Ignatius of Loyola: A Saint for Difficult Times

A famous sickbed conversion was only the beginning of his story of patience, perseverance and trust.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, Peter Paul Rubens
St. Ignatius of Loyola, Peter Paul Rubens (photo: Public domain)

When Ignatius of Loyola found himself bedridden with a shattered leg, all of his big dreams and plans were history. Arrogant, stubborn and hot-tempered, Ignatius was a soldier to his core, and he excelled on the battlefield.

Until now, his life as a soldier of Spain had stretched before him: simple, straightforward and glorious. But this time, a flying cannonball had torn one of his legs to shreds. His glorious military career was over. Ignatius was at a dead end.

This was only the first of many dead ends, but they were ultimately part and parcel of the making of the saint. Sometimes it’s all too easy to imagine that the saints’ paths to holiness were uncomplicated, that whatever they may have suffered from sickness or the temptations of Satan, they at least knew clearly what God’s will was for them. But for nearly 20 years after his conversion, Ignatius had very little idea what he was doing. He dealt with failure, disappointment, sickness and severe spiritual darkness. His journey gives us a battle plan for navigating our own dead ends.

A sudden end can be a new beginning. Many know the basic story of Ignatius’ famous sickbed conversion: Bored and restless, he asked for novels of romance and chivalry, but he was given the Lives of Christ and the Saints. That soldierly fervor that had previously fed on knights errant and battles glorious found new energy in the selfless zeal of the saints. Ignatius unconditionally offered his life to Christ. What had initially seemed like the end of all his dreams suddenly became the door to a totally new life.

“Though I walk through the valley of death, I will fear no evil.” Inspired by the fervor of the saints, Ignatius immediately began an intense regimen of prayer, sacrifice and poverty. But his prayer was plagued by scruples and depression. Ignatius was so tormented that he was tempted to take his life, according to New Advent/Catholic Encyclopedia. Although overwhelmed by this darkness, Ignatius clung to the knowledge that any tendency to anxiety and despair was not from God. No doubt the knowledge offered little comfort at first, but Ignatius was slowly granted relief. By perseverance in prayer and total trust in the loving goodness of God, he had walked through what must have been the darkest nights of his life and come out the other end.

Great holiness is forged in daily sacrifice. Ignatius never lost his love for prayer and sacrifice, and the insights he gained in contemplation became his famous Spiritual Exercises. The Jesuit order began as a group of university friends whom he gathered together to pray these “Spiritual Exercises.”

Through prayer, sacrifice and patient suffering, Ignatius had formed his own soul in virtue, and through his insights into prayer and sacrifice, he was able to lead many of the brightest young minds in Europe to a life dedicated to the Church.

Our talents are gifts from God; let him show us how to use them. From the beginning, Ignatius had longed to be a missionary. He was a natural leader and a soldier, with all the dynamism, conviction, courage and physical stamina necessary for the difficult missionary life. He dreamed of converting the Turks in the Holy Land. But this plan failed when he was denied entry to Jerusalem by the Franciscans charged with watching over the Christians there, according to Warren Carroll’s The Cleaving of Christendom.

Disappointed, Ignatius went back to Spain to preach and teach in his native land, but he was arrested by the Inquisition, which feared that an uneducated teacher might inadvertently spread heresy.

Yet his missionary fire was not quenched. And the Church desperately needed missionaries — just not in the way that Ignatius had imagined. Europe was reeling in the chaos of the Protestant Reformation. The people needed clear teaching and ardent examples of holiness to bring them back to the Church.

Ignatius had no education. He was hardly the man to found an order of teachers, and he certainly had no grand dreams of confronting the problems of Christendom. But he saw at least that if he was to be an effective missionary in the current culture, he must be well educated, and he certainly had the zeal and stubbornness necessary to take on the daunting task. So for the next 11 years he went to school, beginning in grammar school with schoolboys and proceeding to the study of philosophy and theology in Spain and France’s best universities.

It was during his years in university that the “Society of Jesus” was formed. These men were attracted to Ignatius’ zeal and holiness, and they came to him for advice and encouragement. He gathered them together, and soon a brotherhood was born. The friends were ordained priests and offered themselves in humble service to the Pope.

The Jesuits were sent on missions to teach and preach throughout Europe and in the new missionary lands in the Far East. Ignatius, however, was left alone in Rome to manage the business of the order. But he had always had a talent for leadership, and he instructed, encouraged and organized from afar.

Within a few years, the Jesuits were in demand everywhere. Ignatius had wanted to be a missionary in foreign lands, but he allowed the Lord to lead him back to his native Spain, to the arduous task of education, and to ultimately use his talents of conviction and charisma to become one of the leaders of the Catholic Reformation in Europe.

A patron saint for difficult times. St. Ignatius is a great patron for people facing difficult times. Whether making hard choices, recovering from unexpected events, going through physical sickness or spiritual darkness, Ignatius of Loyola faced a similar situation.

During the period of his life when he should have been settling into a steady career, earning money and honor, and preparing for comfortable retirement, Ignatius was reassessing his entire worldview. Not only did he do an about-face when he converted from soldier of Spain to soldier of Christ, but he then confronted many tribulations of sickness, persecution, doubt and failure. Ignatius gave his life totally to Christ, but this did not mean his vocation was clear.

In the end, it was through prayer, sacrifice and study that Ignatius became the saintly founder of the Jesuit order. Without any expectation of greatness, Ignatius dedicated himself to doing for the Lord what he did best. He formed his own soul in virtue, and with his inborn passion and flair for leadership, he began gathering and leading his friends in the same life of holiness. Almost by accident (and yet of course, by no accident at all), the group found themselves with a mission to serve the Church at a time when the Church desperately needed them.

Little did Ignatius know on that long-ago day when his leg was shot out from beneath him that, in the same year, the Church’s four-year attempt to reconcile with Martin Luther had come to a climax. Unable to persuade Luther to recant his heresy, the Church had formally excommunicated him. The spiritual battle for Europe had begun.

At this moment in history, God needed a missionary and reformer with the courage, zeal and practical experience to confront the confusion and chaos of Europe and bring the faith into newly discovered lands. He chose Ignatius of Loyola.

Jessica Pipes, a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College, writes from Wildwood, Missouri.

This article originally appeared July 31, 2018, at the Register.