When Pope Francis was elected Pope on March 13, 2013, to the surprise of most Catholics, we soon learned that he was a member of the Society of Jesus (Jesuits). This was the first time in the history of the papacy that a Jesuit was elected Pope. Moreover he was the first Pope from South America, and the first to take the distinguished name of Francis. Many people started to look up what is a Jesuit, and thereupon discovered that the founder was St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Like many young Spaniards of his day, Ignatius yearned for a military career. But in 1521 he was wounded in a battle and that changed the course of his life. During a long period of convalescence, Ignatius read the life of Christ and the lives of saints, and this led to his religious conversion. He was blessed with visions and direction from God that he was to start a new religious congregation in the Church. So joining with 6 spiritual companions, they took vows and started a support group of prayer and study which eventually became known as the Society of Jesus in 1540.
Ignatius was chosen as the first Superior General, and he was instrumental in sending missionaries overseas. One of the seven founders was St. Francis Xavier who brought the good news of Christianity to Far East. The Jesuits were very instrumental in bring the Gospel to many foreign lands including North and South America. But the Society of Jesus was very influential in defending Catholicism during the time of the Counter-Reformation in Europe. As a priest and theologian, Ignatius helped to bring back to the Church those who floundered in their faith. The Jesuits are one of the largest religious congregations of men who staff universities and retreat centers all over the world.
A lasting impact that Ignatius made in the Church was through his Spiritual Exercises, a set of 30 meditations and prayers to guide the soul to God published in 1548. Countless individuals have been influenced by the wisdom of these meditations that seek to deepen one’s union with God, and to discern more clearly the will of God. Ignatius was a renowned spiritual director, and his writings comprise what is usually termed as Ignatian Spirituality. Ignatius experienced visions and other manifestations of God’s presence and power in his life.
We admire founders of religious orders and congregations in the church for their courage and perseverance to follow the call of God. They saw the needs of the Church, and gathered followers to address that need. Very often these founders are prophetic individuals who speak to the ills of society, and labor hard for the poor and vulnerable. These founders are really apostles of their time – forging new territory in which the Church of Jesus Christ is planted and blossoms.
The motto of the Jesuits is “For the Greater Glory of God.” It points them and us to glorify God through all our life and activities. May each of us strive to grasp this principle that places our focus on God and not on ourselves.
Fr. Michael Salvagna, CP