Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order of Roman Catholic missionaries and educators, dies in Rome. The Society of Jesus, as the Jesuit order is formally known, played an important role in the Counter-Reformation and eventually succeeded in converting millions around the world to Catholicism.
Ignatius, the son of a noble and wealthy Spanish family called the Loyolas, was born in his family’s ancestral castle in 1491. Little interested in church matters, he trained as a knight and in 1517 went in the service of a relative, Antonio Manrique de Lara, the duke of Najera and viceroy of Navarre. In May 1521, during the siege of Pamplona by the French, his legs were shattered by a cannonball. Seriously wounded, he was transported to his family’s castle, where he was forced to lie in convalescence for many weeks. During this time, he was given the Bible and a book on the saints to read. He came to see the service of God as a kind of holy chivalry and resolved to live an austere life in imitation of the saints.
In February 1522 he made a pilgrimage to Montserrat, where a wooden statue of the Virgin Mary and Child, supposedly carved by St. Luke, resides. Ignatius hung his sword and dagger near the statue as symbols of his conversion to a holy life. For the next year, he lived as a beggar and prayed for seven hours a day, often in a cave near Manresa in northeastern Spain. During this time, he composed an early draft of The Spiritual Exercises, his manual for spiritual meditation and conversion. In 1523, he made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.
After his return to Spain in 1524, Ignatius resolved to gain an extensive education to prepare himself for his spiritual mission. He studied in Barcelona and at the University of Alcala, where he began to acquire followers. Suspected of heresy, he was tried in Alcala, and later in Salamanca but both times was acquitted. He was forbidden to teach until he reached the priesthood, and he went to the University of Paris to continue his studies.
In August 1534, the Jesuit movement was born when Ignatius led six of his followers to Montmartre near Paris, where the group took vows of poverty and chastity and made plans to work for the conversion of Muslims. If travel to the Holy Land was not possible, they vowed to offer themselves to the pope for apostolic work. In 1537, Ignatius and most of his companions were ordained. Unable to travel to Jerusalem because of the Turkish wars, they went to Rome instead to meet with the pope and request permission to form a new religious order. In September 1540, Pope Paul III approved Ignatius’ outline of the Society of Jesus, as the Jesuit order is formally known.
Under Ignatius’ charismatic leadership, the Society of Jesus grew quickly. Jesuit missionaries played a leading role in the Counter-Reformation and won back many of the European faithful who had been lost to Protestantism. In Ignatius’ lifetime, Jesuits were also dispatched to India, Brazil, the Congo region, and Ethiopia. Education was of utmost importance to the Jesuits, and in Rome Ignatius founded the Roman College (later called the Gregorian University) and the Germanicum, a school for German priests. The Jesuits also ran several charitable organizations, such as one for former prostitutes and one for converted Jews. When Ignatius de Loyola died on July 31, 1556, there were more than 1,000 Jesuit priests.
During the next century, the Jesuits set up ministries around the globe. The “Black-Robes,” as they were known in Native America, often preceded European countries in their infiltration of foreign lands and societies. The life of a Jesuit was one of immense risk, and thousands of priests were persecuted or killed by foreign authorities hostile to their mission of conversion. However, in some nations, such as India and China, the Jesuits were revered as men of wisdom and science.
With the rise of nationalism in the 18th century, most European countries suppressed the Jesuits, and in 1773 Pope Clement XIV dissolved the order under pressure from the Bourbon monarchs. However, in 1814, Pope Pius VII gave in to popular demand and reestablished the Jesuits as an order, and they continue their missionary work to this day. Ignatius de Loyola was canonized as a Catholic saint in 1622. His feast day is July 31.