Basque Fact of the Week: Saint Ignatius, Founder of the Jesuits

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Basques were relatively late-comers to Christianity, holding on to their pre-Christian ways longer than many of their neighbors. However, when they did embrace the new religion, they often did so with great fervor. This devotion led more than one Basque to become leaders of the faith. Saint Ignatius is the most widely recognized of these Basques. His feast day is celebrated by Basques all over the world. As the founder of the Society of Jesus – the Jesuits – his impact on the lives of people all over the world cannot be understated.

St. Ignatius of Loyola. Image from Georgetown University.
  • The man who would become Saint Ignatius, Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola, was born on October 23, 1491 in Azpeitia, Gipuzkoa, in the Castle of Loyola (now part of the Sanctuary of Loyola) to parents of noble descent. Iñigo was the youngest of thirteen children. As he grew up, he became a soldier, first as a page to a relative. As a young man, he desired fame and glory, and had a reputation for womanizing and vanity, and used his privileged status to escape punishment for various crimes.
  • On May 20, 1521, at the Battle of Pamplona, a cannonball, bouncing off a wall, shattered his leg. He was taken back to his father’s castle where he recovered. His leg ended up shorter than before, effectively ending his military career.
  • It was during his recovery that he underwent his spiritual conversion. Without access to the chivalric adventures of his childhood heroes such as El Cid, he read religious texts given to him by his sister-in-law. When he recovered, he gave up his fine clothes and weapons and lived a life of poverty, begging for room and food, and set off for the Holy Land. On the way, he spent months praying in a cave, shunning all fleshly pleasures, and began formulating what became his Spiritual Exercises.
  • When he returned, he attended first the University of Alcalá and then the University of Paris. It was during this time that he met a number of other devout men, particularly Peter Faber and Francis Xavier (more on him in a future Fact), who together founded the Society of Jesus, or the Jesuits, in 1539. Ignatius was the first Superior General, or head, of the Jesuits. in 1553, the Jesuits adopted the Jesuit Constitutions, written by Ignatius with the help of his secretary, which proscribed the motto perinde ac cadaver – “as if a dead body” – meaning that they should be as disciplined as a corpse.
  • Ignatius died on July 31, 1556, a day celebrated as his feast day. He was canonized March 12, 1622. He is the patron saint of Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa and the Basque Country, and co-patron of Araba. He is also the patron of soldiers and various cities around the world.

Primary sources: Ignatius of Loyola, Wikipedia; Larrañaga Elorza, Koldo; Larrañaga Elorza, Koldo. Loyola, Ignacio de. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2021. Available at: http://aunamendi.eusko-ikaskuntza.eus/es/loyola-ignacio-de/ar-96790/

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