My third point about St. Ignatius of Loyola is that his life defied social norms. I find great comfort in this, because my life certainly has not followed what many people would consider a normal script. It’s easy to feel as if you’ve done something wrong along the way. Did I miss the person I was supposed to marry? If I’d done this or that differently, could I have had children, or gone back to school, or started my own business? If only I could find the right regimens of exercise, diet, and skin care, could I look 10 years younger than I really am?—because that has become the norm in our U.S. culture.
Ignatius would have expected to marry and produce heirs—this was what culture required, especially of people in the noble classes. It was also not uncommon for at least one child in a Spanish, Catholic family to go into the convent or the monastery, so people might have expected Ignatius to become a monk rather than go the family route. Ignatius did eventually become a priest, but he was in his mid-40s at the time, and back then, mid-40s was not midlife but the senior years. He began his most important work when a lot of people would have been slowing down.
It was not so unusual for an individual or a group of people to form an order of priests or nuns devoted to God. But even here, Ignatius and his companions took ministry in a different direction from what was normal. At the time, religious orders were situated in stable communities—monasteries and convents at which the religious stayed, usually for life. In these fixed communities, they prayed together and worked together. If you were a religious back then, you lived in one place and prayed the Divine Office—the cycle of daily prayers all year long. This prayer was considered a key aspect of religious life and ministry.
But the Society of Jesus envisioned ministry that moved beyond monastery walls. Ignatius and his companions wanted to be out in the world where people most needed to encounter the gospel. They envisioned using whatever gifts they had wherever they might do the most good. They convinced the pope to give them permission not to stay in community and pray the offices daily—this was a big deal, and it took some doing. But that initial vision made it possible for Jesuit priests to roam the world as teachers, astronomers, cartographers, doctors, and linguists and, at the same time, bring to people the gospel and the sacraments. This pray-on-the-move philosophy has remained at the heart of Jesuit missions.
Ignatius’s superiors in the church tried to convince the Society of Jesus to be just one more monastic order. But by that time in his life, I imagine that Ignatius was accustomed to going off script! We’re so grateful that he did.