An unlikely convert
St Ignatius was a soldier – at any rate, until 1521, when he was injured in battle, occasioning one of the most significant conversions in Church history.
Nobody who had observed Ignatius’s early life would have expected him to become a great priest: born in 1491, the son of a courtier to the Spanish royal family, he was a vain and affected young man.
But in his mid-20s he joined the army, and a few years later was badly injured by a French cannonball. After a gruesome operation – in which his leg was rebroken and reset, a protruding piece of bone was sawn off, and his leg had to be stretched by weights – he was able to sit up in bed and read. What they brought him – it was all they had – was Lives of the Saints. Ignatius’s heart was set on fire. “Suppose I were to rival this saint in fasting, that one in endurance, that other in pilgrimages,” he thought.
Scruples and discernment
A friend said later that before his conversion, Ignatius had broken every one of the commandments. He began his new life with penance: he made a general confession and went about in sackcloth. He had to wrestle with scruples – what if he had forgotten to confess something, and was still in mortal sin? – but God gave him peace.
These early experiences were the foundation of Ignatian discernment: his writings on seeking God’s will remain the Catholic tradition’s most respected resource for making decisions.
A small band
The Jesuit order was founded, in a way, by accident: they were just friends of Ignatius who got to know him when he was studying in Paris, who all got ordained at the same time and who then went to see the pope.
Out of that small band, under Ignatius’s disciplined leadership, came the Jesuits, who rapidly sent saints and martyrs everywhere from India and Japan to Reformation England. Today it is the world’s largest single religious order of priests and brothers.