The Life and Works of Saint Ignatius of Loyola

To appreciate a visit to the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Rome, it is essential to know the life of the saint to whom it is dedicated. The extraordinary story of how the ambitious young Íñigo, a worldly man of arms, went through a profound existential crisis and completely changed his life to become Saint Ignatius, the founder of one of the most influential religious orders in the history of the Catholic Church.

It’s a long story, but undoubtedly captivating, and will be recounted here with the right critical perspective to seriously understand the origins of certain phenomena.

These are the sections of this in-depth article on the life and works of Saint Ignatius of Loyola:

  1. The Life of Saint Ignatius
  2. A Pilgrim’s Journey (free Pdf)
  3. Films about Ignatius of Loyola
  4. Visiting the Church of Saint Ignatius in Rome

Much has been written about Ignatius of Loyola, and his life is very well documented. However, on this page, I will take as the main source “A Pilgrim’s Journey”, the autobiography that Ignatius dictated to his collaborators at the end of his life. The italicized quotes in quotation marks come from that autobiography and are very significant because they are what Ignatius directly recounted about himself and his life.

If this article seems too long and you prefer an audio version, see the page on free audioguides about Saint Ignatius of Loyola.


1. The Life of Saint Ignatius

Ignatius of Loyola is the name that the saint, founder of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits), chose for himself in the second part of his life, but he was born with the name Íñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola in northern Spain at the end of the 16th century.
To understand the life of Saint Ignatius, it is necessary to frame the historical period in which the young Íñigo was born.


Historical Period

Íñigo was born in 1491, a year before the discovery of the Americas by Christopher Columbus: a crucial event in European history that marked the beginning of a new era of exploration and contact between Europe and the New World, the start of European colonial expansion, and the spread of Western culture and religion. This event was so significant that many historians consider it one of the key moments in the transition from the Middle Ages to the Modern Age (the other key event typically indicated is the fall of Constantinople in 1453, marking the end of the Eastern Roman Empire).
For the medieval man, discovering “there was another world” was a huge change that disrupted and transformed the existing world, at a time when culture was rediscovering ancient history: the perception of the world was changing, and consequently, the idea of man was changing. Human identity was no longer necessarily tied to the relationship with God, and consequently, the Church was in a phase of crisis and transformation: too many clergymen were driven by the desire for power, the faithful were progressively disillusioned, and substantial reforms were needed. The Protestant Reformation by Martin Luther would start just over twenty years later, in 1517.

At that time, Spain, the country where Ignatius-Iñigo was born, was going through a crucial phase in its history: the Catholic Monarchs, Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella I of Castile, completed the Reconquista with the conquest of Granada in January 1492, the last Muslim stronghold in the Iberian Peninsula. Thus, “Spain” as we know it today was essentially just born from the union of the kingdoms of Aragon and Castile, to which Navarra was later added. This consolidation of Spanish power led to greater unification and centralization of the state. In Spain, the Inquisition, established in 1478, continued to exert a strong influence on the religious and social life of the country, aiming to maintain Catholic orthodoxy.

In Italy, Leonardo da Vinci was in the prime of his artistic and scientific career, while in Germany, Martin Luther, born in 1483, would soon start the Protestant Reformation movement, which would deeply shake Christian Europe.

The historical period in which Ignatius was born is therefore an era of great religious fervor, bold explorations, and significant sociopolitical changes. A time when a determined, capable, and ambitious young man could achieve much in life.


Childhood and Youth of Íñigo

Íñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola was born in 1491 in Loyola, a small hamlet in the municipality of Azpeitia, in the Basque province of Guipúzcoa (map). He was the youngest of 13 siblings (8 boys and 5 girls) in a family of rural nobility, the House of Loyola, which boasted a long tradition of service to the monarchy. Íñigo’s father, Beltrán Ibáñez de Loyola, was born in 1439 and had been a loyal soldier to the Catholic Monarchs: during the aforementioned reunification process, he led the siege and conquest of several cities in northern Spain and was rewarded for these services by King Ferdinand the Catholic. Íñigo’s mother, Marina Sáenz de Licona y Balda, came from a court family of the King of Castile: her father had been an advisor to the Catholic Monarchs.
But even though the family had means far superior to the average, young Íñigo was still the last of many siblings: from a young age, he was destined for a military career and a life of adventures. To place him in some way and give him some education, his father managed to send him to serve as an aide to Juan Velázquez de Cuéllar, treasurer of the Crown of Castile and executor of the Catholic Monarchs’ will: it was an important position because he was the “Minister of Finance” (in modern terms) of what was becoming the world’s first superpower. In that environment, Íñigo learned good manners, learned to read and write, but above all, he understood what power was and learned how to behave to succeed in the worldly life. A life to which he was strongly attracted.


