Saint Ignatius of Loyola - John Pollen

Age and Death


Notwithstanding Ignatius's strong constitution, his wound and the very hard life he led after his conversion, permitted the weaknesses of age to declare themselves before he had reached a really advanced life. After his sixtieth year, 1551, infirmity gained much upon him. His eyes grew weak and watered so easily that he had to make many changes in his customs. He could no longer recite office but had to pray on his beads instead. Moreover, his doctor would not let him say Mass except rarely, for the tender feelings which the rite excited caused uncontrollable tears. He asked leave of the Fathers who had assembled in that year for the revision of the Constitutions, to lay down his office and retire. But the Fathers thought it better that he should find a vicar to assist him In point of fact, however, owing to the dearth of men who had passed through the lower grades of the Society, this plan was harder to execute than had been foreseen. Father Jerome Nadal was selected, but he had to be sent as visitor to Spain and was not back till the autumn of 1554. Ignatius now formally appointed him Vicar, but soon had to send him to Germany, still as Vicar. Before he finished this mission and returned, it was the latter half of 1555, and then his services were needed once more in Spain, where he was at the time of Ignatius's death. Thus in fact, the Saint died in office without any relaxation of his work.

St. Ignatius Loyola


Of these latter days many memories are preserved. He was surrounded by younger men who watched him lovingly, and who afterwards left memoirs, or were questioned at the time of the beatification. Some of these memoirs may strike us as representing rather the standpoint of the writer than of the person described. Thus Father Lancisius (who came a little later but gathered up diligently all the stories he could hear about the founder), appears to give rather too much prominence to illustrations of the principle of "Spare the rod, spoil the child." That was in the spirit of the age, especially in Lancisius's fatherland, the Calvinistic district of Lithuania. If this idea asserts itself even in such a contemporary as Sir Thomas More, we must not be surprised at it in Ignatius, for whom discipline was so important. But he was not intent on bodily correction. Considering the age in which he lived, his influence was moderating. He had himself been sentenced unjustly to a public flogging in Paris when he was forty and, though the episode ended to his honour, it taught him its lesson. Though he still retained corporal correction in his colleges, it was never to be administered by one of the teaching staff but by a special "corrector"; the maximum number of stripes was to be eight, and it could be inflicted only on "humanists" (the younger boys). This ordinance, though formulated after Ignatius's death, faithfully represents the firm but moderate customs which he introduced, customs which for kindliness were in advance of, rather than behind, the age.

Where Ignatius appeared to be severe was in his dealing with some good souls who, he knew, would profit by correction. Thus his secretary Father Polanco, though his post was one of great trust and honour, was still young, still capable of higher training; and Ignatius was decided and assiduous in carrying on the process of education, with excellent results. He treated Lainez, Nadal, and Gaspar Loartes in the same way. But it is not safe to generalize freely from cases like these, for everything depends on the accuracy with which the character to be educated was judged.

All agree that Ignatius (as became an old soldier) sympathized with boys of courage and enterprise; and he would never allow transgressions due to high spirits to be classed as moral offences. He never looked askance at a big appetite; on the contrary, he laughingly commended fat little Benedict Palmio (afterwards a padre of note) for his healthy eating powers. He would make such lads come and sit at his, the top, table in the refectory, and smiled to see their boyish capacity for food. It was remembered by several that he would send the fruit from his table to the novices at the bottom of the refectory, and he would sometimes peel the pear or apple before it went.

But the characteristic which struck all most was his now unvarying sense of God's presence. "He found God in all things," says Father Nadal, "as in business, so also in conversation with others." God's name and that of Jesus Christ was ever on his lips and on his pen when writing. It was natural for him to speak much about One of whom he was always thinking.

Here are a few traits from the memoir to which Benedict Maroni, a sculptor, deposed in the process of beatification. When a lad he had heard of the twelve Fathers, like the twelve Apostles, who were founding a new order; and soon after, when they were setting up their first house, he was taken on as a handy man. He did carpentering, making benches, beds and the like. Everything was very poor and unpretentious. He worked a great deal in Ignatius's own room.

"I loved to see him and to hear him speak. Many came in to ask his blessing, going or coming from distant countries. He always remained so perfectly peaceful; never a vain word. Amongst other admonitions, he would say to me—'You, Benedetto, nothing is wanting to you excepting the blessing of heaven.' Once a neighbour wanted to run up a wall which would have cut off the light from the refectory. Ignatius would not allow of any intercessors nor any controversy; still finally the man gave up his project. I never saw him angry except once. He was standing with his stick, for one leg was weak, when some one of the house came into the room and fell at his feet, begging pardon and mercy for some fault or other. The Padre bade him get up several times over, but he would not. Then I saw that he took it ill, that that person did not rise. Being put out, he turned and left the room, going into his camera. I was also there when two reverend religious brought in two skulls from the relics of Saint Ursula and 12,000 Virgins at Cologne. At another time came a present of confetti and wax. The wax was sent to the Sacristy, but the confetti, being well ornamented, he presented to the Cardinals."

Maroni's brother was an organist, who was also devoted to Ignatius, and became a Jesuit lay-brother and continued in attendance on the old man. After putting on the Jesuit habit he had startled Benedetto, by falling on his knees before him and asking pardon for any offence he might have given in the past. On the other hand he charmed him by stories about the Santo, e.g., that he had made up the great family quarrel between the Altieri and the Caposachi; also that he would spend hours during the night pondering over the problems which presented themselves in the government of the Society.

