Ignatius Loyola founded the Jesuits (the Society of Jesus). The Jesuits were one of the major spearheads of the Counter-Reformation. The work done by Ignatius Loyola was seen as an important counter to Martin Luther and John Calvin.

Ignatius Loyola was born in 1491 into a wealthy noble family. He was educated as a knight. Like many young men from his background, Loyola joined the army. In May 1521, he was wounded at the Battle of Pamplona while fighting against France. While Loyola recovered from his wounds he underwent a spiritual conversion. After reading about the lives of the Saints and of Christ, Loyola concluded that his life had been a sham and he decided to reform it. After claiming to have seen a vision of the Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus 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. He devoted hours each day to prayer and when he was not doing this he tended to the sick and poor.

In 1523, Loyola travelled to the Holy Land in an attempt to convert the Moors. However, he was sent back by the Franciscans to Italy. Loyola spent the next seven years learning Theology and Latin at Barcelona, Alcala and Salamanca universities and after this Loyola went to the college of Montaigu in Paris. He arrived in Paris at the same time as John Calvin was leaving!

His university education ended in 1535. During his time of studying Loyola collected eight followers who shared his beliefs. In August 1534, they swore obedience to the Pope and also took vows of poverty and chastity. Loyola and his followers determined to dedicate their lives as missionaries to the Holy Land.

On September 27th, 1540, the Society for Jesus received formal recognition from Pope Paul III. Loyola had been ordained as a priest in 1537 and he spent much time in Rome where he organised the work of the Jesuits as the order’s first General. Loyola had become convinced that he could not do his work within an existing order, hence his determination to start his own.

Loyola ensured that the Jesuit movement was highly disciplined and that all followers knew by heart his ‘Spiritual Exercises’ and ‘Constitution’. Education and self-examination were at the heart of the movement and after years of training, a Jesuit was considered fully prepared to carry out his work in the world.

By the time of Loyola’s death in 1556, there were an estimated 1,000 Jesuits organised into eleven units. Nine of these units were in Europe, one was in Brazil and the other was in the Far East.

Symptomatic of the training initiated by Loyola was the work done by the likes of John Gerrard, a Jesuit who worked in England. Gerrard was caught and imprisoned in the Tower of London where he was tortured. Despite this, Gerrard was one of the few men to escape from this fortress. Rather than leave for the relative safety of Europe, he remained in England to continue with his work.

Another who set the highest standards for the Jesuits was Francis Xavier. He was one of the original followers of Loyola and was one of the greatest missionaries of all time. In 1541, he was invited to go to the East Indies by John III of Portugal. Xavier was from an aristocratic family yet he found himself on a filthy ship devastated by fever. He washed, scrubbed and cooked for all the people on board. He went to Goa, Travancore, Malacca, Molucca Isles, Sri Lanka and Japan. Xavier eventually died near Hong Kong thus failing in his wish to get to China. Xavier very much lived up to the standards imposed on the Jesuits by Loyola. He travelled extensively in great hardship but it is estimated that Xavier converted more than 700,000 people to the Catholic faith.

Ignatius Loyola’s Jesuits transformed the Roman Catholic Church in terms of quality and they became a vital part of the Counter-Reformation.

Ignatius Loyola was canonised in 1622.

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