Saturday, August 21, 2010


With Liberal leader Tony Abbott knocking on the door of The Lodge, it is perhaps timely to meditate upon his education under the Jesuit order, with reference to the order's founder, the Basque Iñigo Loyola, better known now as Saint Ignatius. 

The youngest son of the aristocratic Loyola family, Iñigo was born in the family castle overlooking the town of Azpeitia in Guipuscoa province, about 25 kilometres southwest of the city of San Sebastian. His noble birth gave him entry into the most rarified circles of Spanish society, including the royal court of Isabella and Ferdinand. There he seems to have conducted himself much as one might have expected from a well-born courtier of the time, his demeanour evoked in the precisely calibrated language of the Catholic Encyclopaedia: 
‘He was affected and extravagant about his hair and dress, consumed with the desire of winning glory, and would seem to have been sometimes involved in those darker intrigues, for which handsome young courtiers too often think themselves licensed. How far he went on the downward course is still unproved. The balance of evidence tends to show that his own subsequent humble confessions of having been a great sinner should not be treated as pious exaggerations.’
It would appear that it was not simple vanity and the pleasures of the flesh which consumed the young Loyola either. He had visions of personal grandeur, initially fed, as with another legendary Spaniard, the Don Quixote of Cervantes, by a voracious appetite for reading the romances of chivalry and knight errantry, which were the pulp fiction of his day.*

Perhaps dreaming of one day leading an army into battle - a destiny which indeed did await him, although not in any form the preening young dissolute could ever have imagined - Loyola entered military service. His dreams were soon shattered, when at the age of just 29 he was badly wounded in action against the French during their siege of the northern stronghold of Pamplona. Serious enough in itself, the wound was not as terrible as the treatment he would undergo for it, according to historian Leopold von Ranke:
‘...a cannon ball, passing between Ignatius’ legs, tore open the left calf and broke the right shin (Whit-Tuesday, 20 May, 1521). With his fall the garrison lost heart and surrendered, but he was well treated by the French and carried on a litter to Loyola, where his leg had to be rebroken and reset, and afterwards a protruding end of the bone was sawn off, and the limb, having been shortened by clumsy setting, was stretched out by weights. All these pains were undergone voluntarily, without uttering a cry or submitting to be bound. But the pain and weakness which followed were so great that the patient began to fail and sink.’
Stricken with a fever, he defied the opinions of his doctors by surviving. What he read during his long recovery induced a life-changing conviction, according to Owen Chadwick in The Reformation. ‘Then, in order to divert the weary hours of convalescence, he asked for the romances of chivalry, his favourite reading, but there were none in the castle, and instead they brought him the lives of Christ and of the saints, and he read them in the same quasi-competitive spirit with which he read the achievements of knights and warriors. “Suppose I were to rival this saint in fasting, that one in endurance, that other in pilgrimages.”’
Fired with such notions during his year of convalescence, in March 1522 he visited the Benedictine monastery of Montserrat in the mountains above Barcelona, where he gave away his rich clothes and hung up his weaponry before an image of the Virgin Mary. He attempted to write a thorough catalogue of his sins - compiling it is said to have taken him three days - and made a full confession.