Military Career and Siege of Pamplona

Íñigo stayed in Velázquez’s house for eleven years, until 1517, then at the age of 26, he joined the army in the service of the Duke of Nájera (and Viceroy of Navarra), where he began his military career as an armed knight (mesnadero). For five years, he participated in numerous military campaigns, making a name for himself and earning respect among his peers.

Young Ignatius of Loyola in armor

public domain image

N.B. From the IHS Christogram on the armor, it can be deduced that this is an imaginary posthumous portrait.

In this new position, Íñigo had the opportunity to witness the arrival in Spain of the new King Charles I (son of Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad, daughter of the Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand II of Aragon and Isabella of Castile), the future Holy Roman Emperor Charles V of Habsburg (emperor of “an empire on which the sun never sets”), then just seventeen years old.
However, when King Charles I left Spain to go to Germany and be crowned Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, various protests and rebellions broke out in Spain: the Spaniards did not take well the emperor’s preference for German lands and especially did not look favorably on the high-ranking Flemish officials left in key positions in Spain, who were immediately unpopular with the people and the nobility. The Duke of Najera sided with the emperor, so Íñigo found himself fighting against the rebels.

Íñigo was tasked with pacifying the rebellious province of Gipuzkoa, a task he resolved admirably: he demonstrated “being ingenious and prudent in worldly matters and knowing how to handle the minds of men, especially in reconciling differences or disputes.”

At this point, Íñigo was involved in the military event that would change his life: the siege of Pamplona. The rebels were besieging the fortress of Pamplona (map), and the French King Francis I decided to take advantage of the situation to attack Navarra (a Spanish region bordering France) by giving support to the rebels. It is important to remember that at that time, France and Spain were fighting in various parts of Europe.
The pretender to the throne of Navarra, with the help of the French, attacked the fortress of Pamplona with an army of nearly thirteen thousand men, against the small contingent of about a thousand soldiers left to defend the city. Íñigo and his brother Martin arrived on the scene, commanding additional reinforcements for the defense. The numerical disparity was already significant, but the situation worsened when Martin had a disagreement with the local forces’ commander and withdrew with the bulk of the reinforcements, leaving his brother Íñigo in a difficult situation (who, out of pride, refused to leave).
It was May 1521.
The remaining defenders were about to surrender, but Íñigo’s determination convinced everyone to resist a little longer. Perhaps his animosity toward the French played a role: his older brother had died fighting French troops in Italy.
On May 19, 1521, the city fell into enemy hands, but Íñigo refused the conditions of surrender and barricaded himself with a handful of die-hards in the city’s fortress. However, a few days later, an artillery strike directly hit Íñigo, fracturing his leg and severely wounding the other, and at that point, the remaining men with him surrendered.

The French commander was impressed by the Spaniard’s determination and provided him with all necessary care, even sending him home after a few weeks.

This would be the crucial moment in Íñigo’s life, and it is precisely from here that “A Pilgrim’s Journey” begins, the autobiography Ignatius dictated to his collaborators at the end of his life. Ignatius summarized his first 30 years of life, as narrated so far, in a few scant words: saying that he was “a worldly man, absorbed by vanities.”


Convalescence and Conversion

Íñigo returned home to his “castle” (which was actually a fortified manor, now incorporated into the sanctuary dedicated to him in Loyola), but he returned gravely injured physically and morally devastated because his dreams of glory were irreversibly shattered: at 30, his leg was destroyed, and he would remain lame and crippled for life, never again to be the gallant knight conquering ladies and greatness.
His leg injuries were very serious, and his health deteriorated progressively: the doctors initially gave him up for dead. He continued to worsen, and the fever rose. By late June, the situation was dire: on the eve of the feast of Saint Peter and Paul (June 29), the doctors said that if he did not improve by the night, he would certainly die. Íñigo had always had a sympathy for Saint Peter, and, coincidentally, that night, he began to improve: for him (later), it was a sign.

He improved, but his legs were still in bad shape: in particular, the bones of the injured leg had set poorly, leaving it shorter. Íñigo, not having entirely given up on his dreams, ordered the doctors to break it again and put it in traction to restore the proper length. Without anesthesia, the doctors did everything to dissuade him, saying he would die from the pain, but Íñigo had a steely character: they operated, and he survived. The leg in traction recovered as it should, but a protruding bone remained, which was unsightly: Íñigo insisted on having it sawed off (again without anesthesia).

At this point, a long convalescence began: Íñigo was out of danger, he had recovered, but he was bedridden and would be for months. A character like his couldn’t stand being idle. To pass the time, he asked for chivalric novels to read: at least he could mentally return to his lost world. But those novels were no longer available at home. Instead, they gave him the only books available, two religious texts: Ludolph of Saxony’s “Life of Christ” and Jacobus de Voragine’s “Golden Legend” (Lives of the Saints). Having no other choice, he began to read them, and here, surprisingly, comes the turning point of his life: surprisingly, those readings intrigued and attracted him. He was still drawn to his former life, still infatuated with a noblewoman he dreamed of conquering, but… but he also began to imagine a different life, inspired by the lives of the saints. He was still ambitious, so he began to imagine “difficult and great deeds” inspired by the lives of the saints. Perhaps unconsciously, he realized he would never regain his previous life, so he turned in a new direction. But for a long time, he remained torn between thoughts of worldliness and possible actions in service to God.

