On March 12 we celebrate the four hundredth anniversary of the canonisation of St Ignatius Loyola, the founder of the Jesuit Order. In popular terms, he was made a Saint. In technical Catholic terms he could be a prayer companion in public Catholic devotion throughout the whole Church. He had already been beatified (called Blessed Ignatius) in 1509, and so entitled to be included in public devotion in local churches.
Then, as now, decisions about canonisation were made centrally by the Pope and his Roman office. It mattered that people to whom Catholics looked up as examples and prayer companions should have lived faithful and exemplary lives. Evidence of God’s approval was sought in a close examination of their lives and in miracles associated with devotion to them.
From early on Jesuits had vigorously promoted Ignatius’ cause. They recognised his own gift of prayer, of service and of faithfulness throughout a testing life. They also recognised the need for such an unequivocal approval as canonisation would give to the spiritual path represented in Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises and followed by the Society of Jesus. During Ignatius’ lifetime and in the seventy years after his death many been many attempts had been made to change the character of the Order. The canonisation of the founder would be a clear mark of approval for the Order and would also help in attracting young men to it. It is not surprising that in the first biography of Ignatius written shortly after his death Pedro Ribadeneira should represent his life through the lens of the life and attitudes that saints were conventionally expected to have.
Some Jesuits of the time were concerned that St Ignatius, as founder, should be the first Jesuit to be canonised. This was not guaranteed. St Aloysius Gonzaga, an Italian Jesuit who had died while still in his studies, had been the first to be beatified in 1605. St Francis Xavier, who had an extraordinary and adventurous ministry in present day India, Malaysia, Japan and on the doorstep to China, was beatified with St Ignatius, all by an impetuous and authoritarian Pope.
In the event St Ignatius and Francis Xavier were canonised on the same day, together with three other representatives of a diverse church: Philip Neri, founder of an association of priests who in a time of some rigidity represented moderation, Teresa of Avila, a mystic and reformer of the Carmelites, and Isidore of Madrid, a farmer. Ignatius was seen as reliable model and companion in prayer, but only one of many such.
The larger significance of the canonisation of St Ignatius lies in recalling the life of a man whose own life was extraordinary and dedicated to shaping a better world. It more narrowly evokes a faithful and generous way of living within the Catholic Church. It also embodies a way of proceeding for those from any background who see their lives and work as a gift and a mission. Ignatius’ desire for something more, and his emphasis on reflection on one’s own life and motivation, on the needs of the world and possibilities for action, on purposeful action and on evaluation of it, underlie the ways of working at all of our Jesuit ministries. They are open to people of any background with a generous vision of the world and commitment to people in need.
Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