On his route back to Loyola, he stopped off in the small Catalan city of Manresa, high in the mountains inland from Barcelona. There he lived in a cave for eight months, where troubled by lingering doubts about whether he had really managed to catalogue each and every one of his sins, he submitted to a severe self-discipline of deep meditations and prayer, accompanied by bodily privations of cold and fasting. He experienced visions there, a phenomenon which would recur for the rest of his life. 
It was also during this period that he accumulated the experiences which would comprise the raw material for The Spiritual Exercises, the seminal text which would later become the wellspring of discipline for the educational and missionary agenda of himself and his followers.
He decided to undertake a pilgrimage to Palestine, the Holy Land, a journey which in its perils and legendary hardships rivals the travails of Quixote himself, during which Loyola suffered chronic ill-health and near starvation, as well as shipwreck and imprisonment. His terrible ordeal proved all for nought too: under stringent orders from the Pope, the Franciscan friars in charge of the holy sites in Jerusalem would not permit Christian pilgrims access, for fear that they would be kidnapped and held for ransom by locals. So at the end of a harsh and bitter journey, Loyola had no alternative but to turn around and find sea passage as best he could back to the port of Barcelona.
Perhaps on deck somewhere returning across the Mediterranean, or in the period soon after his return to Spain, he began the transition from mystic pilgrim to spiritual leader. Armed with his experiences in the cave in Manresa, which he was inscribing into The Spiritual Exercises, he glimpsed a means to draw a group of like-minded Catholics around him, in a highly disciplined religious cadre. His preparations for his calling included studies at a number of universities, one of them Salamanca, Spain’s finest, though this increasingly odd-seeming noble could not help but attract the eyes of officialdom, as J.H. Elliott pointed out in his Europe Divided.
‘All this time, though still a layman, he attracted attention by a life of severe holiness, and found himself giving spiritual counsel to troubled souls, mostly women. Not unnaturally, this brought him to the notice of the Inquisition, since both his unauthorised ministry and the character of his group (which included both noblewomen and ex-prostitutes, both given to manifestations of hysteria [sic]) raised totally unfounded suspicions of heterodoxy and immorality.’
Loyola was briefly imprisoned before being cleared of all suspicion, and in 1527 moved to Paris. There he undertook further studies, survived more dire poverty and sickness, and rejected the growing protestant trend. He was fortunate to escape a public flogging for an alleged breach of college discipline, when his college principal listened to his version of events and gave him the benefit of the doubt. During his Paris years he gathered a small band of followers, including Francisco Xavier, who would in years to come be canonised as Saint Francis Xavier. Loyola’s tiny Paris group of seven comprised the core of what would soon be the Jesuit Order, and he trained them through the disciplines in his book, The Spiritual Exercises, about which renowned British historian G.R. Elton remarked:
‘On the face of it, the work is neither very original nor very inspiring... it possesses a total air of practicality, a kind of sober obviousness in an essentially mystic setting which is the secret of its impact on those who for several centuries have come to it prepared to listen and to follow. In form it consists of a detailed and precise course of meditation and study... which the aspirant must undergo in strict sequence and total obedience to the instructor. The student searches his soul for sins and defects, in the process acquires the means for ridding himself of them, meditates on Christ and His passion, and is quite literally made over. The evidence is overwhelming that many who have undergone this training felt themselves to be new men, possessed of a moral strength and capacity for religious experience which they did not know until The Spiritual Exercises called forth the resources of their souls. The pedagogic purpose and success are equally patent: St. Ignatius’ relationship to his disciple is that of teacher and pupil - even drill-sergeant and recruit - rather than of mystical visionary and follower.’
On 15 August 1534 the group of seven assembled in Montmartre where they all took vows of poverty and chastity, as well as to journey to the Holy Land to undertake missionary work there - and to put themselves at the disposal of the Pope. Paul III did not know know it - he was not even pope yet - but the vows Loyola and his followers took that summer would provide him and popes to come with sworn followers who would form a Catholic bulwark against the Reformation, who would teach the young of the Catholic realm to read and write, and would fan out across the world recruiting new faithful in vast numbers from the four corners of the earth, extending the influence of the Catholic Church and the papacy beyond even the worst nightmares of any Luther or Calvin. 
By 1537 the group was in Venice, awaiting transport to Palestine, but the way was blocked by Turkish fleets patrolling the Mediterranean. Their options thinning, the group undertook ordination to the priesthood in Venice, and then moved south towards Rome, to fulfil their vow to place themselves at the disposal of the Pope. 
The little band was just a few miles short of Rome when Loyola experienced a vision which he interpreted as foretelling the blessing of Jesus Christ on their enterprise, and from that point on the group had its name, the Society of Jesus. 
Loyola drafted the articles of the order, which included the resolution ‘to fight under the banner of God in our Society, which we wish to designate with the name of Jesus, and who are willing to serve solely God and his vicar on earth.’ Its goals were ‘propagation of the faith by the ministry of the Word, by spiritual exercises, and by works of charity’, as well as ‘teaching Christianity to children and the uneducated.’ 
Thus, from the very outset the fundamental objectives of the Jesuits were clearly inscribed: total allegiance to the pope, missionary evangelism, and education. The pyramid of unswerving allegiance was not confined to the pope at the top, however, with the members of the new order swearing total obedience to their general, and to serve as “the Pope’s soldiers”. 