It is a simple, unconventional story, which these two brothers tell. No "miracolo," no severe discipline; but deep affection, respect and love from friends and subordinates, and the contrasts and conflicts between patience and impulse, which are ever present where the sun burns hot.

The reminiscences of Father Nadal, though they do not so easily coalesce into a picture, are more profound and extensive. Here are a few: "He never showed anxiety about war, nor gave any sign of pain. Once Brother John Paul, while sewing a button to the collar of his cassock, put the needle through the Father's ear, but he never winced or made a sign. When in danger of death by sickness, he showed nothing but joy. . . . He was a man of the most instant and effective execution. . . . He never undertook any business which he did not accomplish. He never petitioned the Pope without obtaining his prayer. He would find God in all things, in business, in conversations. Those who were in his room, were always full of joy and ready to smile."

Here are some of Father Lancisius's gleanings: "The dismissed remained his friends, and he continued to use their services when he could. . . . When teaching his subjects how to converse with externs, he would say, 'Do not talk lofty spirituality, but converse easily and with familiarity.' He would correct those that corrected others by citing authorities; he would style such people 'decretalists.' . . . He was particular about a good Latin style."

His love for his sons was intense. He used once to laugh aloud when they visited him, but he overcame the little outcry, though the smile at sight of them was never restrained. "Each one thought him his most special friend. He would inquire closely from his official visitors about the food, the sleep, the clothes of the missionaries in distant lands and provinces." . . . On someone remarking that this was descending to great detail, Ignatius answered (with a homeliness not so acceptable in our over-refined days), "I should be glad to know how many fleas bite them." He would praise his own men before externs.

Father Oliver Manare has also some striking sentences. "While inculcating obedience, his effort always was to find out first what his subject wanted, before he gave an order. He had a wonderful grace of speech, and was so careful about externals that he would sometimes copy a letter three times in order to avoid corrections. The only books one saw on his table were The New Testament  and The Following of Christ."

At last on the thirty-first of July, 1556, the end came, so peacefully, amid circumstances so usual and untheatrical that they seemed almost uncanny to those fervent souls who fancied that a saint like Ignatius ought to have gone to heaven in some solemn, religious ceremony. There was nothing of the sort. For four or five days he had had a low fever, but no special attention had been paid to this. Indeed, several others, including Father Lainez, were also in the infirmary and worse than Ignatius, who was thought to be over the worst and to be improving. On Tuesday, the 28th, he received Holy Communion with the other sick, and next evening he asked to see the Spanish doctor Torres. On Thursday he sent for his secretary, Padre Polanco, and begged him to ask the Pope for a last blessing for himself, as he hardly expected to live, and at the same time for Father Lainez, whose case was causing anxiety. "But Padre," answered Polanco, "the doctors don't take so serious a view." "I think the end is not far off," was the answer. Being still full of hope, Polanco asked if Friday would not do as well, as he had some very important letters to send off in the evening. "Rather to-day than to-morrow," was the characteristic answer, "but I leave myself in your hands. Do as you think best."

Polanco asked the doctor that evening as to the degree of danger. "I will tell you about that when I see him to-morrow," was the doctor's reply. Polanco felt relieved, and safer still when he heard that Ignatius had taken a fair supper.

But at sunrise next morning, that is about 4:30 Brother Tomaso the infirmarian came running to say that the Father was in his agony. He had watched with him and had noticed that after midnight his sighs of "Ay Dios" (Ah God) became quieter and quieter. Polanco hurried straight to the Vatican for the Papal indulgence, while two doctors and other Fathers were at the bed-side in a trice. He was lying so quiet that they at first offered him restoratives, not recognizing in their anxiety how near the end was. Only when it was too late did they perceive that he was actually passing away. The last absolution and blessing was given, and the Proficiscere  was said, but there was not enough time left to fetch the holy oils, or the sacred Viaticum. He had received, as we remember, three days before. And so between five and six, surrounded by his praying sons, and with the utmost peace and tranquillity, he went forth on the heavenward passage, of which he had so often thought with tears of joy.

Thus happily ended the Imitator of Christ. For us, perhaps, it may be less easy to recognize that imitation in some of the closing stages than in the opening scenes. When we see the young cavalier on his early pilgrimages "taking nothing for the way, no scrip, no bread, nor money in his purse," the copying of Christ, complete, external, triumphant over obstacles, cannot escape our notice. Whereas the night vigil of the old man worn out by fever, and murmuring Ay Dios, Ay Dios, as he lay dying alone, does not make the same quick impression. But if we look back over his life, we shall see that imitation was ever becoming more and more interior, in the head and heart; less obvious, less striking to the outward observer. Certainly it was none the less real and true For it is not the mechanical repetition of the acts of Christ, that makes the follower, but the copying of His virtues, the obedience to His precepts in our daily life. We must learn from Him, as St. Austin puts it, "not how to create worlds, or to rule things visible and invisible, but how to be meek and humble of heart." Had Ignatius insisted, his death-bed would have been graced by religious consolations, the lack of which he doubtless regretted greatly. But he had rightly left himself in the hands of the doctors and the staff, and in that path of obedience he would rather die than swerve from it. "Obedient unto death," that was to die as should the imitator of Christ.