desires to serve as a soldier of God beneath the banner of the Cross in our Society, which we desire to be designated by the Name of Jesus, and to serve the Lord alone and the Church, his spouse, under the Roman Pontiff, the Vicar of Christ on earth, should, after a solemn vow of perpetual chastity, poverty and obedience, keep what follows in mind.
He is a member of a Society founded chiefly for this purpose: to strive especially for the defence and propagation of the faith and for the progress of souls in Christian life and doctrine, by means of public preaching, lectures and any other ministration whatsoever of the Word of God, and further by means of retreats, the education of children and unlettered persons in Christianity, and the spiritual consolation of Christ’s faithful through hearing confessions and administering the other sacraments.
Moreover, he should show himself ready to reconcile the estranged, compassionately assist and serve those who are in prisons or hospitals, and indeed, to perform any other works of charity, according to what will seem expedient for the glory of God and the common good” (n. 1).28 – St. Ignatius of Loyola, Opening Statement in the “Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus”
Centered in Christ, “[Ignatius] expected the members of his Society to love their Lord in contemplation and to manifest their love by deeds.”29 He perceived the Presence of God in all things, actions, and conversations, and his underlying aim was always to choose whatever might bring greater glory to God. Each member made a special vow of obedience to the pope, and they were ready to go wherever he might send them, wherever they were needed. “Their apostolic effectiveness was to arise from their being human instruments intimately united with God (Constitutions, ).”30
Work of the Society of Jesus
Most of the Jesuits’ work in Europe during the lifetime of St. Ignatius “was directed to the spiritual welfare of individuals (by conversations and the Exercises), and of relatively small groups (by preaching or catechizing).”31 But foreign missions also multiplied under his leadership. He sent St. Francis Xavier to Goa, India (in 1542), where Xavier baptized over 10,000 persons in just one month. Other Jesuits crossed the Atlantic to preach the Gospel to natives in far-off Brazil.
In response to a request to open a school in Gandía, Spain in 1545, St. Ignatius gradually developed a vision for Christian education. He went on to open 33 colleges and approved six more during his life, from Goa throughout Europe to Brazil.32 Part IV of his Constitutions is considered a classic treatise on Christian education, and “its influence on the theory and practice in this field is still functioning effectively today.”33
During the 15 years he served as Superior General (until his death), St. Ignatius “governed the Society with apostolic zeal, ingenuity, initiative, and much esteem. Through his trust in Providence he kept himself calm amid disappointments and successes.”34 Everything he undertook was out of love for Christ and the greater glory of God. “All of the success in these apostolates in Europe, in the foreign missions, and in education are in no small measure fruits of Ignatius’ Exercises, Formula of the Institute, and Constitutions.”35
Death of St. Ignatius
As Ignatius grew older, his work as Superior General took an increasing toll on his health. Periods of good health alternated with times of debilitating, painful illness, and by early 1556, it was evident to everyone that he was declining. “On Thursday, July 30th, Fr. Ignatius called his secretary, Polanco, to his bedside and asked him to go to the Vatican that afternoon to request the pope’s blessing for him and to recommend the Society to his good will and to assure him that if, by God’s mercy, he were admitted into heaven, his prayer for the Vicar of Christ would be all the more fervent.”36 Because Ignatius’ physician was certain that his patient would recover, Polanco said he would go the following day. Shortly after midnight, Ignatius took a turn for the worse, and at daybreak it was clear that the end was near. Several of the priests in the house were called to his bedside, and Polanco rushed to the Vatican to secure the papal blessing. Before he could return, St. Ignatius had passed away. He was 64 years old.
By the time of his death, more than 1000 men had joined the Society of Jesus – companions with who Ignatius kept in constant touch through thousands of letters of love, support, and friendship. Together with his close friend, Francis Xavier, Ignatius was canonized on March 12, 1622, and in 1922, Pope Pius XI declared him the patron of all spiritual retreats.
“In contrast to the ambitions of his early days, the fundamental philosophy of the mature Ignatius was that we ought to desire and choose only that which is more conducive to the end for which we are created – to praise, reverence, and serve God through serving other human beings. He prayed:
Teach us, good Lord, to serve You as You deserve; to give, and not to count the cost; to fight, and not to heed the wounds; to toil, and not to seek for rest; to labor, and not to ask for reward except that of knowing that we are doing Your will.”37 St. Ignatius, pray for us!
Sharon van der Sloot
1 Louis J. Puhl, S.J., The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius (Chicago, Illinois: Loyola Press, 1951), 12.
