31 July 2011

31 July - Saint Ignatius of Loyola

Today is the feast of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus (c. 1491 - 1556)

His own life reads like one of the romances of which he was so fond in his earlier years, with perils and intrigues, wars, chivalry, jealousy, imprisonment, the Inquisition, even a scorned woman...  no Gothic heroine was so beset with troubles as Ignacio.

He was born Inigo de Onez y Loyola in the family castle, and like other young men of his class, received a good education.  Part of this education was in the household of the Treasurer of the Kingdom of Castile, where he seems to have embraced all the pleasures available to a young man.  He then took up arms, but after several battles through which he emerged unscathed, a cannonball broke one of his legs and put him out of commission for almost a year.  During his painful convelescence, he read (instead of his favorite romances and tales of chivalry) books on the life of Christ and the lives of the saints, and with a lot of time to think, he realized, like Saint Augustine, what his life had been and what it should be.

You can read about the life and trials of Saint Ignatius here at the Catholic Encyclopedia and in the Wikipedia article

Saint Ignatius formulated a set of Spiritual Exercises to help people develop their relationship with God.  These are usually done at month-long retreats, under the guidance of a spiritual director.  Ignatian Spirituality has several pages on the Exercises - what they entail, how they are done, etc.  The Daily Examen is prayerful reflection of God in our lives which can be done anywhere, and is especially good for seeing Him in the 'bad days'.  As you read the steps, notice that you are asking God for direction and guidance, not telling Him what you want (which is how most of our prayers are said).

The Society of Jesus, formally approved in 1540, was established as a teaching order, specifically in the catechizing of children and young people and in converting non-Christians through their missionary efforts.  As stated in the Catholic Encyclopedia: "The early Jesuits were sent by Ignatius first to pagan lands or to Catholic countries; to Protestant countries only at the special request of the pope and to Germany, the cradle-land of the Reformation, at the urgent solicitation of the imperial ambassador.

From the very beginning the missionary labours of the Jesuits among the pagans of India, Japan, China, Canada, Central and South America were as important as their activity in Christian countries. As the object of the society was the propagation and strengthening of the Catholic faith everywhere, the Jesuits naturally endeavored to counteract the spread of Protestantism. They became the main instruments of the Counter-Reformation; the re-conquest of southern and western Germany and Austria for the Church, and the preservation of the Catholic faith in France and other countries were due chiefly to their exertions."

For this they needed to be well-educated and well-trained in theology, philosophy, and the art of debate.  They were quick-thinking men and so very good at overcoming arguments, that their opponents coined the word "jesuitical" as an insult.  John Timbs wrote in "Something for Everybody" (1866): "The Jesuits have rendered great services to education, literature, and the sciences. In so numerous a body as that of their Society, men of various tempers and opinions must be found, some of whom, through a strained casuistry or fanatical zeal, arrived at totally different conclusions from those of the more sober and honest part of the community. 

In the reign of James I., the Jesuit Garnet was tried for having participated in the Gunpowder Plot; and after exhibiting throughout his examination a great aptitude for equivocation, he was condemned .and executed. Hence Jesuitical came to be popularly employed for designing, cunning, prevaricating; and one of our latest lexicographers defines the Society as distinguished for craftiness; "hence a Jesuit is a crafty person, an Intriguer."

Timbs wrote at a time when no-one would have considered the murder of babies to be anything but criminal, but one hundred years later, we have sons of Saint Ignatius, who "through a strained casuistry or fanatical zeal" defend the indefensible, and lead others of even weaker moral fiber to use their arguments as cover for their own evil - most surely a blot on the heroic men of the Society of Jesus who have done so much good work in the world.

Artwork: Peter Paul Rubens, 1620-22. Saint Ignatius of Loyola (detail). Norton Simon Museum.