The Papal Court was not exactly agog at the possibilities of the little group of travellers when they presented themselves at the Vatican. Arguments for and against ran through the curia for official approval of the new Order, with powerful Cardinal Guidiccioni arguing against, but another power broker, Cardinal Contarini, arguing for them. Although Pope Paul himself publicly favoured approbation, Guidiccioni briefly held sway. With approval initially refused, Loyola and his followers redoubled their efforts, and perhaps sensing which way the wind was blowing, Guidiccioni gave way, and on 27 September 1540 Pope Paul issued the Bull Regimini militantis Ecclesiae, approving the founding of the Jesuit Order. No other single act of any pope would have such an significant and enduring effect to reinforce the core strength of the Roman Catholic Church. 
Although their numbers were initially restricted to 60 - the caveat was removed after two years - the Society of Jesus would quickly grow in size and influence, to become one of the most potent entities within the Church. Against his declared wishes, his followers drafted Loyola as the order’s first General in 1541. His war injuries and health were as ever troublesome, and the workload of the new order onerous. After several years in the post he attempted to resign, but his followers would have none of it, and he remained at the head of the Jesuits for a decade and a half, during which the order’s first missionaries undertook initial work in the Americas, India and Africa. 
Early missionaries included Saint Francis Borgia (1510-1572), the great grandson of Rodrigo Borgia, Pope Alexander VI. A personal friend of Loyola’s, Francis Borgia undertook missionary work in the Americas, and later rose to become General of the Jesuit order. The order also attracted those, like Loyola himself, who wished to escape from what they felt was a sullied past. Chadwick remarks:
‘The Portuguese Inacio de Azevedo was the son of a priest, the grandson of a bishop, the son and grandson of nuns. When he learned of his birth, he held it to be a fourfold sacrilege, believed himself called to a life of sacrificial reparation, joined the Society of Jesus and its Brazilian mission, and was murdered by pirates in the mid-Atlantic.’
What then is the final judgement of history upon such a man as Ignatius Loyola? Elton is exacting in his judgement, calling him ' of the most remarkable but also strange personalities of that age or any other. Short, slight, racked by illness, permanently lame after his wound at Pamplona, of limited intelligence and never a scholar, preacher or theologian, Loyola hardly looked an inspiring figure. His passion for system and planning often deteriorated into pedantry and pettifogging regulation. Although he was from his young days addicted to fantasies, substituting after 1521 dreams of knightly service of Christ for dreams of knightly service to ladies without at first seeing any essential difference between the two, his imagination was always rather meagre; he entirely lacked all poetry in the soul. The visions which came to him so frequently during the last thirty-five years of his life, and which he learned to turn off and on at will, were nearly always of the simplest kind - mere phenomena of light such as discs or rays, all of which he unhesitatingly identified as some specific manifestation of the divine. Though, therefore, a mystic, he was the coolest visionary that ever thought himself directly inspired by God.’

*The two volumes of Cervantes’ masterpiece were written in the decades after the death of Loyola, and accounts of the Jesuit founder’s fascination with popular books of knight errantry may have helped inspire Cervantes, along too with popular accounts of the exploits of the Conquistadors in the New World.

From my book Tales of the Popes: From Eden to El Dorado.


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