Saint Ignatius of Loyola - John Pollen

The Constitutions

Pictures and images of Saint Ignatius most frequently represent him with a book in his hand. This does not mean, that he was a prolific author; indeed, his writing was very laboured and lacking in facility of style. The book represented is always The Constitutions of the Society, and without a doubt nothing can be more characteristic of the Saint than that small but remarkable volume.

The ideal which that volume endeavours to realize, is that of a priestly order animated by a martial spirit. If we look back in Ignatius's history for the first manifestation of that ideal, we find a rudimentary form of it in that meditation of The Spiritual Exercises, which is called, The Kingdom of Christ. Here Ignatius reflects that among Christians there will be sure to be a certain number who will endeavour to signalize themselves in His service, and will labour to make themselves more and more perfect in virtue, in order to form round Him a group or squadron of more sincere and effective followers. Thus already by the year 1522, we have some idea of a body of men dedicating themselves to the work for which the Jesuits were eventually to live. So far, however, there was no proposal of forming a corporation marked by special discipline.

In 1524 at Barcelona we find Ignatius still in doubt whether it would not after all be preferable to enter into some older, or perhaps relaxed, order, of which he might renew the ancient fervour. But he decided that it would be better to gather new disciples around him, and he began to do so, though at first without permanent success.

It is in Paris, during and after 1530, that he wins followers who hold firmly and zealously to his example. But he makes no rules, introduces no promises, there is no preparation at all yet for a corporate union.

In 1534, the original followers take their first religious vows at Montmartre; they insensibly begin to live as Jesuits, without however having any binding link one with another.

In 1539 comes the prospect of separation in order to carry out the missionary projects of the Pope. Unless some corporate obligation is undertaken now, the brotherhood must eventually fall to pieces. Under this quasi-constraint, the idea of joining into an order suggests itself and is accepted. The Pope approves of the idea, in 1540 his solemn approbation is given, and the Society is founded.

1541 to 1546. Ignatius being elected General is commissioned to write constitutions, but he proceeds gently and with measured steps. At first he confines his attention entirely to the introduction of appropriate customs, which, as experience shall approve, he will change into laws. Meantime he insists much on uniformity, and draws up many small papers of directions for special cases, some of which have been referred to above. But they are so specialized for the requirements of individual cases that they can have little direct influence on the legislation that is to regulate the whole Society in all times and places.

In 1547 Ignatius seriously undertook the drafting of the constitutions, and with the help of secretaries he accomplished the task in about two years. In the year 1550, he assembled all the old Fathers that could be spared, (with whom were one or two younger men, not yet priests,) to revise them. While accepting everything in substance, they offered him a certain number of written comments, which he worked into his draft, and at the same time he prepared a brief resume of the principal points of the Institute, which were then embodied in a new bull of Pope Julius III, beginning Exposcit debitum. With this the constitutional lines of the religious order were, broadly speaking, completed and the next step was to promulgate the Constitutions and to put them into execution.

In 1552 the promulgation was entrusted by Ignatius to Father Jerome Nadal, who travelled first in Sicily, then in Spain and Portugal, and finally in Germany. During all this time smaller touches and corrections were being added by Ignatius, to his work, which had not yet been printed.

It was only after the Founder's death that the Constitutions were printed by the General Congregation of the Order, which was summoned to elect his successor. They accepted his text as final, and so it has been regarded ever since, having never been changed, except in a detail or two here and there, as is inevitable in the laws of every vital human society.

Reflecting on this series of dates, one cannot not but be struck by the contrast they offer to the work of hurried legislators, to the productions of lightning journalism. Ignatius's ideas took over thirty years to work out, and he never saw them in print. While we must recognize in this man an unusual power of codification, which showed itself quite early in the various "Rules" appended to The Spiritual Exercises, and in great abundance in those "instructions," of which he was at first so prolific, we cannot but notice at the same time the greatest possible restraint in imposing obligations. In fact, he died before the probationary period of his laws was declared over, and one of the features which distinguishes his ordinances from those of other founders, is the lightness of their binding force. Per se  they never oblige under pain of any sin.

Perhaps some may imagine that this life-long period of gestation cannot have been continuous in any real sense, and was perhaps only a series of spasms, one far distant from the other.

Of course, as this Life  has already shown, Ignatius was intensely interested in many other objects besides his own order; but the time and thought he gave to it exclusively was still astonishing, and an interesting proof of this is given by the few pages of a journal of prayers, which he kept while considering a point of the Constitutions which one might have thought to be of minor interest. Ignatius recommended the keeping of such journals and also their destruction, rather than letting them fall into the hands of others. This practice he carried out with great regularity, but by a happy oversight these few pages escaped the fire, and chronicle quite simply, and no doubt quite faithfully, his lights in prayer during the forty days he was weighing the question whether the churches of professed houses should have revenues. As these churches were to all intents and purposes for the people, it might well have been imagined that they might have been left free from the self-imposed abstinence from revenues, which the professed were called upon to practise. But Ignatius doubted this, and applied himself to prayer for forty days for light to make sure that his decision did not spring from any worldly or low motive, but solely from the love of God. Day after day therefore, Mass, meditation, office and other devotions were offered up for this intention, and day after day he noted down the abnormal graces in prayer, with which he was favoured. I do not say that any single grace was on a plane quite different from the experiences of ordinary devout Christian souls. But the forty days' sequence of lights is most unusual and remarkable. The entire and continued absorption in the things of heaven, which they reveal, the tender devotion, the high and lasting elevation of thought, produce in the reader a profound feeling that the orante  was surely, animated by no other wish than the sincerest desire to judge according to the divine standard, that he acted from no merely human or unworthy motive.