“There was, however, a difference: thinking about worldly things gave him much pleasure, but when, out of weariness, he abandoned them, he felt empty and disappointed. Instead, going to Jerusalem barefoot, eating only herbs, practicing all the austerities he had known to be customary among the saints, were thoughts that not only consoled him while dwelling on them but also left him satisfied and full of joy after abandoning them.”

The beginning of Ignatius’s saintly life is very human: it is the inner conflict between different ideals of life, the uncertainty of which is the right choice, the despair of a moment of severe crisis.

He continued to reflect on his past life and choices until he was convinced of a new choice of life: he felt an inner need to follow the example of the saints’ lives and renounce worldly life to dedicate himself entirely to God.
Even though he had not confessed his true thoughts to anyone, his family sensed his inner change and tried to make him change his mind: his brother tried to convince him to stay home and take care of the family estate, but the decision was made.

Initially, he thought of retreating to the Charterhouse of Seville, but his desire to “travel the world” was much stronger. So he decided to leave.

Íñigo would change his name to Ignatius only when he was in Paris to study. It seems that Ignatius first appeared in a list of students at the Sorbonne in 1531, but from this point on, in this story, he will be “Ignatius”, to underline the change that occurred in him. And we know and remember him as Ignatius: it seems he chose to change his name because he found (rightly) that “Ignatius” was more “universal” compared to the Spanish Íñigo.


Stops at Montserrat and Manresa

Once healed, Ignatius decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and from northern Spain, where he was, the way to the Holy Land passed through Barcelona and Italy, to embark in Venice. From this moment, his long journey in the world began: his pilgrimage. Leaving his birthplace in Loyola, he initially headed to Oñati (a village about forty kilometers from Azpeitia), where he had a sister. From Oñati, he then headed to Navarrete, stopping at the Marian sanctuary of Arántzazu (between Bilbao and Pamplona, photo of the current sanctuary) where he made a vow of chastity to the Madonna.
But even with all his good intentions and the vow of chastity, Ignatius was still an impulsive man of arms with a difficult character: continuing his journey on a mule, he met a Moor, a Muslim, with whom he began to discuss theology, and wounded in pride by the fact that the Muslim thought differently about the Virgin Mary’s virginity (even though the Virgin Mary is mentioned several times in the Quran and Muslims respect her), Ignatius had the impulse to resolve the matter by stabbing the unbeliever. Only at the last moment did he have a pang of conscience and decided to abandon himself to the course of events: whatever God wanted. Fortunately, the mule spontaneously took another path, and he gave up the idea of stabbing the Muslim. Let’s say he had good intentions, but he still had a lot to work on.

Ignatius continued on his way to Barcelona and arrived at the monastery of Montserrat, a famous Benedictine monastery perched on the mountains about fifty kilometers from Barcelona (map and photo of the monastery).

It should be noted that he himself recounted that during his journey to Montserrat “he always flogged himself every night”, and often imposed long fasts on himself, essentially without reason, which were part of a life of malnutrition, often subsisting on bread and water. A form of religious zeal that today would be considered at least “unhealthy” and potentially indicative of an imbalance in his approach to spirituality. A friar from the monastery years later still remembered Ignatius well because he was “mad for Jesus Christ.”

In Montserrat, on the symbolic date of the Annunciation (a Christian feast celebrated on March 25, commemorating the announcement by the Archangel Gabriel to Mary of the virginal conception of Jesus, placed exactly nine months before Christmas on December 25), Ignatius stripped off his clothes, which he gave to a poor man, donned a simple rough pilgrim’s tunic, after spending the night between March 24 and 25, 1522, in vigil of arms before the altar of Our Lady of Montserrat (called La Moreneta, because she has a dark face, reminiscent of the dark face of the beloved in the Song of Songs) and offered his sword to the Madonna.

Still at the Montserrat sanctuary, Ignatius made a long confession lasting three days, recalling his entire life up to that point, repenting of all his sins, and being reborn to a new life: in the Christian sacrament of confession, reconciliation with God includes the renewal of baptismal graces, thus one is reborn to a new life. This moment marks Ignatius’s rebirth to a new life in the name of the Lord.

By symbolically leaving his old rich attire behind, Ignatius leaves his previous worldly life and enters the new life of a poor pilgrim. However, he does not yet feel ready to go to Barcelona and from there leave Spain to begin his pilgrimage to the Holy Land, so he decides to stay a few more months near Montserrat: he then retreats to nearby Manresa, where he finds lodging at the Hospital of Santa Lucía and the Dominican convent, and occasionally in the homes of some benefactors. During these long months, he often retreats to pray in a cave on the side of a mountain near the Cardener River.

