Saint Ignatius of Loyola - John Pollen

The Foundation of the Society

(1534 to 1539)

With the vows of Montmartre, the friends were knit together by undertaking the same obligations. But they did not yet form a body; they had no name, no special bond of cohesion. About April, 1535, Ignatius, the exterior bond of union amongst them, was constrained to leave Paris. His health had much declined and he was under doctor's orders to return to his native air. It was therefore agreed that, after convalescence at Loyola, he should visit, in Spain, the families of some of his companions, who had commissions to be discharged; then go straight to Italy and complete his sacerdotal education in one of the Italian universities. The others, after having taken the doctorate in Paris, should join him at Venice. Then they would in a body await an opportunity' to start the journey to Jerusalem.

This common-sense plan worked out in substance as it had been arranged, and it showed that Ignatius's presence was not essential to keep the brotherhood together. His native air had at once the good effect that was expected. The Saint, however, refused to live with his brother in the castle for more than one night, and then put up at the hospice for the poor in the village below. He busied himself with good works and the encouragement of piety and made a deep effect on the simple, pious peasantry.

After his stay at Azpeitia, he continued his journey, as had been arranged, and eventually arrived at Bologna, where he recommenced his studies. Unfortunately his ailments at once returned again, and he found himself constrained to abandon the theological degree of doctor, then so much respected, and for which he had worked so long. He now devoted himself anew to the active ministry, giving The Exercises  and encouraging good works in every way, until the end of 1536. Meantime his companions in Paris were hastening their departure, because of the danger of war breaking out between Charles V and France, in which Venice might be involved. So, having successfully taken their degrees, they set off together on a circuitous route by way of the Rhine and Switzerland and reached Venice on the sixth of January 1537.

But again fresh delays arose. The perennial war with the Turks, often dormant, was becoming active, and no ships could sail fro Venice to the East. Thus, after the warmest of welcomes from their leader, the companions set to work, after his example, nursing and instructing the poor, giving The Exercises  and living on alms. It was some time before they appreciated that the long delay was a serious matter. In Lent they resolved that they would wait to see the year out—ample time for ordinary wars of this class. If it did not close, they would offer themselves to the Head of the Church, as to the representative of Christ, and act in obedience to his orders. Meantime Ignatius's companions, who had never yet been to Rome, went off there on pilgrimage and were well received by Pope Paul III, who gave authority for them to be ordained priests, and this was done during the summer.

The year waned, and still no change of prospect was visible. Then it was resolved that Ignatius, Faber and Lainez should go as representatives to Rome, to offer their services to the Pope, and at the same time they resolved to take a name for their group and they agreed to that which Ignatius suggested, La Compagnia di Gesu. The word "Company" was to be taken in the military sense. The armies of that day were commonly composed of such units, each bearing its Captain's name. The appellation is also highly characteristic of Ignatius's passion for the close following of Christ. Nevertheless the fashion of the day for classicism, of which we have already heard mention more than once, made itself felt here. When the bull of foundation was issued, it was found that the term "Societas" had been used instead of Company; and so this name, Society of Jesus, also came authoritatively into vogue. Though not so decidedly Ignatian as Company (which is still retained in France, Spain and Italy) it expresses almost exactly the same idea, and has been accepted both in English and in German.

The name "Jesuit", now so common, was never employed by Ignatius. It is first heard of in 1544, applied to the Company as a term of reproach. It had been in existence for at least a century, to describe with scorn one who cantingly interlarded his speech with the Holy Name. In 1552, we find it still regarded as an expression of contempt. But soon afterwards the friends of the Society saw that they could take it in a good sense, and before long it was generally adopted. But it has not been found in Ignatius's own correspondence.

While the others, divided into pairs, went to work in various Italian university towns, Ignatius and his two companions on their way towards Rome reached the village of La Storta, where the distant view of Rome's towers is first obtained. Here Ignatius had a notable vision. Having retired for prayer to a wayside chapel, he fell into a trance, and seemed to see Christ carrying His cross, while from the cloud of majesty the Heavenly Father seemed to associate the pilgrims with the Divine Son. On rejoining his companions Ignatius told them of what he had seen, and that he had heard the words, Ego vobis Rome propitius ero, "I will be propitious to you at Rome." In later days the words were quoted, as a sort of promise of good fortune in the Eternal City. But such was not Ignatius's mind at that time. His comment was, "I know not whether we shall die on the cross or the rack at Rome, but Jesus will be propitious." It was the association with the Saviour bearing His cross, which had most impressed the Saint.

