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Ignatius Loyola

Quote: "Let me look at the foulness and ugliness of my body. Let me see myself as an ulcerous sore running with every horrible and disgusting poison." (Ignatius Loyola)

A small boy when Columbus first set sail, Ignatius Loyola (1491 - 1556) grew up in a world filled with possibility and exploding with geographical and mechanical discoveries. As the founder of the Society of Jesus—known simply as the Jesuits—he formed a militaristic missionary organization demanding strict discipline and loyalty. He set the pace for Catholic outreach worldwide, and before he died there were Jesuits scattered across Europe and serving in outposts as remote as India, Japan, and Brazil.

Born into nobility in the Basque country of Spain, Loyola is schooled in the Spanish court and steeped in military training and the art of chivalry. But the excitement of training soon turns into the horrors of a war in which his shin is shattered by a cannonball. He endures excruciating primitive surgery with no anesthetic, leaving him with constant pain and a lifelong limp.

In his early thirties, while recuperating, he reads biographies, including Stories of the Saints and Life of Christ. He is particularly impressed by the lives of two monastic leaders, Francis and Dominic, who founded religious orders. He vows to become a soldier of Christ, living a life of holy chivalry devoted to the Virgin Mary. To confirm his calling, he takes a pilgrimage to religious shrines that end in a remote village. There he lives in seclusion—tempted, as he later relates, to take his own life. Yet he continues to seek God, retiring to a cave where he prays for hours and experiences visions that reassure him in his faith.

His fame spreads through his writing, particularly his still-influential Spiritual Exercises. Here he lays out a path to piety, reflecting on his own spiritual life and the necessity of absolute obedience to Christ. Spiritual Exercises does not offer a warm and fuzzy spirituality; its purpose is to lay the groundwork for devout and disciplined discipleship. The subject matter is designed to fit a four-week retreat, focusing first on sin, followed by Christ's earthly kingship, his passion, and his reign as risen Lord. The exercises are designed not only for those who would become Jesuits but also for lay people.

In the following years he travels and studies theology at various universities. Collecting a band of followers, he stirs suspicions and is questioned by the Inquisition. In fact, he is twice briefly imprisoned. In 1534 he and six companions unite together and take vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the pope.

In 1539 they travel to Rome and receive the blessing of the Pope Paul III, who officially sanctions the Society of Jesus. Their absolute obedience to the pope comes in a "special vow" that Jesuits, unlike other orders, are required to obey—vowing to "take upon ourselves, beyond the bond common to all the faithful, a special vow . . . meant so to bind that whatsoever the present Roman Pontiff and his successors may command us concerning the advancement of souls and the spreading of the faith, we shall be obliged to obey instantly."

Distinct from most other religious orders, the Jesuits do not require a monk's cowl or any other religious uniform, nor are daily liturgies or fasting or penance part of the religious routine. They follow the Spiritual Exercises, with its focus on an intense period of prayer and meditation. Though Loyola does not establish an order for women, he does donate money for the establishment of the House of St. Martha, which helps prostitutes leave their profession and reunite with their families or join in the ministry.

Missionary outreach becomes the hallmark of the Jesuits as they spread out across the globe from India and Japan to South America, Africa, and French Canada. Loyola serves as Superior General, heading up the vast administrative duties from his office in Rome. Before he dies, he drafts the Constitutions, a lengthy and detailed rulebook that clearly differentiates Jesuits from the other monastic orders that require a strict ascetic life style. Mobility is the key to Jesuit effectiveness. As the church militant, cloistered monasticism simply is not their way of serving Jesus. By the time of his death in 1556, there are more than a thousand Jesuits, and within decades the membership exceeds ten thousand.

Today's reading is from Parade of Faith: A Biographical History of the Christian Church by Ruth Tucker. © 2010 by Zondervan. Used with permission. All rights reserved. The book's title must be included when sharing the above content on social media.

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