St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), was born in 1491 in the castle of Loyola in the Basque territory of northern Spain. As a young man he was educated in courtly ways and in a magnanimous, romantic spirit aspired to great deeds and the personal glory of valiant, courageous service. He absorbed the virtues but also the vices of his culture and his times and was far from living a saintly life.
Ignatius’ initial conversion occurred in 1521 after he was injured in a battle at Pamplona, the capital of the Basque kingdom of Navarre. When he was struck down by a cannon ball, his leg shattered, the soldiers surrendered. Because of his courage to fight despite overwhelming odds, Ignatius was treated with honor by the victorious French who took him home to Loyola to convalesce.
In the following months, Ignatius wanted to read stories of the knights and romances but the only books available were on the lives of the saints and the life of Christ. In finally deciding to read those books, Ignatius slowly came to realize that his old life did not hold the same appeal. That led him to decide to give his own life over to the service of Jesus. He left his family home on a pilgrimage that, over several years, led to an even deeper conversion. His insights and first writings from this period evolved into the Spiritual Exercises, through which he made available for others the experiences of prayer that had led him to deeper union with God.
At the age of 33, Ignatius returned to school, first in Spain, then finally, at the University of Paris. There, by means of the Spiritual Exercises, six fellow students were drawn to his spiritual vision and became his close companions. Through prayer and discernment they decided to remain together after their studies. Their plan was to go to Jerusalem together or, if that were impossible, they would place themselves at the disposal of the Holy Father for whatever service was needed.
As events unfolded Ignatius and his companions were unable to reach Jerusalem. Their path led to Rome. These “Companions of Jesus”, as they decided to call themselves, focused their energies in the heart of Rome, preaching in the churches and in the marketplace, working in hospitals and caring for the poor. In 1540 after an intense communal discernment, they sought approval to become a new religious order which was granted by the Pope. In this way they sought to strengthen and maintain their unity in service for God’s greater glory.
Ignatius spent the last years of his life as the Superior General of the newly constituted “Society of Jesus.” He would remain in Rome the rest of his life working on the Constitutions that defined more fully the way of life of the companions whose only desire was to be servants of the mission of Jesus. He inspired and guided the various ministries of the society through thousands of letters that strengthened the unity of the companions who labored all over the globe. He died in 1556 at the age of 65; he was canonized in 1622.