Ignatius of Loyola: How a Soldier Founded the Jesuit Order

In Central Europe, the Jesuits are seen as the burners of books. Only a few know that Ignatius of Loyola strictly forbade his followers any coercion on their missions.

Aug 13, 2023By Barbora Jirincova, PhD History

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Ignatius of Loyola was a soldier who went through quite a fascinating journey to found a monastic order which became a symbol of early modern catholicism. Ignatius’ experience with the army partly contributed to the order’s success because everything from its structure to the discipline of the members reflected his military background. Not only does the head of the order carry the title of general but the order system is very straightforward, resembling the military. Everyone understands the line of command, just like in the army. Who was Ignatius of Loyola?


Ignatius of Loyola: A Soldier Who Saw the Virgin Mary

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Saint Ignace de Loyola, 16th Century, Palace of Versailles, via Wikipedia Commons


The mist of legend veils the lives of all saints. The founder of the Jesuit order is not an exception. Ignatius of Loyola was born around 1491. We know little of his childhood, but he entered the military very early, and in 1521, he took part in the Spanish-French campaign.


During the siege of Pamplona, he was severely wounded. A bullet shattered both his knees, and the French captured him. Soon, Ignatius returned home, and finally, he was free to spend his hours in books. And read he did. He studied the Scripture and Legenda Aurea by Jakub de Voraga. Mystique caught his interest, too; he read The Life of Christ by a medieval mystic Ludolf of Saxony. All this reading and praying brought a spiritual turnaround in his belligerent soul. He decided to remain a soldier but he would fight for Christ and the Virgin Mary instead. So, as soon as he could walk, Ignatius set out on a pilgrimage.


Ignatius of Loyola: The Passionate Missionary

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Saint Ignatius of Loyola’s Vision of Christ and God the Father at La Storta, by Domenichino, 1622, via museum.org


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Ignatius’ first stop led him to a holy mountain named Montserrat. Here he pledged his life and work to Virgin Mary and made a sacred promise to travel to Palestine and convert pagans to Christianity. On his way to the Middle East, he stopped in a monastery in Mandera and spent ten months living a life of rigorous asceticism. During his hungry hours, he met the Virgin again, and she helped him to write his first masterpiece; The work, the Exertitia Spirituala accompanies many Christians on their spiritual journey even today. Ignatius of Loyola was and always remained a practical man, so his spiritual exercises are explained clearly and reasonably. That is why they became so popular.


Ignatius then traveled to the Holy Land. However, he felt deep disappointment in Palestine. He found out that there were already too many missionaries, and most of them didn’t care about the pilgrims, the pagans, or their mission at all. Palestine in the 16th century resembled a tourist spot rather than a holy place and both Christians and the Muslims profited from the situation. So Ignatius returned to Europe.


Ignatius as an Elderly Student

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Saint Ignatius of Loyola, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1600s, via Wikipedia Commons


Ignatius of Loyola next went to Barcelona to study. He was 35 years old when he entered the bachelor seminars, which made him an older adult among the young students. But he was a discernible personality with dissenting opinions — as they say, there is a thin line between a saint and a heretic. In Barcelona, the inquisition was inclined to label Ignatius of Loyola as the latter so he had to leave again to finish his studies in Paris.


In Paris, he met his future lifelong companions. There were six of them, and they formed the hardliners of the future Jesuit Order. Together they swore an oath of chastity and pledged their lives to Virgin Mary at the gates of Paris. Furthermore, they promised to fight against the unbelievers in the Holy land. But they also conceded that Holy Land might be inconvenient for their work. So, they swore to go wherever the pope sent them. Thus, they set out for Rome.


The Jesuit Order is Founded

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Approving of the bylaw of the Society of Jesus, painted by Johann Christoph Handke, after 1743, from the Church of Our Lady Of the Snow in Olomouc (Czech Republic), via Wikimedia Commons


On their journey to Rome, Ignatius of Loyola had a vision in which the Holy Trinity inspired him to write down the rules for monastic life that would later become the first Constitution of the Jesuit order. In 1540 the six men asked the pope to approve the new monastic order. After some hesitation, they got the Holy Father’s blessing, and a bull named the Regimini militantis Ecclesiae. We can translate the title of the bull as The Rules for the Fighting Church. From the very beginning, the members of the Jesuit order were considered soldiers of the church. The structure was clear-cut and straightforward.


