Born in 1491 to a noble family in Northern Spain, Inigo de Loyola was reared in the household of a prominent courtier, the youngest of thirteen children. At the age of sixteen, he left his family home to serve as a page for a local dignitary. This position immersed him in courtly life and all that it offered - gambling, swordplay, women, etc. At the age of twenty-three, Inigo left his court life behind to enter the military. After becoming an officer in the military, he was severely injured by a French-launched cannonball during an attack on the fortress town of Pamplona.
In 1521, during his long convalescence from this wound, he read several religious books, the only books that were readily available. These books and the enforced thoughtfulness of the recovery period effected a conversion which led to the founding of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). Inigo traveled to Montserrat, where he confessed his sins and received absolution. From Montserrat, he went to Manresa, where he first conceived his Spiritual Exercises while living a humble lifestyle and subjecting himself to extreme penances. In 1523, he set out for the Holy Land, but was prevented from entering Palestine. He returned to Spain and decided to devote himself to his education and to the priesthood.
He studied in Barcelona (1524-26); in Alcala (1526-27), where for a short time he was imprisoned by the Inquisition for teaching; in Salamanca (1527-28), where he again suffered brief imprisonment for teaching; and in Paris. During his time in Paris, the Inquisition again became suspicious, but he was cleared of any wrongdoing. As a student in Paris he drew a small band of friends to himself and directed them in extended prayer and meditation according to the Spiritual Exercises. With these early companions he pronounced religious vows in 1534, and after further studies, these Jesuits-to-be were ordained to the priesthood in Venice and offered themselves in service to Pope Paul III. In 1540, Paul III approved the Institute of the Society of Jesus. Inigo was elected general of the order in 1541 and also adopted the name of Ignatius. Headquartered in Rome, he remained the leader of the Society of Jesus until his death. During his life, Ignatius watched the Jesuits grow from just six members in Rome to over a thousand members worldwide.
Although the Jesuits became a major force in the Counter Reformation, mainly through education, the Society was initially intended to offer service to the papal authority and allow its followers to live a simple lifestyle in imitation of Jesus. Ignatius originally focused on schools as a means to recruit for the Society, but education eventually became a major focus of the Jesuit tradition. Ignatius came to see the institutions as a means of stemming the decline of the Catholic Church in the face of the Reformation and to fulfill the motto of the Jesuits Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam, "To the Greater Glory of God." Jesuit schools were opened all across Europe, and missions were begun in Japan, India, and Brazil.
Ignatius's entire life was dominated by his desire to imitate Christ. His Spiritual Exercises, written over a number of years, are a series of reflections, examinations of conscience and prayers, grouped according to a traditional set of four steps leading to mystical union with God. The spirituality identified with St. Ignatius is characterized by emphasis on human initiative, and his works are considered classics of Christian mysticism and are used by devout Catholics. Ignatius died in 1556 of illness and was buried in the Gesu at Rome. He was canonized a saint in 1622 by Pope Gregory XV with his feast day celebration on July 31.
Information compiled from:
Catholic Online Saints Website (http://saints.catholic.org)
New Advent Website (www.newadvent.org)
St. Ignatius Church Website (www.stignatiussf.org)