2 When St. Ignatius received his Master’s degree at Easter 1534, the university Latinized his name. He began using the name ‘Ignatius’ after that time. For this reason, I have used St. Ignatius’ baptismal name, Íñigo, when speaking about his early life.
3 George Traub, S.J. and Debra Mooney, “A Biography of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556): The Founder of the Jesuits,” available from https://issuu.com/jesuitresource/docs/st_ignatius_loyola_booklet_7-15-12_; Internet; accessed 15 June 2018.
4 Cf. St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Autobiography, from Ignatius of Loyola: The Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, ed. George E. Ganss, S.J. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1991), ch. 1.5, 70.
5 Ibid., ch. 1.6, 70.
8 Ibid., ch. 1.7, 70.
9 Ibid., ch. 1.8, 71.
11 The First and Second Week Rules of Discernment can be found at
12 The Spiritual Exercises are a great gift to the entire Church: priests, religious, and lay people. St. Ignatius wrote that they “have as their purpose the conquest of self and the regulation of one’s life in such a way that no decision is made under the influence of any inordinate attachment.” (Spiritual Exercises, trans. Louis J. Puhl, S.J., 21) Those who undertake them can do so in either a 30-day silent retreat setting (see https://www.omvusa.org/st-joseph-retreat-house/retreats/thirty-days/, or https://olph-retreat.org/30-day-retreat), or in daily life over the course of a year under the guidance of a Spiritual Director. For more information about the structure of the Spiritual Exercises, see “What are the Spiritual Exercises?”; IgnatianSpirituality.com; https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/ignatian-prayer/the-spiritual-exercises/what-are-the-spiritual-exercises.
13 St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Autobiography, ch.1.10, 71.
15 Traub and Mooney, “A Biography of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556): The Founder of the Jesuits,” available from
16 St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Autobiography, ch. 2.14, 74.
17 Jim Manney, “Ignatius and the Donkey,” IgnatianSpirituality.com; available from https://www.ignatianspirituality.com/10205/ignatius-and-the-donkey; Internet; accessed 12 June 2018.
18 St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Autobiography, ch. 3.30, 80-81.
19 Ibid., 81.
20 Gill K. Goulding, “The Cardoner Imperative,” The Way [journal] 47/1-2 (Jan/April 2008), 245; available from https://www.theway.org.uk/Back/4712goulding.pdf; Internet; accessed 14 June 2018.
21 The term ‘Inquisition’ refers to “a special ecclesiastical institution for combating or suppressing heresy.” It originated in France in the 12thcentury and was disbanded in 1834. (Quote from Joseph Blötzer, “Inquisition,” The Catholic Encyclopedia, Vol. 8 (New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910), available from http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/08026a.htm; accessed 18 June 2018.)
22 St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Autobiography, ch. 8.85, 104.
23 Ibid., ch. 10.95, 108.
24 “General Introduction,” Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, ed. George E. Ganss, S.J. (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1991), 41.
25 St. Ignatius of Loyola, The Autobiography, ch. 10.96, 109.
26 “General Introduction,” Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, 42.
27 Ibid., 45.
28 St. Ignatius of Loyola, “Formula of the Institute of the Society of Jesus,” papal bull of Julius III, Exposit Debitum (21 July 1550). From Pasquale Puca, “St. Ignatius of Loyola and the Development of the Society of Jesus,” L’Osservatore Romano (30 January 2008, p. 12); available from http://www.ewtn.com/library/MARY/ignatloysj.htm; Internet; accessed 16 June 2018.
29 “General Introduction,” Ignatius of Loyola: Spiritual Exercises and Selected Works, 43.
30 Ibid., 43.
31 Ibid., 46.
32 Ibid., 48.
33 Ibid., 49.
34 Ibid., 46.
35 Ibid., 49.
36 Joseph N. Tylenda, S.J., “St. Ignatius Loyola,” Jesuit Saints and Martyrs (Chicago, Illinois: Loyola University Press, 1984), 241-250. Available from http://www.manresa-canada.ca/about/bio_st_ignatius_loyola.shtml; Internet; accessed 15 June 2018.
37 Traub and Mooney, “A Biography of St. Ignatius Loyola (1491-1556): The Founder of the Jesuits,”
*Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), The Life of St. Ignatius Loyola; available from http://jesuitinstitute.org/Pages/VitaRubens.htm.
**By Misburg3014 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.
***Manresa Photo Credit: https://jesuits.eu/news/279-30-days-spiritual-exercises-in-english-in-manresa.
****By PMRMaeyaert [CC BY-SA 3.0 es (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/es/deed.en)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons.