Ignatius of Loyola was a 16th-century Spanish spiritual visionary who founded one of the largest Roman Catholic religious orders of men in the Catholic Church known as the Society of Jesus (Societas Jesu) in 1540. Members of the Society of Jesus are often referred to as Jesuits (initials S. J.), a term of 15th century origin, which means one who frequently uses the name of Jesus. This worldwide religious order continues into the present day with more than 20,000 men serving in 112 countries on six continents. The priests and brothers who profess religious vows of celibacy, poverty, obedience, and service to God's people carry on Ignatius's apostolic and spiritual work in almost every country of the world. Ignatius made one of the most distinguishing contributions to Christian spirituality through the development of the Spiritual Exercises, an organized method of prayer and practice aimed at deeper self-understanding and relationship with God. He was canonized a saint of the Catholic Church by Pope Gregory XV in 1662 and ever since has had a lasting influence on religious thought and spiritual practice.
Ignatius was born in 1491 in the castle of Loyola to a wealthy family from a Basque province in Spain. He was the youngest son of 13 children. Raised as a nobleman, Ignatius was extravagant and consumed with a desire for personal glory. He was fond of gambling, swordplay, and all the activities of the knighthood of his time. He experienced a turning point in his life in 1521. Ignatius was a 30-year-old soldier defending the fortress of the town of Pamplona against the French, who claimed the territory as their own against Spain, when he was seriously wounded in both legs by a cannonball. He was forced to convalesce in the castle of Loyola, where he underwent several operations without anesthetic to repair his serious and disfiguring wounds. It was an injury from which he never fully recovered. The lengthy recuperation forced the active nobleman and warrior Ignatius to rest and reflect. The only books available in the castle were a four-volume life of Christ and the lives of the saints. Serious reading was new to Ignatius and with it he experienced a journey into his previously unexplored interior life. He took notes in a little book about his inner experiences. This was the beginning of his religious conversion, and eventually the little notebook would become The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius.
The drama of his conversion led Ignatius to abandon his old desires for conquest, romance, and worldly power. Recovered from his wounds, though limping, Ignatius decided to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem to walk along the way that Jesus walked. His journey took him toward Barcelona, the point of embarkation for Rome, where pilgrims sought permission to visit the Holy Land. Ignatius stopped first, however, in Manressa where he stayed in a cave outside of the town. While intending to stay only a short time, Ignatius was drawn into the deeper caverns of his own interior life. He experienced an encounter with God-a vision-that would direct him to embrace the truth that life is the journey of "finding God in all things." This grace, finding God in all things, remains a core virtue of Jesuit spirituality. It was in the literal and metaphorical cave at Manressa that Ignatius began to detail his own experience of spiritual awakening and conversion, and he drew on these in articulating the Spiritual Exercises that became the heart of Ignatian spirituality and mission. After completing his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, Ignatius set his mind to a serious study of theology and philosophy. He continued to share his insights with those who were open to experiencing the ways of spiritual growth he directed. Twice he was investigated by the Spanish Inquisition and even imprisoned for a time. He eventually made his way to the University of Paris where he met Francis Xavier and Peter Faber. Under the influence of Ignatius's spiritual exercises, they were drawn into Ignatius's vision and eventually assisted him in founding the Society of Jesus.
In 1537, at the age of 45, Ignatius was ordained a priest. Two years later, the Society of Jesus was founded. Ignatius and his two companions decided to go to Rome and place themselves at the disposal of the pope. Pope Paul III approved the formation of the Societas Jesu and the wounded warrior mystic Ignatius watched his small company grow to a thousand members before his death in 1556.
Centuries later, people continue to find meaning in following the spiritual path known as the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. The structure of the Ignatian exercises facilitates spiritual growth by helping people to develop prayerful, self-reflective attitudes and skills to discern the workings of the creative and destructive forces busy within each human heart. Ignatius grew to view each human being as a spiritual seeker on the pilgrimage called life.