One year after Pope Paul III approved the Society of Jesus, the Jesuits elected Ignatius of Loyola to be General of their Society, in 1541. Ignatius tried to reject this appointment, but after he was voted to the position three times, he accepted that this was God’s will for him and the Jesuits. The man who had dreamed of, first, serving God in Jerusalem and then, spreading the Gospel throughout the world, would, for the most part, not travel further than Rome for the remainder of his life.
However, Ignatius, as Father General, would support and mentor hundreds of Jesuit priests who did travel far and wide to present the Gospel and to teach the faith. We know of at least 7,000 letters written by him to those serving in Jesuit missions and to others with whom he walked as friend and/or spiritual director.
Jesuit priests were among the first Christian ministers to adapt to other cultures in order to further God’s kingdom. Wherever they were, they learned languages and participated as best they could in cultural and public affairs. They became mapmakers and mathematicians, astronomers, linguists, and doctors.
The Society of Jesus is known for the many Jesuit schools and universities it has established. However, this institutional aspect of the Jesuits was not part of anyone’s early plans. The Jesuits began educating young men to better prepare them for their formation as priests. Eventually people asked for this high-quality education for their children, whether or not they would enter the priesthood. Today, most people think of universities when they hear the term Jesuit. Or they think of early missionaries to Japan, China, and native peoples in the Americas.
Besides the mission outreach of the Society of Jesus, it could be argued that the most influential contribution of Ignatius of Loyola is the Spiritual Exercises, written in rough form during his own difficult and illuminating time in the cave of Manresa and then approved by Pope Paul III in 1548. Much of what we today call spiritual direction grew from the principles Ignatius laid out in this relatively short document. Ignatius did not invent these principles, and he probably wasn’t the first person to discover them and pass them along to others. However, their form, as given in the Spiritual Exercises, has helped millions of people attend to their spiritual growth and understanding.
When Ignatius died in 1556, from “Roman fever,” a type of malaria, the Society of Jesus was 16 years old and included about 1,000 men with Jesuit houses in 100 locations. Not a bad legacy for a man who had started out as a typical Spanish soldier-nobleman and yet found a revolutionary direction and purpose for his life. Because he was willing to be transformed—through a process long and unpredictable—we have powerful resources for our own spiritual becoming. St. Ignatius has given us a worthy guide for not only engaging in our personal spiritual processes but also for acting as compassionate and wise spiritual companions for others.
How has St. Ignatius’s legacy influenced you personally?