During this long stay between Manresa and Montserrat, Ignatius experiences strongly contrasting moods and often has visions, some of which he recognizes as deceitful temptations from the Evil One (the Devil). From these long and profound reflections on how to distinguish “good” visions (from the Lord) from deceitful ones from the Devil, which are to be rejected, he matures the first important concept of discernment (to “distinguish” between good and evil) that will become very important in his life and Jesuit doctrine. From these long periods of contemplation and reflection, the first draft of the Spiritual Exercises is born.


The Visions

It is important to note, however, that these visions occur during periods of prolonged fasting and extreme physical debilitation: he himself recounts in his autobiography that one Sunday, after confessing, he decided to start fasting until he received a grace from the Lord (an answer to his inner doubts and anxieties), and for a week, he ate nothing, until he was forced to eat something the following Sunday when his confessor discovered it and ordered him to stop. This extreme situation was compounded by chronic protein deficiency due to the lack of meat in his diet. He fell seriously ill several times, probably due to the excessive deprivations he imposed on himself, and the high fever of these illnesses likely caused him to rave.
Therefore, these visions should not be understood as an exceptional mystical phenomenon: anyone who does not eat properly for a long time, becomes ill, and then fasts for a week can have visions. These “visions” are real projections of the mind, thus real.

It is important to say this, but in too many hagiographies of Saint Ignatius, his faith and visions are exalted. Yes, true, Ignatius was undoubtedly a remarkable person with great abilities, capable of doing great things later in life, and he has my sincere admiration for many great things he did (rejecting the rampant corruption of the time, establishing great schools providing excellent free education, and much more), but these “extreme” aspects of his early phases must also be clearly recounted to understand the character well.

During this period, Ignatius was deeply anguished, always dissatisfied with his confessions, which never seemed enough (again, a confessor had to convince him that it was enough, he had confessed enough), and he had the urge to throw himself out of a window. He prayed continuously but could not find peace.

Direct quotes from his autobiography: “One day, while reciting the office of Our Lady on the steps of the convent, his mind began to be enraptured: it was as if he saw the Holy Trinity under the figure of three organ keys; and this with a flood of tears and uncontrollable sobs”. And during that same period: “Once it was represented in his intellect, together with intense spiritual joy, the way God had created the world. It seemed to him to see a white object from which rays of light emanated, and it was God who irradiated light from that object. But he could not understand these things, and he did not remember the spiritual insights that God was impressing on his soul at those moments”.

To be very frank: today, he would simply be labeled as a lunatic in the grip of an unhealthy religious exaltation.

However, over time, he managed to regain a reasonable emotional balance and finally decided to go to Barcelona to embark for Italy and from there continue to the Holy Land.


Pilgrimage to the Holy Land

In 1523, Ignatius embarked on his pilgrimage to the Holy Land: from Barcelona, he sailed to Gaeta, then proceeded on foot to Rome, where he arrived on Palm Sunday. It seems that to travel to Jerusalem, it was necessary for the Pope to give him authorization on Easter day, so it was important to arrive in Rome in time. From Rome, he continued to Venice, where it was very difficult to enter because those were years of plague, and entry controls were very strict, but Ignatius managed to pass.
He made the entire journey on foot, always living on alms and facing many difficulties. His determination is admirable, but he succeeded in his intentions only and always thanks to the generosity of many benefactors who fed and housed him during his long journey. However, in Venice, he even managed to meet the Doge in person, who granted him free passage on a ship bound for Cyprus, which means his personality was truly extraordinary, capable of winning others over with his eloquence. Or he was so insistent and annoying that the Doge preferred to get rid of him.

Still very debilitated, he fell ill a few days before departure, with a very high fever. The day of departure arrived, and he was still very ill, but he was determined to go. So his hosts called a doctor, who told him that yes, he could certainly go to Cyprus if he wanted to be buried there or directly at sea.
He departed anyway. On the Venetian ship, he was scandalized by the various immoralities committed on board and began to preach to try to convert the crew. Until a few days later, some Spaniards on the same ship strongly advised him to stop because the crew openly talked about abandoning him on a deserted island.

However, Ignatius managed to reach Cyprus, and from there, on September 4, 1523, he finally reached Jerusalem: he had achieved the goal he so desired. He could finally see and know the holy places where Our Lord Jesus Christ lived. He wanted to settle in Jerusalem and help souls from there. But when he went to deliver his letters of introduction to the Franciscan Fathers (who at the time were responsible for Christian pilgrims in the Holy Land), he was immediately told that he had to return to Europe: he could not stay there, anyone who could not prove they had money to support themselves could not stay (Ignatius had nothing and lived only on charity and alms), and it was also dangerous because at that time, Turks frequently kidnapped Christian pilgrims for whom the Franciscans had to pay ransom. For a few days, he managed to stay, but when he returned to Jerusalem, the Superior Father told him he had to embark immediately the next day on the pilgrim ship returning to Italy. Ignatius tried to resist, but “the Provincial declared that they had received authority from the Apostolic See to make people leave or stay at their discretion, and also to excommunicate those who refused to obey”. Ignatius then had to yield and experienced firsthand obedience to ecclesiastical authority, which would later become one of the vows of obedience for Jesuits. However, Ignatius had one last act of disobedience when that same afternoon, he escaped to go one last time to Mount Olivet: the Franciscans sent a strong servant from the convent armed with a stick who brought Ignatius back by force.


