Monday, July 31, 2023

The Beginnings of Ignatius Loyola’s Great Mission

There are many wonderful stories from the life of Saint Ignatius Loyola (July 31) as he followed the Lord’s call (together with his earliest companions) to found and foster the emergence of a singular missionary charism in the life of the Church: the Society of Jesus. 

It all began within the heart of Ignatius, as the Holy Spirit drew him from the ambitions of a worldly life to a total commitment to follow Christ. Here is the text of my column on Saint Ignatius that appeared in the May 2014 issue of Magnificat.

The “great conversion story” of Saint Ignatius is well known. An element that deserves more attention, however, is the vital human connection between the wounded soldier destined to found the Jesuits and a medieval Carthusian’s witness to the Person of Christ. Born in 1491, Ignatius was the youngest son of a noble family in the Basque region of Spain. With a passion for earthly glory, he became a soldier in the armies of Castile, and was seriously wounded by a cannonball in May of 1521. During a long recovery, he became bored, and asked for books of chivalrous tales to pass the time. But the only books available were “saints’ lives” and “a life of Christ.” Having nothing better to do, he began to peruse these books. It was there, in his bed, that he encountered Jesus Christ, and the extraordinary change in his life began.

The saints inspired Ignatius. He found his Catholic faith incarnated in the stories of heroic men such as Saint Francis and Saint Dominic. His ambition began to change, slowly, as he felt the aspiration to “compete” with the saints for this new ideal of holiness. The witness of the communion of saints began to shine for him. Most importantly, however, he read and pondered for the first time the events of the life of Jesus. Ignatius did not read the New Testament in 1521, for it did not exist in Spanish translation. What he was given to read was a most extraordinary four volume “Life of Christ” by a 14th century Carthusian hermit, Ludolph of Saxony.

Ludolph takes up the Gospel stories methodically, following the events from the Annunciation to the Nativity and infancy, to the Baptism of Jesus, His Public Life and ministry, His Passion, Resurrection, and Ascension, and onward to the Final Judgment. Each event receives copious attention with Ludolph drawing on Scripture and the Church Fathers to illuminate its meaning. Ludolph’s method is to lead the reader to place himself “inside” the particular events. He gives rich imaginative descriptions and exhorts his reader to “look” at the details, consider their significance and embrace the grace of a prayerful encounter with Christ. The fruit of his own contemplative life became a written witness to the Person of Christ that could be shared. .

But Ludolph’s image-rich meditations were destined to have an audience he could never have imagined. A century after his death came the printing press. Suddenly, the hermit was translated into several vernacular languages (including Spanish, at the express request of Queen Isabel) and widely distributed among pious people all over Europe (including the sister-in-law of Ignatius, who brought it to his bedside in 1521).

Ludolph’s witness led Ignatius to grow more and more in love with Christ. Ignatius took some three hundred pages of notes on the text, and there is no doubt that this medieval monk inspired Ignatius in the formation of his own great instrument for bringing people to a deeper relationship with Jesus, the Spiritual Exercises.

Saint Ignatius of Loyola had many other encounters that shaped his own vocation, but it was on his sickbed that he met Christ, and it was the witness and work of saints and holy people that originated his own witness with its enormous fruits for the coming epoch.