Death of St Ignatius Loyola

The founder of the Society of Jesus died on July 31st, 1556.

The Society of Jesus was founded in Rome in 1539 by Ignatius of Loyola and nine companions, all priests, who placed themselves under a vow of obedience to Pope Paul III. Ignatius was a former soldier, badly wounded in battle in his youth and left with a life-long limp, who while he was convalescing had determined to become a soldier for Christ. The most notable of the others was his fellow-Spaniard Francis Xavier, who had become his fast friend when they studied theology together in Paris. The Pope formally approved the new order in 1540. Ignatius, now approaching fifty, spent the rest of his life in Rome, directing the work of the organisation from his base at the church of Santa Maria della Strada. By his death, the order’s numbers had swelled to more than a thousand.

As Jean Lacouture pointed out in his book on the Jesuits, the church of St Mary ‘of the road’ was an appropriate headquarters for an order which had no monasteries and was designed to live and move in the everyday human world as missionaries for the Faith. In 1539 Ignatius had told his companions that ‘all that His Holiness will command us for the good of souls or the propagation of the faith, we are bound to carry out…whether he send us among the Turks, to the New Worlds, to the Lutherans or any other manner of believers or unbelievers…This vow may scatter us to distant parts of the world.’ This indeed it did. The Pope asked Ignatius to send six of his men to the East. Ignatius asked, ‘What will I have left for the rest of the world?’ and it was eventually agreed to send two, Francis Xavier and a Portuguese called Rodrigues, who left for India. Xavier and Ignatius would never see each other again. Two others left for Ireland, instructed by Ignatius to ‘speak little, but listen long and willingly’, and be talkative with the talkative and reserved with the reserved. ‘Be all things to all men.’

Back in Rome, Ignatius was described by a visitor as ‘a Spaniard of small stature, rather lame, with joyful eyes.’ Less than 5ft 2in tall, with a narrow face and a commanding nose, he hated people looking at him, which was strictly against the new order’s rules. His health gradually broke down and he suffered agonies from gallstones and liver complaints, but forbade himself to think about death in case it might be too consoling. He was often bedridden, which did not prevent him from writing and dictating hundreds of letters, some of them drafted and redrafted many times over, to popes and kings, including the Emperor Charles V and Philip II of Spain, and assorted cardinals, grandees and academics. From 1547 he had a trusted secretary, Juan Alfonso de Polanco, who wrote some of his letters and put the final touches to the Spiritual Exercises, which were completed the following year and would make Ignatius the patron saint of spiritual retreats.

Already in 1550 Ignatius was thought to be dying and by 1556 he was dangerously weak. Early in July he was moved to a farm for the benefit of purer air, but was taken back to his base at La Strada on July 27th. On the 30th Father Torres, the Company’s physician, asked for Pope Paul IV to be warned that the end was very near. During that night Ignatius was heard to murmur ‘My God … My God’ and he died at dawn before he had been given the last rites. ‘He departed this world,’ Polanco remarked, ‘in the most ordinary way.’

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