One would be hard-pressed—very hard-pressed—to find two more different saints than the founder of the Society of Jesus, Ignatius of Loyola, and his friend and first lieutenant (so to speak), Francis Xavier. While not exactly oil and vinegar, these two Spaniards took a fledging idea—a society dedicated not to a saint, nor even to Mary, but to Jesus Himself—and saw it spread worldwide, even in their lifetimes. Indeed, the Jesuits are the largest religious order within the Catholic Church today, with approximately 18,000 members.

While it is never easy to launch a new religious order, let alone see it grow, spread and flourish, the Jesuits have never backed away from facing challenges. Though Ignatius, born in the Basque region of Spain in 1491, came from an aristocratic family, as a soldier he suffered a terrible setback after being seriously wounded in the leg during the Battle of Pamplona in 1521.  During his convalescence, he underwent a spiritual conversion while reading the lives of the saints that radically changed his life.

A short time later, while at the Benedictine shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, he spent hours in prayer over a period of several months in a cave near Manresa, where he began writing his masterpiece. The Spiritual Exercises is a retreat manual that greatly influenced both the spirituality of his day—and of ours, as well. Ignatius eventually made his way to the University of Paris to study philosophy and theology.

Because of his love of Christ and the Church, he gradually attracted other students, including (St.) Peter Faber, Simon Rodriques, Nicholas Bobadilla, Diego Laynez and Alfonso Salmeron—and, of course, (St.) Francis Xavier. They likewise committed themselves to do all things for the “greater glory of God”—hence the Jesuit motto: Ad Majorem Dei Gloriam—“A.M.D.G.” This small band of seven brothers took vows of poverty, chastity, obedience—and in a unique twist, a fourth vow of obedience to the pope—in a small chapel on Montmartre, Paris on August 15, 1534.  Once Ignatius and his companions, now growing in number, made their way to Rome, Ignatius was forced by his confessor to take office in 1541 as the Superior General of the Society of Jesus. He was to remain in Rome the rest of his days.

Jesuit author Fr. James Martin notes that:

“It's important to remember that Ignatius always relied on the help of his friends, from the very beginnings of the Society of Jesus.  In fact, the first two Jesuits, other than Ignatius, were his two roommates at the University of Paris: Francisco Javier and [St.] Peter Favre.  The two could not have been more unlike: Francis the great and dashing athlete from a noble family with a castle in Javier, Spain; and Peter, the quiet and more reserved former shepherd from Savoy.”

Further, since one of the main elements of the Jesuits was evangelization,  “When another Jesuit who was to be sent to ‘the Indies’ fell ill, Francis Xavier replied immediately to Ignatius, ‘Send me!’  And Ignatius did.  Their friendship was a free one, based on their common love for Jesus.”

Ignatius had taken the temperature of the post-Reformation Church and read it well.  During their first two centuries, the Jesuits were involved in an explosion of intellectual and missionary activity, and were engaged in over 740 schools worldwide.

From the very beginning, the Jesuits sent missionaries to Asia, India, and the Americas. St. Francis Xavier served as a missionary to what was then considered the Portuguese Empire, working most notably in India, in addition to Japan, Borneo, and the Maluku Islands.  Francis Xavier was about to extend his missionary preaching to the southern coast of China but died on Shangchuan Island, fated never to reach the Chinese mainland. He was on fire with the Gospel and the Holy Spirit and did enough missionary work for an army of proselytizers, during a time when shipwrecks and deaths at sea were the norm.

Francis Xavier, however, was not alone in his missionary activities.  Robert de Nobili adapted Jesuit spirituality to the indigenous spirituality of the Catholic communities in southern India.  St. Peter Claver spent forty years in Colombia where it is estimated he personally baptized around 300,000 people. Roque Gonzalez worked among the Guarani people in the “Reductions” of Paraguay. St. Jean de Brébeuf traveled to New France (Canada), where he worked primarily with the Huron native peoples for most of his adult life before his horrific martyrdom. Then, as now, Jesuits felt it imperative to bring the Gospel to the ends of the earth—“and no other religious order has had more martyrs for the faith,” says one proud Jesuit who wishes to remain anonymous!

I mentioned above that it’s never easy to launch a new religious congregation, and the Jesuits had a particularly bad time of it. They were even eventually officially suppressed—mainly for political reasons—in the 18th century. (Mercifully their sainted founders were long dead by then.) However, with the regenerative powers of a steamrollered cartoon cat, the Society of Jesus was back up and running after fifty-five years of being almost wiped off the ecclesiastical map.

Further confusing matters, since the Second Vatican Council the Jesuits have unduly been labeled (occasionally and wrongly) as “the loyal opposition to the pope.” This is highly ironic on two levels: first, since most of the fully-formed Jesuits take a fourth vow of obedience  (with regards to missions) to the pope himself, and, of course, because our current supreme pontiff, Francis himself, is a Jesuit.

Worse than that, Heinrich Himmler himself is said (in the BBC award-winning 1974 “The World At War” series) to have based his “concept” of the deadly Nazi SS on the Jesuits.

Despite all this bad press, suppression, misunderstanding, and lack of a parallel women’s order (cf. Franciscans, Dominicans, Augustinians, Norbertines, and Carmelites, who all have female counterparts) Sts. Ignatius and Francis Xavier succeeded in not only founding a truly new religious society, but gave the Church—still a bit shaken after the Reformation—a new leg to stand on. No one could argue with Ignatius’s theological acumen or Francis Xavier’s irrepressible energy to baptize and save the entire world had he lived past the age of 47.

Who could doubt that in and through this particular pope, humbly named Francis, that the Jesuits continue to discern the visionary depths of Saint Ignatius of Loyola and the missionary zeal of Saint Francis Xavier?