General from 1541 to 1556

The basic details of the life of St. Ignatius are so well known by everyone acquainted with the Society of Jesus, that it is superfluous to give them in this book. However, since he was the First General of the Society and this is an account of the "Generals" it seems that this is where we should begin.

Inigo (he changed his name to the Latin form "Ignatius" when he was a student in Paris in 1537) was the last of eleven children of Beltram Yañez de Ofaz y Loyola and Marina Saenz de Licona. He was born in the small castle of Loyola in Axpeizia, Guipuzcoa, the Basque Province of Spain and baptized in the local church where the fact is recorded at the font.

His mother died when he was very young and he grew up mothered by the wife of an older brother. When he was 16 his father died and Inigo was sent to the royal court to learn to be a gentleman worthy of his noble family. Later he entered the army as an officer and distinguished himself for his courage, leadership, and military knowledge.

At the time, the French army was attacking the army of Navarre and Inigo led his Navarese comrades in the defense of the walls of Pamplona in Northern Spain. Alas, a cannon ball struck his right knee and shattered it. With their brave officer disabled the battle was lost and Inigo was carried back to Loyola on a litter to recover or to die.

Doctors tried every means known at the time to straighten the leg, but with no success so that for the remainder of his life he walked with a limp, one leg shorter than the other.

During his long convalescence, to while away the time, he took to reading the Lives of the Saints and the Life of Christ by Ludolf of Saxony, because of the dearth of romantic books on the castle shelves.

This spiritual reading brought about his conversion from a soldier, vain and proud, to a young man attracted to a life of sacrifice and to the service of God.

When he was sufficiently well convalesced he left the castle and went on a pilgrimage to some of the famous shrines in northern Spain—Monserrat, Manresa, and Aránzazu—where he determined to become a world pilgrim and to go to the Holy Land to preach Christ to whom he was now devoted. While at Manresa he spent his time in a cave in prayer, fasting and writing down the spiritual lights that came to him from God.

In 1522 he went to Venice from where he embarked on a cargo ship bound for the Holy Land. After three months there, he was advised by the Franciscans to return home for more practical training and he, himself, realized that he was not properly equipped to preach, so he returned to Venice still determined to prepare himself to return to the Holy Land.

In 1524 he returned to Spain and to the classroom where he sat among much younger students picking up the knowledge that he had previously not thought necessary. He studied in Barcelona, Alcala, and Salamanca and then felt he was ready to study at the University of Paris.

So, it was off to Paris in 1528 where his intelligence, common sense, and holy zeal attracted other students to be his companions. Among these was another Spaniard, Francis Xavier.

They decided to band together and live their lives in common to which they vowed to do in a small chapel of a convent on the slope of Montmartre, a Paris suburb.

They wanted the approval of the Pope for their way of life and their new venture, so they set out for Rome. In Venice on June 24, 1531 they were ordained priests, but Ignatius decided to put off his First Mass until he got to Rome. There in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore he celebrated his first Mass at the altar of the Crib on Christmas Day, 1538. Ignatius and his companions, now calling themselves the "Companions of Jesus" decided to establish their group—or Company—as an order of Priests to teach, preach, and to go to the missions. So, Ignatius took to writing up their plan, their goals and how to accomplish them, which they called the "Constitutions" and submitted an outline of them to Pope Paul III on September 27, 1540, who approved them and gave his Blessing to the newly founded order.

In the next year the Companions assembled to choose one of their number as their leader. On April 19, 1541 they unanimously—and not surprisingly—elected Ignatius as their leader whom they would call "General," in some way a reference to seeing themselves as soldiers of Christ and his Church. The election of Ignatius as General made him the first of a long line through many vicissitudes to the 29th General today.

They formalized their vows in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament in the Basilica of St. Paul's outside the Walls on April 22 in front of an ancient mosaic image of Our Lady which is still in the same chapel.

For the next 15 years Ignatius was at the head of his little band of Apostles, preaching in the piazzas of Rome and ministering to the poor, their numbers continuing to grow. Improving the Constitutions and guiding his little Company, to and from his rooms at the Jesuit residence he had a constant stream of new recruits and spiritual children. He sent Francis Xavier to India and others to cities of Italy. He kept improving on the Constitutions, rewriting his "Spiritual Exercises" and finding spare moments to dictate the earliest experiences of his spiritual growth for the encouragement of those who would follow him in this Society.

In 1566 after an illness of some months and after a short attempt at convalescence at the Jesuit country Villa, Ignatius was brought home where he died peacefully in his room early in the morning on July 31 at the Gesú. At his death the Society had grown to over 1,000 companions. His bones were laid to rest first in the church and now repose in the Shrine of the altar dedicated to him in the Gesú church in Rome.