Return and Decision to Study

At this point, Ignatius faced a second moment of crisis in his life: he could not stay in the Holy Land as he had so desired, and once again, his dreams were shattered. He had to ask himself again: what do I do with my life now?
He reconsidered the desire he had already had in the Holy Land: to “help souls”, meaning “help people encounter the Lord.” He realized that he could continue to “help souls” and would do so in the world instead of only in the Holy Land.
And he made another very important realization: he became fully aware of his limitations. Ignatius was a smart guy, who knew how to behave in society, who knew how to use weapons, who had great charisma, but he also lacked in many other ways: in particular, he had not received a good education, he lacked culture. And he realized that if he wanted to save souls and evangelize (convert people to Christianity by preaching the Gospel), he necessarily needed to address this serious shortcoming: to win people’s hearts, you first have to understand them, and to understand them, you need to understand their social context, their culture, understand what they think and why they think it. He decided to return to studying, starting practically from scratch. A very mature decision and not easy to implement: starting to study after the age of thirty is not easy, even today.

He matured this decision during his long return journey: from Jerusalem, he sailed to Cyprus, then to Puglia, then proceeded again to Venice, reached Genoa after crossing Veneto, Emilia Romagna, and the Apennines (in war-torn territories, even being arrested and interrogated because he seemed strange and could be a spy). From Genoa, he finally returned to his homeland, disembarking again in Barcelona, where he resumed contact with his old acquaintances: some of his previous benefactors offered to support him during his studies. He could thus begin to study, but he encountered immediate difficulties: at that age, with so many intense life experiences behind him, it was not easy to find himself in school with kids (quicker because their minds were more suited to study) who continuously outperformed him. He got distracted, found comfort in preaching to people, and discovered he was successful at it: others recognized his genuine enthusiasm, and he was charismatic and knew how to engage others. Thanks to his iron will, he committed to studying: he dedicated himself to learning Latin. After two years, his teachers told him he was ready for the next step: they advised him to go to the University of Alcalá de Henares.


The Spanish Universities

The University of Alcalá de Henares was located a few kilometers from Madrid and was one of the most important universities of the time: it was the new great university of the Habsburg Empire, one of the main centers of cultural excellence in Europe. Here, for the first time, a Bible was printed in three languages: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew. The University was founded in 1499 by Cardinal Cisneros, who had realized that culture could be the means to begin reforming a now decadent Church. Today, we should understand the same thing: culture is the means to reform our now decadent Western society.
Ignatius began studying at Alcalá, but soon he got distracted again and began to preach spontaneously to people, again gaining a certain following.
But he also drew the attention of the Inquisition: they were concerned that well-meaning but poorly prepared individuals would recklessly launch into preaching, causing more harm than good. And they were much more concerned about well-prepared but malevolent individuals preaching different views, i.e., preaching heresies.
Ignatius was reprimanded several times but was never found guilty of anything, as his good faith was always recognized. However, obviously, this tension did not facilitate the peace and concentration necessary for study, so Ignatius decided to change universities: he decided to go to Salamanca.

The University of Salamanca was the oldest Spanish university: founded in 1134, it played a crucial role in spreading Spanish culture and language, significantly contributing to the development of Spanish national identity, and at that time, it was famous for being an important center for the study of canon law and Roman civil law.
There, theologians and philosophers like Domingo de Soto and Francisco de Vitoria were the first to theorize and express the idea that the indigenous peoples of the Americas have a soul, and therefore, consequently, have rights and cannot be enslaved. Today, it seems obvious, but at the time, it wasn’t, and the center of thought that produced those voices was Salamanca.

Ignatius resumed his studies in this center of cultural excellence, but again almost immediately resumed his preaching to people, which was successful, and again drew the attention of the Holy Inquisition: they reprimanded him again, interrogated him, even imprisoned him for several weeks. They wondered what he really wanted to achieve: was he a heretic? Ignatius and his companions had no particular theological training; they were just enthusiastic people involving others with their enthusiasm for God, and they prayed a lot.

At that time, there were heretical sects like the Alumbrados, who believed they could achieve spiritual perfection through mental prayer and the annulment of individual will, which did not sit well with the Church because the quest for perfect mystical union with God without mediation was considered a Gnostic deviation. The important point was without mediation: the Church wanted to maintain temporal power and the privileges derived from being the only recognized intermediary between human souls and the God promising eternal life.