If, as is most probable, every problem was debated with the same thoroughness and if some more important points were considered with even greater care, we may cease to wonder at the years which passed while Ignatius kept these matters in mind.

It would be impossible to summarize or explain the contents of the little book of Constitutions  here, for that would involve the reader in disquisitions on the canon law relating to monastic orders, and on the history and spirit of the times amidst which those Constitutions  were developed. In general it may be said that they are inspired with an exalted spirit of charity, and with great zeal for religious perfection. Generally, those who find fault with them have never read them, or never taken the trouble to understand them.

Their technical terms are sometimes misunderstood. One well known instance of this is the phrase obligatio ad peccatum, which many writers, who ought to have known better, have translated by "an obligation to commit sin," as if the phrase had been obligatio ad peccandum. The real meaning is "an obligation under (or, up to) sin" such being the highest pressure which a religious superior can bring to bear on one who has vowed to obey him. It shows the gravity of the offence, if the subject does not obey. Monod in his introduction to Bohmer's essay on The Jesuits  (Paris, 1910, pp. 13, 14) comments severely on the above mistranslation, so frequent in anti-Jesuit writers.

It is a popular misapprehension to say that the Society was founded in order to combat Protestantism. In reality neither the Constitutions, nor the papal letters of approbation bear this out. While insisting on religious and zealous motives, they never mention the conflict with heresy. The first object of Ignatius's' zeal was to preach and work in the lands over-run by Moslems. To Protestant countries he sent his missionaries only by special command of the Pope, and to Germany at the solicitation of the Imperial Ambassador. It is true, however, that, as the scope of the Society enlarged, she found herself ever more and more engaged with the propagandists of the new doctrines, who were then the most active enemies of the Church. Some good judges have declared that this contest has been the Society's greatest work; but comparisons like this are always somewhat hazardous.

The chief authority in the order is vested in a General Congregation, the members of which are elected by the professed. It is convened regularly after the death of each General in order to choose his successor. If summoned during a General's life, it has power to depose him, and even to expel him. It could also add new constitutions or abrogate old ones, though it has never done either. Thus authority in the Society eventually rests on a democratic basis. However, as the Congregation in fact meets but rarely, the chief authority is as a rule in the hands of the General, who can do anything within the scope of the Constitutions, though he cannot change them. He has a council of specially elected Fathers, called Assistants, with whom he has to take counsel in the transaction of business. Before a General's death he names a Vicar to act until the Congregation elects a successor.

We may next notice some of the special features of Ignatius's Institute. (1) The title, Company, or Society of Jesus, was not only new; it met with some strong opposition. Pope Sixtus Quintus was resolved to change it and had made every preparation to do so, when he fell ill and died. His successor, Gregory XIV, was of a different opinion and confirmed the title with a special brief. The objection in the mind of Sixtus seems to have been that the Jesuits' title brought the Holy Name into too frequent use. But popular feeling among Catholics was not shocked by it. The objectors were generally literati  or members of rival religious orders, not infallible judges of public taste on the widest scale. The peoples' taste was better indicated when it imposed on the order the name of "Jesuits" (see above, chap. VII), turning the previous word of reproach into a title of honour.

(2) Another special feature in the new order was that it did not sing office. The older monastic orders had as a rule made this chant the first and principal of their occupations: and Ignatius's innovation was not accepted without difficulty. No less than three Popes, Paul IV, Pius V, Sixtus V, imposed upon the professed the obligation of reciting it solemnly, without, however, making any statutory provision for its permanence. Pope Gregory XIII confirmed the exemption from choir, which has never been reimposed since.

A man who spends eight hours every day chanting in choir has not, as a rule, time for further work. Of course some strong and active minds will be found in every community, who will be capable of further exertions, even after their eight-hour day. But an order which does its full duty in choir has, as a body, neither leisure nor strength for much more corporate work. Ignatius saw that the Church then did need much more corporate work beyond the solemn recital of office. That was no doubt a most honourable and blessed occupation. Ignatius would not dream of excusing his sons from the recital of office in private and the devotions which he imposed, amounted altogether to four hours a day, quite a respectable first tax on anyone's energies. The remaining hours would be absorbed in the work of the colleges, or in that of the pulpit, etc. Such activities could not be assumed unless the greater part of the day were entirely devoted to them.

