Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary
Catholic Culture Trusted Commentary

The Jesuits and the Catholic Reformation — Part 1: The Founder

by Jeremias Wells

Descriptive Title

The Jesuits and the Catholic Reformation


This article provides a brief summary of the events in the life of Saint Ignatius of Loyola which lead him to found the Society of Jesus.

Larger Work

Crusade Magazine

Publisher & Date

The American Society for the Defense of Tradition, Family and Property (TFP), September/October 2004

The period under review has been frequently and erroneously called the Counter-Reformation as if it was merely a reaction to counter Protestant inroads made against Catholicism. The motive power came not from a defensive maneuver but from an awakening of the spirit of a life of prayer and sacrifice for the love of God. In times of stress, the more pious members of the Church have always seen the need for a renewal of the interior life. Numerous times in the past, groups of holy monks and religious from Cluny and the Cistercians to the Franciscan and Dominicans have brought about a profound spiritual regeneration that raised the faithful of the Holy Catholic Church back from the abyss of decay.

The flowering of piety and the love of God in the last half of the 16th century had its roots in the first half and even in the last decades of the 15th, but as the metaphor suggests, on a much smaller scale. Even in these darkest of days, God's grace penetrated deeply into the souls of few dedicated Catholics.

Saint Catherine of Genoa

After several years of abandonment from her profligate, wealthy husband, Catherine of Genoa, at the point of despair, entered a church and fell to her knees. Suddenly, she was overwhelmed by an immense, powerful light of a divinely induced love of God. She spent the remaining 37 years of her life (d.1510) nursing the sick for which she gathered about her many followers and was blessed with many ecstasies during which God revealed to her many spiritual doctrines, among them an understanding of the pain and anticipation of Purgatory.

During her final days she alternated between ecstatic visions of God and terrible tortures which was her own purgatory. God duplicated the suffering of the saints on the day of their feast. On the evening of Saint Lawrence's day, she experienced the pain of burning and saw her body enveloped in flames.

Through Catherine's advice and inspiration several priests and laymen who wanted to lead a more perfect life formed the Oratory of Divine Love, for which she wrote a rule and prescribed a fixed program of prayer, fasting and frequent Communion. She herself received the Blessed Sacrament daily, unusual for those days, which was her only source of nourishment for a good part of the year. Her body is whole and incorrupt to this day and has the marks of the stigmata.

Two members of the Oratory, Saint Cajetan (Gaetano di Thiene) and Bishop Caraffa (eventually Pope Paul IV) founded a congregation of clerks regular known as the Theatines in order to engage in all the activities that relieve human suffering and dispel ignorance, which was one of the chief obstacles to salvation. The spiritual renewal of the inner man spread throughout Italy by Saints Jerome Emilliani and Anthony Zaccaria, who also founded new congregations that reinvigorated Catholic life. The sanctification and education of girls and young women was inaugurated by Saint Angela Merici who founded a religious order under the patronage of Saint Ursula, from whom they took their name. In Spain the preaching of Blessed John of Avila led to the conversion of Saint John of God who served the same function there of the above-mentioned Italian saints. All this personal sacrifice and spiritual activity culminated in the establishment of the most illustrious of all the new foundations: the Society of Jesus.

Profile: Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Inigo de Loyola was born into a large, poor, but highly respected, noble family in the Basque country of northeastern Spain in 1491. Well-proportioned and attractive, the young soldier sought little in life other than military glory and the admiring glances of high-born ladies at the Spanish court where he was a frequent visitor. When the French under Francis I tried to reclaim the Kingdom of Navarre, the theater commander under Charles V sent Ignatius, already an experienced soldier, to defend the Spanish garrison at Pamplona at the foot of the Pyrenees. Badly outnumbered in a nearly hopeless cause, the valiant captain put up a spirited defense until a cannonball shattered his right leg. In admiration of his gallantry and fighting spirit, the French — after their short-lived victory (the Spanish retook the city six weeks later) — patched up Ignatius and had him carried on a litter back to his family castle nearby.

Unfortunately, the French medical technique did not match their chivalry. Shortly after his arrival, Spanish surgeons were forced in an exceptionally painful procedure to break the injured bone and reset it. The whole ordeal broke his health and death seemed imminent. On the eve of the feast of Saints Peter and Paul (1521), the physicians declared that unless he improved that night he would not see the dawn of the next day. Around midnight Saint Peter, to whom he had a special devotion, appeared to the struggling invalid and told him he would recover. He did. Yet during the healing process, it became distressingly clear that the right leg would be badly deformed, preventing the dashing caballero from even standing properly. So Ignatius, still very much a man of the world, endured another agonizing operation that did straighten the leg but nevertheless left him with a permanent limp.

During his long recuperation, we see one of the most amazing examples of the influence of divine grace on a receptive soul. To pass away the long, dreary hours of convalescence, Ignatius asked for some books of romantic exploits that would flatter his imagination. A search of the castle yielded only a book on the life of Our Lord by the Carthusian monk, Landolphus, and another containing the biographies of several saints which, nevertheless, the bedridden soldier studied with interest.

The prayers, penances, and other austerities that the saints endured to subdue their passions for the love of God made a deep impression on the heroic side of the warrior's mind. This awakened in him a new life of a soldier of Christ, which in turn brought on a new type of battle: spiritual combat where there can be no compromise. Ignatius saw with his militant, Spanish fervor that to serve God in the eternal battle between the opposing forces of good and evil, of light and darkness, also required a new type of training and preparation.