The first man was the General (Ignatius of Loyola himself). Everybody in the order owed him complete obedience. But at his side sat a loyal Admonitor whose sole responsibility was to dispute any decision that might have been wrong. There were several assistants to the general and the lesser officials. Every member of the order swore an oath of obedience at the hands of the Pope and was forbidden to pursue a religious career outside of the order. So, Jesuits served as priests, teachers, and confessors but never became bishops or archbishops, which would infringe on their loyalty to the order and their general.


Principles That Made the Society of Jesus so Successful

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Portrait of St. Francis Xavier, 17th century, smarthistory.org


The central principles of the order were complete obedience to their immediate superiors and the direct responsibility of the leader for those subjected to him. Another key to Ignatius’ success was his clever work with talented individuals. According to their Constitution, every order member should develop his unique talents. His superiors were directly responsible for discovering these talents and leading members along the way. Be it teaching, preaching, missions, or political machinations, every member did not what he wanted but what he was best at.


A Jesuit’s loyalty was to his order and his order only, not to his family and not to his country or city. To ensure this, the members of the order switched posts regularly and they were encouraged to constantly learn the language and customs of the places where they operated. Thus their missions, especially in the colonies, converted many souls to Christianity. Because they could acculturate very well, in some cases, especially in the Far East, they did so well that the Church in Rome labeled their missions heretical despite their success.


The Society of Jesus and Education

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Ratio Studiorum, 1598-1599, via Wikipedia Commons


Jesuits founded many schools offering free education to boys from all social classes. Despite their public image, the Catholic faith was not necessary for acceptance. Jesuits accepted non-Catholic children without hindering them. The Constitution clearly said that nobody should be coerced to convert because, without free will, there can be no salvation. So non-Catholics regularly entered Jesuit schools, but during their studies, they usually converted because their teachers managed to be very persuasive and used all their charms. Ratio studiorum, a set of rules for the Jesuit education, aimed at bringing up an able young man, who would know all the Catholic dogmas, and be able to defend it in polished Latin and charm those around him with all the social skills of his time.


Students were taught not only rhetoric and theology but music, dancing, drama, riding, and everything a young man should know to achieve an illustrious career. Their educational principles followed the same rule as the order’s Constitution regarding talented people. In their students, they sought to discover talent a develop it. Pedagogically the Jesuits excelled in psychology and never hesitated to accept new educational principles, even if they came from Protestants. Students were encouraged to compete consistently with their peers.


Ignatius of Loloya and his Testament

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St Ignatius Loyola, by Francisco Zurbaran, 1600s, via the Royal Collections Trust


Men dressed in black — that is how history sees the Jesuits. Men in gowns, with a cingulum and a big black hat. Men only because Ignatius of Loyola forbade the formation of the female branch of the order. Although the Ursulians, a feminine monastic order from Italy specializing in girls’ education, came as close to being a Jesuit female branch as possible. Ignatius of Loyola died in 1556 when the Jesuit order was firmly rooted in society, but Ignatius himself could not have foreseen the success his Jesuits would become.


In the 17th century, all Catholic rulers would rely on their Jesuit confessors; Jesuits would play significant roles in European politics; all Catholic aristocrats would be graduates of their school, and their mission in the New World would celebrate a great victory. Ignatius and his followers understood well the spirit of their time, which, unlike the middle-ages, valued individuality and excellence. Individual devotion formed the center of Jesuit spirituality. We can sum up this belief in Ignatius of Loyola’s famous statement that is an inspiration to many Christians today: “Pray as if all depended on God, and act as if all depended on you.”

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By Barbora JirincovaPhD HistoryBarbora is a historian and a university teacher from the Czech Republic. She studies the history of women and the early modern ages. She holds a Ph.D. in history from Charles University in Prague, where she teaches. She is passionate about teaching history to the broader public. Understanding history can make the world a better place. She is also a contributing writer and copywriter and loves writing on various topics.