In Rome everything did go well, and Ignatius was destined to stay there for the remainder of his days. The Pope wished him to call his companions, and before long they were all employed in Rome and its neighbourhood. Then came a return of those attacks of misrepresentation, so characteristic of the life of Ignatius. Of their happy issue (November 18, 1538) we have already spoken.

The success of the Company at Rome brought the question of their mode of life urgently to the front. Unless something were settled at once, the Pope might send them to different parts and the fraternity would be scattered and must die out with the lives of the present members. They met, therefore, in the evenings, and proceeded to codify their plans. Hitherto, without any superior or any rule, they had prospered most remarkably. Why not continue as they had begun? Against this was the prospect of ultimately dying out; and again, without houses to train new members, no increase of achievement could be expected. They soon agreed, therefore, that they would form an institute and live by rule; but to go further and found a religious order seemed a work full of danger and difficulty. The reform of existing orders was now being everywhere discussed, and the prevalent feeling was not only against setting up fresh ones, but even in favour of uniting the smaller ones under a few approved rules. To the new men, however, with their new methods and new aspirations, to be taken up into a pre-existing order would have meant ruin.

This was the great difficulty, and even after the Company had resolved to face it, as they eventually did, they had prolonged objections from those outside, especially from some of the Cardinals on the commission of enquiry into their cause. The report of the debate among the Fathers is still extant and attests the many prayers offered and the spiritual exercises performed in order to obtain light from God on this point. But in the end they agreed unanimously that they would add the vow of obedience to those already taken, and so constitute a religious order. After this, progress became faster and finally on St. John the Baptist's day, June 24, 1539, they closed their sessions, which had lasted for three months. They had settled that there should be one general, and that his office should last for life. They agreed on the obligation of teaching catechism to children. They agreed to accept colleges for their own young men, and they sanctioned certain definite trials for novices, as making the "spiritual exercises" for a month, serving the sick, making pilgrimages, etc., but they did not attempt a complete scheme of legislation. Having settled certain leading features, and debated others, they left it to Ignatius to elaborate a more complete "formula Instituti."  This Institute was eventually approved viva voce by Paul III, on September 3, 1539, and next year, on September 27, 1540, it was confirmed by the bull—Regimini militantis ecclesiae.

Ignatius's self-effacement throughout the discussion is very remarkable. Though by meditation, prayer and thought he had, at least instinctively, much foreknowledge about the body that would be founded, yet he nowhere appears as claiming or exercising any more influence or initiative than the others. All points were discussed and debated openly, and were carried by simple voting, and this becomes the more remarkable in that several of these very Fathers have declared their belief that Ignatius foresaw many of the decisions by a light which they thought more than natural.

After the solemn confirmation of the Institute, a General had to be elected, and so all who were available were again summoned to Rome. Those who had already departed for far distant missions had left behind them their votes in writing. When they had assembled in April, 1541, they first spent three days in prayer; each one then wrote the name of him whom he judged most suitable, and then passed another three days in prayer, begging earnestly the assistance of God. Then they met and opened all the papers, those given beforehand as those given in now. All the votes, except his own, were for Ignatius. Upon this he made a detailed speech on the opposite side, explaining his many infirmities and the prospects of his getting worse; his many past offences and the scant hope of changes now. So he begged them to wait yet three days, and then vote again. They did so, and as before, all the suffrages, except his own, were unanimously in his favour. Again Ignatius spoke. Would they let him go to a confessor and tell him all the sins, bad habits, and delinquencies of the past, and then would they hear the confessor's verdict? This also was agreed to, and Ignatius went for three days to San Pietro in Montorio, and made a general confession to Padre Theodosio, a friar of the convent. In the next session, the friar's letter was opened, and it was found that he ordered Ignatius, in virtue of obedience, to accept the office; and so the election was completed.

It is worth while giving all these details, to show how diligent and prayerful was the procedure in affairs of this nature. The official minute of them, which I have here summarised, is written in Ignatius's own hand.

In the great basilica of San Paolo fuori le mure  Ignatius said Mass on the following Friday morning, and at it were pronounced his own vows of profession and those of his companions. With this public act the establishment of the Society was completed on April 22, 1541.