Given Ignatius’s significant charisma, the Inquisition thought he wanted to found a new heretical sect. However, they were eventually convinced that “he was a good guy,” and much of this conviction was due to the draft of the Spiritual Exercises that Ignatius handed to the chief inquisitor, and in the end, they only ordered him to finish his theological studies before preaching to people.

This confirmed to Ignatius that returning to study had been the right intuition: even the Church considered it necessary for evangelizing and saving souls. But these constant heavy interferences from the Inquisition also convinced him to change the air radically: he decided to leave Spain and go abroad. He decided to study at the Sorbonne in Paris. Always relying on the charity of generous benefactors to fund his studies (while theoretically, he could have partly supported himself, as he came from a well-off family), and always traveling on foot to reach his destinations: he set out on foot towards Paris.


Studies in Paris

Ignatius arrived in the French capital on February 2, 1528. He began humanistic studies at the Montaigu College, lodging in the hospice Saint Jacques. On the advice of a Spanish friar, Ignatius went to Flanders (one of the three regions of present-day Belgium) every year to convince Flemish merchants to fund his studies: he managed to support himself in his studies in Paris for seven years. He was evidently very good at both preaching and persuading people.
At the Sorbonne in Paris, Ignatius studied humanities, philosophy, and theology, and he met other students who would become his first companions: the most important of whom were Peter Faber and Francis Xavier.
During his stay in Paris, Ignatius further refined his “Spiritual Exercises” and began to attract followers, laying the foundations for the future Society of Jesus.


The Foundation of the Society of Jesus

Ignatius, in his youth, had military life experiences, so he knew what camaraderie was, but only in Paris did he finally discover true friendship, which then and now easily springs up among university companions. Friends over whom Ignatius had great influence, as he was older and had intense life experiences behind him.
From this experience of friendship, Ignatius and his companions conceived the idea of being “friends in the Lord”.

On August 15, 1534 (the day of the Assumption, when Christians celebrate the Assumption of the Virgin Mary into heaven at the end of her earthly life), Ignatius and six other companions took a vow in a very symbolic place in Paris: Montmartre, the “mountain of martyrs,” where in the 3rd century AD, the Bishop of Paris Saint Denis and his companions Rusticus and Eleutherius were martyred for refusing to renounce the Christian faith (according to tradition, after being beheaded, Saint Denis picked up his own head and walked six miles to the site of the current Abbey of Saint-Denis). Here, in the chapel of Montmartre, before Peter Favre (the only one among them already ordained as a priest), Ignatius and his companions took a vow of poverty, chastity, and to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Given Ignatius’s previous experience in the Holy Land, and considering the difficulties of the moment (at that time, Venice was at war with the Ottoman Empire for control of vast areas of the Mediterranean), they were prudent enough to decide that, if it were not possible to reach Jerusalem, they would place themselves at the disposal of the Pope: they would go wherever the Pope decided.

These vows pronounced in the chapel of Montmartre marked the beginning of the Society of Jesus.

They agreed to meet again in Venice at the beginning of 1537. In the meantime, they would finish their pending commitments: some needed to complete their studies, some to settle family affairs. Ignatius first went to Spain, and then to Italy, stopping at the University of Bologna (the oldest in the world) on his way to Venice.


Waiting in Veneto

Ignatius and his companions reunited in Venice at the beginning of 1537, and began waiting for a ship to take them to Jerusalem. But the times were not favorable, Venice was at war with the Ottoman Empire, no ship departed, and the wait was prolonged.

The Society of Jesus decided to use that waiting time to do what they had dedicated themselves to: serve the Lord and save souls. They decided to do this in Veneto: they distributed themselves in pairs in the various cities of the northeast and began preaching in the squares. Ignatius and Favre went to Vicenza, while other companions went to Verona, Treviso, Bassano del Grappa, and Monselice. After an initial dispersion, they all reunited in the abandoned monastery (a simple half-ruined rural house) of San Pietro in Vivarolo on the outskirts of Vicenza, where they lived in extreme poverty: they slept on straw mattresses and went begging every day before preaching in the squares. For preaching the gospel, they dispersed to the surrounding towns, but they began their preaching in the square all at the same time, all throwing their hats in the air with a shout to attract attention. This experience was very important because it was the first real experience of the Society of Jesus, whose missionary characteristic is precisely to bring the Gospel to those who do not yet know it.

In June 1537 in Venice, the Bishop of Arbe (the current island of Rab in Croatia) ordained Ignatius and his companions who were not yet priests. It is important to remember that Ignatius and his companions made a radically different choice from many clergymen of the time: they decided to not charge for the sacraments they administered to people, contrary to many priests of the time who took vows to have an income from administering the sacraments. This was a perfect indicator of the corruption and decadence of the Church at that time. Even today, we should seriously reflect on the fact that in Catholic Germany, theoretically, if you do not pay annual taxes to the Catholic Church (there is a specific item in the tax declaration), you are not entitled to the sacraments: in practice, you can attend church on Sundays, but they will not marry or bury you if you do not pay. In my opinion, this disgraceful practice is a total betrayal of the Christian message and should be openly condemned.

