The painted vault with the "Apotheosis of Saint Ignatius" by Andrea Pozzo, in the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Rome, Italy. Photo by Stefano Valeri / Shutterstock.


by Fr. Dwight Longenecker

At the beginning of the 16th century, the kingdoms in Spain were at war. A young nobleman named Inigo Lopez de Loyola was excited by the romance and bravery of battle. Longing to do great deeds, he played the part of a dashing soldier.

Storytellers relate how he would strut about “with his cape slung open to reveal his tight-fitting hose and boots; a sword and dagger at his waist.” He was “a fancy dresser, an expert dancer, a womanizer, sensitive to insult, and a rough thug with a sword who used his privileged status to escape prosecution for violent crimes.” Inigo once challenged a Muslim to a duel, running him through with his sword, and engaged in many other duels and quarrels.

In 1509, at the age of 18, he marched off to join the forces of a local duke, defending his territory against the French. For 12 years he fought courageously; then in 1521, during the Battle of Pamplona, a French cannonball crashed through the walls of the castle and shattered Inigo’s right leg.

Like St. Francis of Assisi, Inigo experienced a profound religious conversion during his long recovery. Reading the Bible and spiritual books, he decided to give his life in service to God and his Church.

Pilgrim, hermit, and student

Once he was able to walk again, Inigo vowed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He set out on the open road as a holy vagabond, begging for his keep and staying in various religious houses. For a time, he lived in a cave making reparation for the sins of his past life.

He made it to the Holy Land but was sent back to Europe, so he decided to begin his studies. He returned to school, and for the next 13 years, he studied theology and Latin. By 1534, now 43, he moved to Paris and took up the well-known version of his name — Ignatius of Loyola. He also achieved his master’s in theology.

To put Ignatius of Loyola into the larger context, we should remember that it was in 1517 that Martin Luther kicked off the Protestant Revolution. By1534 when Ignatius arrived in Paris, Protestant reformer John Calvin had been forced out of Switzerland and was living in France. Ignatius found himself in the middle of the upheavals in the Church caused by the Protestant revolt.

Fired up to fight back in defense of the Catholic faith, Ignatius gathered a group of like-minded friends. Together in the Church of St. Peter in the Montmartre section of Paris, they made the solemn vows that would be the foundation for the Society of Jesus — the Jesuits.

One of those friends was another Spaniard named Francis Xavier.

St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier. Photo by Jorisvo / Shutterstock.

Brothers in arms

Like Ignatius, Francis came from a wealthy Spanish family. He held positions at the court of the king and was sent to Paris to study at university. Fifteen years younger than Ignatius, Francis was roommates with a friend named Pierre Favre. Ignatius convinced Pierre to become a priest, but Francis had worldly ambitions.

Ignatius prevailed, though, and Francis Xavier was one of the original six young men who joined Ignatius in vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience to the pope.

Ignatius continued his studies and was ordained a priest a few years later. By 1539, the men had drawn up a rule for their new religious order — a courageous missionary order whose members would go to the Holy Land to convert the infidels. In 1540, Pope Paul III approved the new Society of Jesus.

Ignatius sent his followers out across Europe to establish schools, colleges, and seminaries. He died in Rome in 1556 having established a thriving new order — the missionary heart of the Counter-Reformation.

While Ignatius worked in Europe, Francis Xavier embarked on some of the most ambitious missionary adventures the Church has ever known.

A Portuguese man of mission

In 1540, the same year Pope Paul III approved the Jesuit order, the king of Portugal asked the pope for missionaries to preach the Gospel in the newly occupied Portuguese territories in South India. The enthusiastic young Jesuits seemed the obvious choice. Ignatius of Loyola appointed two men, but one fell ill and Francis Xavier took his place.

In April 1541 he set off with just a few religious books for Goa in India. He arrived in 1542 after a stay in East Africa and began his work of evangelization. His main work was among the Portuguese settlers, many of whom had abandoned the faith and were living in immorality among the indigenous people. He also worked among the Paravas — tribal people on the islands off the southern coast of India who had been baptized but not catechized in the faith.

Francis Xavier spent three years working among the poor in South India. He built approximately 40 churches, and then planned a mission to the islands of present-day Indonesia. From there he visited the Portuguese-occupied islands of Southeast Asia and zigzagged back to his base in India and out once more to continue his missionary work before heading north to Japan.

The work in Japan was the most difficult of any of Francis’ missionary efforts. The language was impossible, and the Japanese had a highly developed religion (Shintoism) interfused with their culture. When they learned about Christianity, they were inclined to reject it.

Francis Xavier continued his amazing missionary journeys around Asia, even setting his eyes on a mission to China. He died in 1552 of a fever and was buried on Shangchuan Island off the southern coast of China. Eventually his body was returned to Goa in India.

The courage of the Counter-Reformation

Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier are shining examples of what can be accomplished by faithful Catholics in times of transition, stress, confusion, and fear.

The world and the Church in the 16th century were going through an enormous upheaval. New worlds were being discovered to the West and East. Unimagined wealth was flowing to European countries. New alliances were being made. Wars were being fought over religion. The threat of aggressive Islam was a constant pressure from the Middle East.

In many ways, the 16th century is similar to our own times. Militant Islamic terrorists, while a minority, are a threat to world peace. Our political and economic worlds are in flux. New technologies have brought amazing changes in the way we live. The Catholic Church is reeling from scandal. Faith in general is in decline.

Francis Xavier and Ignatius of Loyola show us what can be accomplished by men and women of strong and uncompromising faith. They were not discouraged by the troubles in society and the Church. Instead they were inspired to be soldiers of Christ — to wade into battle and preach Christ crucified. Their achievements and those of the Jesuit missionaries from their time helped the Catholic Church to bounce back and surge into the modern age with new confidence.

The same courage, energy, faith, and hard work is needed today. The Holy Spirit’s work is never ending, and no doubt there are the Francis Xaviers and Ignatius of Loyolas of our day who, like them, are ready to roll up their sleeves and do what they can with what they have where they are — and thus lay the foundation for a new springtime in the Church.





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