Saint Ignatius (1491 – 1556) was born in his father’s castle of Loyola, at Azpetia, Spain. He was brought up in the house of Juan Velásquez de Cuellar, contador mayor to King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
In 1517, Velásquez died and St Ignatius took service as an officer in the army. Four years later, while in defense of Pamplona against the French, his legs were hit by a cannonball. His right shin was broken and his left calf torn. With his fall, his soldiers lost heart, the citadel was captured and along with it, St Ignatius. He was well treated by the French, nevertheless, who provided first aid and carried him on a litter to his family in Loyola. The injury to his legs led to a long period of recovery and much physical suffering. Saint Ignatius bore this patiently and to pass the time read the only two books available to him: a life of Christ and a lives of the saints. While reading the lives of the saints, he noticed that when he thought of imitating them in the accomplishment of noble deeds in the service of God, he would feel great peace. On the other hand, when he thought of doing great and noble deeds in the service of his earthly king, he felt no peace at all. His conversion was completed when, while lying on his sick bed and meditating on heavenly things, he had a vision of Our Lady holding the Baby Jesus. He felt at that moment a deep desire to serve God and a great sense of loathing for his past sins and for sins of the flesh. After this experience, St Ignatius’ goal, which before had been worldly, became to live a life dedicated to the greater glory of God. From this day on, when undergoing some trial or tribulation, he would often repeat to himself – “For the greater glory of God”.
After his recovery, in 1522, St Ignatius went to the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat where he spent three days in fasting, prayer and examining his conscience in preparation for a general confession. At the end of this period he confessed, gave his rich clothes to the poor replacing them with a sack cloth garment, and hung his sword and dagger at Our Lady’s altar. He then spent a year living close to the monastery, leading a life of prayer and mortification and assisting the poor at the local hospital. During this period, he wrote what would later become his famous book, Spiritual Exercises. St Ignatius then undertook a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Upon his arrival there, however, the Franciscans requested that he return immediately to Spain, and explained that the request was due to the danger of him being captured by the Muslims and held for ransom. He acquiesced their demand only after being told that if he remained, he would be in disobedience to the Pope who had written a Bull giving the Franciscans the power to order pilgrims to leave.
Back in Europe, St Ignatius spent the next several years studying and preparing himself for the priesthood. In 1527, he entered the University of Salamanca and a year later he moved to Paris to study at its famous University. There he met the companions with whom he would form the Society of Jesus, the members of which came to be known as Jesuits: St Francis Xavier, Alfonso Salmeron, Diego Laynez, Nicholas Bobadilla, St Peter Faber, and Simão Rodrigues. The Society was formed by these men in 1534 when, together, they took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Its main purpose was the defence and propagation of the faith. St Ignatius was its first general superior and the order was approved by Pope Paul III in 1540.
The saint finished his studies in 1537, obtaining a Master of Arts degree. He then moved to Rome where he stayed for the remainder of his life. During those years, he dedicated himself to the management of the Society which quickly grew and spread into Europe, Asia and the Americas, bringing souls back from heresy and leading souls in distant lands to discover Christ, their Saviour.
Saint Ignatius died on July 31, 1561 of the Roman fever, which is now believed to be malaria. His passing was peaceful, accompanied by his followers and having received a final papal blessing, but before holy oils could be fetched since he had given no signs of suffering or of his impending departure from this life.