St. Ignatius was a Spanish priest who founded the Society of Jesus, or Jesuit Order, in 1540. He intended the society to be servants of the pope, and therefore of the universal Catholic Church. The Jesuits have been given credit for responding to the Protestant Reformation and for winning back to the Catholic fold many of the people who had left the church.1 St. Ignatius, known as Inigo in Spanish, lived a life of chivalry in his early years. Before devoting his life to God, he was a dedicated solider, and it wasn’t until he came to a near death experience that he decided to change his life.
In 1521, Ignatius was a soldier fighting to defend the Spanish city of Pamplona alongside his master Antonio de Manrique, the Duke of Nájera, against the French. Negotiations began between the besieged Spanish and the French military leaders, and when talk of surrendering to the French came up, Ignatius was furious at the weakness of his Spanish negotiators. He wanted to defend the city or die trying.2 The French proceeded to attack the city. Unfortunately, Ignatius was shot by a cannon and was seriously injured. The cannonball had struck his legs and seriously damaged one of them. Fortunately, some French soldiers tended to his damaged leg. The soldiers saved his leg from amputation, so in return, Ignatius gave away his shield, corset, and dagger to the French soldiers. From the battlefield, Ignatius was transported to northern Spanish town of Anzuola to recover.
When Ignatius arrived in Anzuola, the doctors decided that it would take multiple surgeries to help him. First, they decided that his leg had to be broken again and his bones reset. During the first operation, Ignatius did not utter a single sound, and the only indication of pain he gave was clinched fist. The operation brought Ignatius to near death. He was advised to confess his sins to a priest, and was told that if he did not feel better, he could consider himself a dead man. That night Ignatius prayed to St. Peter and later that night he started to feel better. However, something went wrong during the second surgery. As the bones in his right leg settled, a piece of the bone had started to push itself forward from his knee creating a stub.3 Ignatius immediately demanded another operation be performed. Ignatius believed that life had no purpose if he could not prove his courage to women or wear the elegant knee-boots of the hidalgo.4 The doctors advised against this, but Ignatius insisted. Again, he did not utter a single sound during the very painful surgery. The surgery was a success, but Ignatius remained bedridden for months. When he was well enough to read, he requested books of chivalry, but there were no books of that kind in the castle. Instead, he was given The Life of Christ and The Lives of the Saints.
These two books had a great impact on his life. At first, Ignatius read these books in disgust. He dismissed the saints for the penances they performed. Slowly, the nobility of their actions grew on him. He was able to find things that he admired about them. One saint that caught Ignatius’s eye was Saint Francis. He admired St. Francis’ courage, his love of dancing, his singing, and his love for nature. These books changed the way he thought about life. He wanted to be a working servant of Christ, like St. Francis had been. While he was recovering, he saw a vision of Mary, the mother of God, and was filled with joy. This vision of Mary made Ignatius completely devote his life to God.
After he had recovered, he gave all his clothes away and became a hermit and focused on helping the sick. He wrote about his experiences, which eventually became known as the Spiritual Exercises. He knew he would need an education to help convert people, so he went to Barcelona to further his education. He became a priest in 1537. In his earlier life he had been a faithful and dedicated solider, and now he brought those same characteristics to his life in the priesthood. In 1540, Pope Paul III confirmed the formation of the Society of Jesus. Ignatius led the Jesuits along the lines of his military experience, but instead of fighting on military battlefields, they were to dedicate their military-like focus to serving the interests of God and to converting people back to the Roman church. When Ignatius died in 1556, there were one-thousand Jesuits working in Europe, Asia, and the Americas.5 The Jesuits have been known ever since for their strong belief in education and for their missionary work. Today, Jesuits can be found throughout the world, contributing to their missionary work and to their many schools.