(3) Absence of religious habit and fixed rule of life. The older orders were very, very uniform in habit, in horarium, in meals and mode of life, and this in all climes and countries. But Ignatius knew that men living in different countries and climates and in daily conversations with different peoples, in all parts of the globe, could not possibly observe a stereotyped uniformity in such matters. So he took as his official standard, the ordinary external form of life followed in different countries by "honesti sacerdotes," that is secular priests who were neither smart nor sordid, but simple, yet presentable. The Roman habit, used by the General in Rome, has, in practice, acquired the status of a quasi-habit. In origin, however, I believe that this habit represented the Spanish secular clergy of Ignatius's time. Owing to the circumstances of modern Europe, the habit of the secular clergy alone is now seen both there and elsewhere. In a similar spirit Ignatius would add no regular penances to the austerity of his rule. Other orders were wont to have some special "use" of their own in the way of extra lents and fast-days, abstinences or disciplines, but Ignatius, while encouraging rather than depreciating such pious practices, left them to the initiative of individuals.

(4) In mediaeval Europe religious processions were much beloved of good Christians, and the various orders and monasteries had to walk in them in regular rotation. But Ignatius again, without any reflection on the custom itself, procured the liberation of his community from the duty of partaking in such functions, which often absorbed an immensity of time.

(5) While Ignatius, as his correspondence shows, was no misogynist, he was aware from experience of the trouble that might follow, if his sons were obliged to attend to the spiritual direction of ladies. Where all was done freely, as need occurred, he raised no objections. But to attend to this or that lady or convent out of obligation, was wont indirectly to lead the female mind into making excessive demands on the time or the correspondence of the father director. One of the painful incidents of his later life was the quarrel with Elizabeth Roser, of which we have written in Chapter VIII. She had befriended him notably in early days, and had afterwards taken a vow to follow his direction in spiritual matters; but eventually this had led to unfortunate results. He wished to save his sons from similar imbroglios. If the entente between director and directed should begin to work badly, a change is clearly the best remedy; and this change is much easier if there is no vow to impede it.

(6) Widely different in motive from the above refusal, is the next negative peculiarity of the order, which is the vow "not to aspire to dignities, within or without the Society," either directly or indirectly, nor to accept them "unless constrained by the authority of him (i.e., the Pope) who can command under pain of sin." It has always been accounted a laudable and praiseworthy humility in the Saints to avoid and fly from posts of honour and dignity. Ignatius goes a step further, and obliges his religious by vow to follow a similar course of conduct. In Ignatius's day, when ecclesiastical dignities were often very well beneficed, and carried great influence, the temptation to covet them was very strong. He would often have seen the evil at work in the purlieus of the papal capital, and he knew how insidious and injurious a foe to a religious order such ambition was. As Ignatius's correspondence shows, nothing could exceed his respect for and deference to ecclesiastical authority. But this very respect also made him earnest in restricting unauthorized or unworthy grasping at its honour.

(7) In Ignatius's novitiate considerable changes were introduced. It was prolonged from one year to two, and it included some penitential probations which Ignatius otherwise excluded—for instance, a month of pilgrimage while living on alms. After it, the novice took only simple vows (such as could be dispensed if necessary), the solemn profession (which could not be dispensed at all under ordinary circumstances) was postponed till the end of the prolonged studies and spiritual training which ordinarily ran on from 10 to 12 years. By that time the chance of sacerdotal failure had been, to a large extent, eliminated.

(8) Perhaps the most important of all Ignatius's new ideas was his removal of the capitular system. Almost universally in the older orders, and most commonly even now, the officials of every convent and monastery were, and are, elected by the professed every three years for a triennial period. Government by chapter is commended to us not only by its antiquity, but also by its importance in English history, for its influence on the institution of representative government among us is acknowledged. But however great these merits, the system is not one well adapted to military organization. The election of officers by their men for short periods of command, must seem entirely unsuitable to those who hold military discipline dear. Ignatius did not wish for a purely military discipline, but his leading idea of a special squadron of soldiers of Christ suggested a quasi-military character for many of his provisions. So while the General and his staff were subject to election, when elected the command of this leader was permanent and he had the appointment to all posts of importance even in the distant provinces. In ancient times, before letters and posts were frequent, this scheme would have been neither practicable nor possible, and it is only maintained in the Society through a system of ample and regular correspondence, even the lowest grades being quite free to write directly to the General himself. Moreover, there is a good deal of personal visitation and inspection. The Provincial must see and hear every member of his province once a year, and the General himself may send out special visitors, from time to time. In this way mutual understanding and confidence is maintained, and friction with intermediate superiors kept down. Discipline is intelligent and effective, and savours of true charity and sincere spirituality. The possible senility of a General appointed for life is provided against by the power of the Assistants to call for a Congregation, which, moreover, meets of itself every third year.

According to Saint Francis Xavier, and there can be no higher authority, "The Com- pany of Jesus ought to be called the company of love and of conformity of souls." These words are the true epitome of Ignatius's Constitutions.