After waiting all of 1537 in Veneto, they finally realized they would not be able to reach Jerusalem due to the ongoing conflicts between Venice and the Ottoman Empire, so they decided to go to Rome and submit to the will of the Pope.


The Vision at La Storta

During the journey (always on foot) along the Via Romea towards Rome, Ignatius was assailed by doubts: he began to fear that he had made a mistake, and that he had led his companions into a wrong choice. The closer he got to Rome, the more he feared that going to Rome and submitting to the will of the Pope was the wrong choice: doubts and fears that were more than understandable, not only because they are inherent to the human soul, but because at that time Rome was a deeply corrupt city, and the Roman clergy were the center and the driving force of this corruption. The Rome of that time was much worse than the current Rome, and that says a lot.

Ignatius deeply experienced these doubts, projecting them into his dreams at night: he dreamed of closed doors, definitely not a good sign. So, he began to pray to the Lord for a sign, an answer. And just before reaching Rome, in a place on the Via Cassia still called “La Storta” (map) in a small chapel by the roadside, Ignatius had a vision: he heard the voice of God saying to him “I will be favorable to you in Rome”, and all his doubts and fears dissipated.

This vision is remembered as one of the fundamental moments in Ignatius’s life, and indeed it is one of the central elements in the story of Ignatius in the decorations of the church dedicated to him: the central fresco of the apse represents this vision.

altare centrale presbiterio e abside della chiesa Sant'Ignazio di Loyola a Roma

And the phrase “I will be favorable to you in Rome,” in Latin “Ego Vobis Romae Propitius Ero”, is framed above the fresco:

Ego Vobis Romae Propitius Ero

After the vision at La Storta, Ignatius and his companions were ready to face Rome and submit to the will of the Pope.


In Rome with Pope Paul III

Upon arriving in Rome, they requested an audience to be received by the Pope.
And the Pope at that time was Paul III, a Pope remembered today for various reasons, not all of them very flattering: besides approving the Society of Jesus and convening the Council of Trent in 1545 (an act that marked the beginning of the Catholic Counter-Reformation in response to the Protestant Reformation), he is also famous for his great artistic patronage (he commissioned Michelangelo to paint the Sistine Chapel frescoes, built the Pauline Chapel in the Vatican, and supported artists like Titian and Raphael), and especially for his nepotism.

The term “nepotism” actually derives from the practice of Popes at that time of appointing their nephews as cardinals, and Paul III was one of the most famous examples: Pope Callixtus III appointed two of his nephews as cardinals, one of whom later became Pope Alexander VI (born Rodrigo Borgia), who as Pope elevated Alessandro Farnese to the cardinalate, brother of his mistress (the beautiful and famous Giulia Farnese) and who became our Pope Paul III, who in turn appointed his nephews as cardinals, notably Alessandro Farnese the Younger, who became a cardinal at the age of only 14. What can we say? They loved their families very much.

This was the Pope to whom Ignatius presented his idea. I would say that being worried was more than understandable. Yet, Paul III received Ignatius’s proposal favorably. In particular, he asked an important question: “Do you want to be sent as missionaries individually to different places, or do you want to stay together?”.


Ignatius, First General of the Order

Ignatius and his companions took a few months to reflect on this question and how to organize the nascent Society of Jesus, and from their reflections and prayers, the first example of communal discernment, they arrived at the drafting of the Deliberation of the First Fathers, where they essentially decided that to better face temporal and spiritual challenges, it would be better to obey one of them, who would become the head of the religious order. So, they decided to submit to the decisions of the Pope on where to be sent as missionaries and to the decisions of the head of the order on who to choose for a particular mission. Besides the vow of obedience, they confirmed the vows of chastity and poverty. The mission of evangelization is at the heart of the Jesuit vocation.

Obviously, Ignatius was appointed First General of the Order. From his youthful military experience comes this military-style organization: there is a strongly hierarchical structure, obedience is owed to superiors (and collectively to the Pope), at the head of the order is a “general,” and the Order of the Jesuits is called the “Society of Jesus,” where “society” is surely meant in an apostolic and communal sense, inspired by the experience of San Pietro in Vivarolo, where they shared bread among themselves (society and companions come from the Latin cum panis, indicating those who eat the same bread), but “society” has also always been the basic military unit for all armies.

Pope Paul III confirmed the order on September 27, 1540 with the papal bull Regimini militantis Ecclesiae, but limited the number of its members to sixty. This limitation was removed with a subsequent bull, the Iniunctum nobis, on March 14, 1543.

The Society of Jesus immediately distinguished itself for its commitment to education, preaching, and missions. Ignatius led his companions with wisdom and determination, establishing schools and colleges throughout Europe. Their rigorous discipline and dedication to the Catholic cause made the Jesuits a fundamental element in the Counter-Reformation.


