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Understanding Saint Ignatius, Spiritual Father of Pope Francis

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The founder of the Jesuits, his mystical experiences, and his spirituality

For more than 450 years, men and women have been inspired by St. Ignatius of Loyola (d.1556) and the spirituality associated with the Jesuits. Ignatian spirituality emerged out of the spiritual awakening and mystical transformation Ignatius underwent at the Loyola family home and in the town of Manresa outside of Barcelona. These experiences led Ignatius to write his Spiritual Exercises. For centuries, Jesuits and lay people have found in the Spiritual Exercises a lifetransforming experience of God’s love.
 
Everyone seems to have an opinion about Ignatius and the Jesuits. During Ignatius’ lifetime he had many supporters, as well as detractors. Quite often these opinions about Ignatius and Ignatian spirituality are based on hearsay rather than an understanding of Ignatius’ writings or an experience of the Spiritual Exercises. Here are some points to consider when reflecting on Saint Ignatius and the spiritual legacy he has left the Church.
 
1. Ignatius of Loyola was a courtier before his conversion to Christ.

 
It is commonly assumed that Ignatius was a soldier or knight. This assumption is based on the opening line in his Autobiography where he mentions taking delight in the exercise of arms. The other passage people use to defend this claim is his description of defending a castle in Pamplona under attack by the French. Although Ignatius’ father and brothers all served the kings in different battles, Ignatius did not. He never fought as a soldier nor was he trained to be a soldier. At the age of 16, his father sent him to live in the household of Juan Velasquez de Cuellar, the Chief Treasurer of King Ferdinand, to be trained as page and courtier in the Spanish courts. As a courtier, he developed the skills of a diplomat, sportsman, officer, and gentleman.
 
In 1517, Velasquez died and Ignatius began to work for Antonio Manrique de Lara, the Duke of Najera, who was recently appointed by King Ferdinand to be governor of the former kingdom of Navarre. The city of Pamplona became the duke’s capitol where he built himself a castle from which he would rule the people of Navarre. In May 1521, while the duke was away from the castle with his army in the Castile region of Spain, the people of Navarre summoned the French to drive the duke out of their kingdom. Ignatius was at the Loyola manner house when he heard about the French forces amassing around Pamplona. He and his brother Martin rode by horseback to defend the castle. But after assessing the situation, Martin realized surrender was the only course of action. He returned to Loyola, but Ignatius stayed to rally those left behind to defend the castle. Not long afterwards, the French shot a cannonball over the castle wall, wounding Ignatius which caused everyone in the castle to surrender. This was the extent of his “military” service.
 
2. Ignatius was both the founder of the Society of Jesus and a mystic.

 
Ignatius is well known as the founder of the Society of Jesus known as the Jesuits, and as its first great leader. But how many people think of him as a mystic? The Spiritual Exercises and the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus provide ample evidence of Ignatius’ penetrating and ordered mind. His massive correspondence testifies to his ability to lead an international religious congregation by attending to countless details while promoting its vision. Yet, we would miss the deepest source of his energy and life vision, the real power behind his spirituality, especially the Spiritual Exercises, if we were to overlook his mystical experiences.
 
Bernard McGinn defines a mystic as the person who is conscious of the presence of God. Ignatius deserves to be ranked among the great mystics of the Church including Catherine of Siena, Teresa of Avila, and John of the Cross. His early companions, especially Jerome Nadal and Juan Polanco, considered him a theologian whose learning was born of direct mystical experience.
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