The Jesuits played a very important role in the Counter-Reformation. The founder of the Jesuits, Ignatius Loyola, must be seen as a key player during it. Loyola was the son of a Basque nobleman and was born in 1491. He became a soldier who was fond of women and gambling – and he had a  typical upbringing for a richman’s son with enjoyment taking a precedence within his life with no obvious professional calling.

In 1521 he fought in the army of Charles V. While defending Pampuna he was hit by a cannonball and badly damaged his left leg. While recovering from this injury, he suffered a crisis believing that his life seemed purposeless. He took to reading about the life of Christ and the Saints. He saw a vision of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus and he went to the shrine of Our Lady at Montserrat in Aragon and became a hermit living in a cave near Mantua in 1522. He spent his time in rags confessing and scourging himself whilst helping the sick. “I will follow like a puppy dog if I can only find a way to salvation.” Loyola threw himself at the mercy of God and this crisis (be it psychological or not) is similar to what Luther went through.

However, unlike Luther, he found his salvation in mystical experiences and not in the Scriptures. He was willing to accept the beliefs already available so he felt no desire to develop a new creed. He had complete obedience to the Catholic Church and its faith.

In 1523, he went on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem as he wished to communicate his love and knowledge to others. He intended a mission to the Turks but he was sent back by the Franciscans to Italy. He spent the next seven years learning Theology and Latin at Barcelona, Alcara and Salamanca and after this he went to the college of Montaigu in Paris. He arrived in Paris at the same time as John Calvin was leaving!

While in Paris he collected around himself six companions. Xavier, who was a Basque, three men from Castille, one from Savoy and a Portugese. In 1534 they all swore an oath of poverty, chastity and obedience to the pope. They made a promise to go to Palestine if the pope agreed to this. Loyola was ordained as a priest in Venice in 1537. Here he helped the sick and the poor. After Venice, Loyola went to Rome. He could not go to Palestine as the Muslim Turks barred his way. In Rome he met many other Counter-Reformers.

In September 1540, Pope Paul III licensed the Society of Jesus for the care of souls in life and for teaching and preaching the faith. Loyola felt that he had to start a fresh order rather than work within an already existing one as existent orders were tainted.

In 1541, Loyola was elected as first General of the Society – a position he held until his death in 1556. Training in the Society was long and hard. You were a novice for two years doing theory and practical work in hospitals. You went on pilgrimages and you had to spend time begging. If you ‘passed’ this part, you then spent between 10 and 12 years as a scholar studying Theology, Philosophy and the Humanities. You also learnt how to teach others.

Loyola’s “Constitutions” did not reach its final form until 1558. This laid down the rules for the Society:

  1. The Jesuits were to be at the disposal of the pope.
  2. They were to go wherever he ordered them to go to save souls.
  3. They were never to accept a bishopric etc. unless the pope ordered it.
  4. They were to wear no special habit.
  5. There were to be no special mortification’s, e.g. no fasting without a medical report.
  6. They were excused from communal prayer and masses.
  7. All members were to take the three traditional monastic vows. An elite would take a fourth vow of direct obedience to the pope if he sent them on a foreign mission.
  8. Faith was to be spread by preaching, spiritual exercises, charity and education in Christianity.

Loyola’s other major work was “Spiritual Exercises. This he had begun in 1522 and it was completed in 1548. This was designed for Jesuits to become mystics and to have less attachment to things of the world. It informed Jesuits on how “to master the soul to manipulate the body.”

A series of mental exercises was developed concentrating on sin and conscience, on the life of Christ – directing the mind to complete union with Him. It outlined the correct posture for meditation. These exercises toughened the mind for the work that was to follow. Loyola placed high value on meditation but he was also an active and able organiser.

Like Luther, his conversion was a emotional experience and like Calvin he had an iron logic which placed an emphasis on education and a desire to create a powerful spiritual religious order that was, nevertheless, realistic in its approach. All Jesuits had a sense of commitment, a capacity for organisation and a high level of intellectual ability and this helped to preserve and transmit much of the new learning of the Renaissance.

The Jesuits were held in such high regard that popes sent them into the heart of Protestantism to “win back lost souls”. They went without dissent despite the obvious dangers to their own well—being and liberty. Their commitment, as Loyola had demanded, was fierce possibly even fanatical.

In England, it was a Jesuit priest (John Gerrard) who despite being terribly tortured managed to escape from the Tower of London and, after recovering, continued with his work. Xavier, one of the original Jesuits, went to the Far East to convert the population despite the obvious and real dangers to himself.

Even catholic countries had reason to fear the Jesuits. In France, they were seen as a potential rival to the Parlément de Paris and the Sorbonne when they declared their intention of opening a Jesuit college in Paris. The fear could have been that the Jesuits might have shown up both bodies as not being the true Catholics they claimed to be whereas they, the Jesuits, quite clearly led the life of true Catholics.