The Years in Rome

Ignatius spent the last fifteen years of his life in Rome, dedicating himself to leading the Society of Jesus. From Rome, Ignatius coordinated the expansion of the Order and the creation of new educational institutions. His organizational skills and spiritual vision enabled the Society to successfully face the challenges of his time and to establish itself as one of the main forces of world Catholicism.

Under Ignatius’s guidance, the Society of Jesus rapidly expanded: the Jesuits distinguished themselves as educators, confessors, and missionaries, bringing the Gospel to the Americas, Asia, and Africa. Their work was fundamental for the spread of Catholicism in new lands and for the formation of a new generation of educated and devout Catholics.

Under Ignatius’s direction, the Jesuits founded numerous schools, colleges, and universities, becoming pioneers in Catholic education. Additionally, they dedicated themselves to works of charity, assisting the poor and the sick, and preaching in remote places. Their influence quickly extended, making the Society of Jesus a reference point for Catholic spirituality and education.


The Publication of the Spiritual Exercises

Ignatius’s “Spiritual Exercises,” first published in 1548, became a fundamental text for Catholic spirituality. This guide to meditation and spiritual discernment deeply influenced religious practice and contributed to the formation of generations of believers. The exercises have been adopted and adapted in various contexts, becoming a valuable tool for spiritual growth.

I refer to this article for further reading on the Spiritual Exercises.

Ignatius’s legacy is reflected not only in the “Spiritual Exercises,” but also in the educational approach of the Jesuits, which combined academic rigor and moral formation. Jesuit schools became synonymous with educational excellence, preparing students to become leaders in society. The influence of Ignatius and the Jesuits continues to be evident in modern Catholic education and spirituality.


Death and Canonization

Ignatius spent the last years of his life in Rome, continuing to lead the Society of Jesus and working tirelessly for its growth. He died on July 31, 1556, leaving a lasting legacy and a well-established Society of Jesus.

The process of Ignatius’s beatification began shortly after his death, and he was beatified in 1609 by Pope Paul V. The canonization followed in 1622, when Pope Gregory XV declared him a saint. The construction of the church dedicated to him in Rome began in 1626, four years after his death. His feast day is celebrated on July 31, the day of his death, and Saint Ignatius is venerated as the patron of spiritual exercises and the Society of Jesus.

The legacy of Saint Ignatius of Loyola is vast. His vision and commitment transformed Catholic spirituality and profoundly influenced the education and mission of the Church. The Society of Jesus, with its spirit of service and dedication, continues to be a vital force in the Church and the world, carrying forward the work initiated by Saint Ignatius, demonstrating the enduring strength of his vision and charisma.


2. A Pilgrim’s Journey

As mentioned at the beginning, one of the main sources on the life of Saint Ignatius is his “The Pilgrim’s Story,” an autobiographical account dictated to his assistants in the last years of his life.

It is possible to download it for free in PDF from the official Jesuit website: simply go to the page and scroll down to find the window shown below, from which you can download the complete original text in PDF.

link to download

A Pilgrim's Journey by Saint Ignatius of Loyola


In this account, Ignatius always refers to himself in the third person, calling himself “the Pilgrim,” and retraces all the events of his spiritual life, starting from his conversion following the leg wound at the siege of Pamplona when he was 30 years old.

Then there are indeed countless books on Ignatius of Loyola, so many that I really wouldn’t know which ones to recommend. I would say that my advice is to start with the PDFs and stories available on the official Jesuit website at the linked page, and then maybe watch some online documentaries: many videos are available on YouTube, and some are really well made.


3. Films about Ignatius of Loyola

An exceptional figure like Ignatius of Loyola has naturally inspired several film productions, the most notable of which is the most recent: the 2016 film “Ignatius of Loyola”. Beautiful cinematography, beautiful costumes, but in the end, the film seems a bit implausible and, in my opinion, does not fully capture the spirituality of the saint. However, compared to the terrible films produced recently, this one is not even that bad.

Here is the trailer:

Youtube trailer film 2016 Ignatius of Loyola

In short: Ignatius impeccably groomed at every moment of his life.

Also interesting is the old and now forgotten “The Knight of the Cross” from 1948, less spectacular than today’s films, and therefore more focused on the religious aspects of Ignatius’s life, but the acting of the time had its flaws: the voices (at least in the Italian edition) sound like those of “Gone with the Wind”.


4. Visiting the Church of Saint Ignatius in Rome

Once you have learned about the life and works of Ignatius of Loyola, you can better appreciate a visit to the church dedicated to him in the center of Rome. To organize the visit better, I also refer to these other in-depth articles:


N.B. The Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Campo Marzio in Rome should not be confused with the Church of the Gesù, the main church of the Jesuit order in Rome, where the tomb of Saint Ignatius is located.



The cover image is a painting by Rubens depicting Saint Ignatius of Loyola – public domain work



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For official information, please refer directly to the official sources of the Diocese of Rome or the Jesuit Order.