This period of his purgative life ended with an endearing vision of Our Lady who appeared with great sweetness carrying the Child Jesus in her arms. From that point on all sensual desire was extinguished in him and he was preserved in purity. Shortly after he left the family estate and embarked on a penitential journey of several years that took him across northern Spain through Italy to the Holy Land, back to Spain and eventually to Paris.

The Pilgrim Years

The itinerant penitent traveled to the lofty heights of Montserrat crowned by a Benedictine monastery which had maintained its medieval holiness and a famous shrine of Our Lady. There after a general confession and a bath, he passed the night on the eve of the feast of the Annunciation at the feet of Our Lady in a vigil of arms of a new soldier of Christ. He gave away his fine clothes of a nobleman, put on a tunic of sackcloth girded by a rope and walked off the mountain, a man of poverty and of no fixed residence.

In the valley below, there lay the town of Manresa of about 2,000 people and dozens of shrines, chapels and oratories of the Blessed Virgin. During the next ten months, Ignatius alternately lived in a cave, at the hospital of Saint Lucy, or in a small cell at the Dominican priory and divided his time between prayer, caring for the sick and begging for food. The excessive austerities that he practiced, self-flagellation, fasts, long hours of prayer with little sleep, occasionally brought on illness, but he had to discover the bounds of prudence in order, in the future, to instruct his spiritual children. But what gives this period its special importance in his penitential journey is the continual divine operation on his intelligence through visions and direct instruction. One incident stands out above the rest.

While sitting on the bank of a local river, an extraordinary illumination filled his soul that gave him a complete understanding of Catholic wisdom, including knowledge of the Trinity, the Incarnation, the Blessed Sacrament and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Although the holy warrior would later earn a licentiate in philosophy, at this period he joined the ranks of many other unlettered saints who never passed through the schools, yet know more about divine things than those who had. Although the holiness of his life influenced many people to rise above their state of spiritual indifference, he slowly came to realize that he had another vocation to find companions to preach the Kingdom of God to the infidels of the world. With that end in mind, he decided on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

From Manresa Ignatius walked the twenty-five miles or so to the port-city of Barcelona, then the capital of Catalonia, carrying with him only his devotional books, his spiritual notes, a few bits of bread and no money. He had full confidence that God would provide for his necessities. Begging free passage, he sailed to Italy and arrived in Rome during the pontificate (1523) of Adrian VI, the former teacher of Charles V, from whom he received a papal blessing. He walked to Venice and again found free passage which took him across the Mediterranean and eventually to Jerusalem.

With intense devotion and frequently in tears, Ignatius relived the life and passion of Our Lord as he walked through the streets sanctified by His suffering. Despite cruel treatment by the rapacious Ottoman Turks who controlled the eastern lands, the holy pilgrim reached such spiritual heights that he decided to live the rest of his life there in meditation and preaching. However, the Franciscan provincial absolutely refused to allow it. He explained to the devout but inexperienced soldier of Christ that the Turks most certainly would either kill him or sell him into slavery. Sadly he retraced his steps back through Cyprus and Italy to Barcelona.

The long journey gave Ignatius an opportunity to realize that in order to pursue his vague vocation to save souls he needed a better education. The first humiliating step he had to take was to attend a boy's school at the advanced age of thirty-three to study the Latin he needed to understand university lectures.

During his two years in Barcelona, his circle of penitents and benefactors increased due to his holiness and sound religious instruction. But while the good were drawn to him by a powerful attraction, the bad developed a venomous hatred. One night as Ignatius and a priest companion were returning from a reforming mission at a convent, a gang of paid Moslem assassins savagely beat them with clubs. The priest died and Ignatius spent two painful months in bed.

With his Latin studies completed, the aging student moved on to the great university cities of Alcala and Salamanca to study philosophy. Along with his studies, begging and ministry to alleviate the suffering of the poor, the zealous saint spent an increasing amount of time improving the interior life of his numerous followers. The essence of his teaching consisted in series of meditations based on the instructions and visions from God Himself that he had copied down in his ever-present notebook. Through these meditations, Ignatius develops as a penitent an abhorrence of sin (purgative way). Then through contemplation of Our Lord's life and passion, he is led to abandon all inordinate desire for earthly pleasures and material things that interfere with the quest for a holier life (illuminative way). And finally the reformed soul can lead his life strictly in conformity with the will of God, thereby increasing the mutual love of both (unitive way). After frequent revision and use, the meditations were published in Rome in 1548 under the title of Spiritual Exercises.

The widespread, successful but unconventional apostolate eventually attracted unfavorable attention and he was denounced to the Inquisition. The harassed saint languished in prison for 42 days while the vicar-general of Toledo investigated. At the end of his imprisonment, Ignatius was declared free from heresy but, nevertheless, forbidden to teach, preach or otherwise engage in any religious education in the diocese for a period of three years. Disappointed, the ardent soldier of Christ moved on to Salamanca but ran into the same wall of obstruction there and another 22 days in jail.

To avoid the restrictions placed on him by the unimaginative Spanish clergy, Ignatius decided to go Paris. Either through timidity or lack of confidence in Our Lady, his original circle of companions refused to follow. Once more on the road for Christ, our pilgrim made his way back to Barcelona, said goodbye to his loyal friends, and walked over the Pyrenees in the dead of winter into France. For 18 months, Ignatius polished his Latin and traveled widely to secure a group of benefactors to enable him to study without the necessity of constant begging. On October 1, 1529, the founder of the Society of Jesus formally entered the University of Paris and met his two new roommates, Pierre Favre, the first Jesuit, and a young popular sports hero who looked rather disapprovingly on the gimpy, aging beggar, but was yet to become the great Francis Xavier.

© The American TFP

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