Winning souls, not wars

St Ignatius’ progression from ambitious courtier and soldier to the path of a committed evangelist invites our deep reflection. In an age of many wars, religious intolerance and mutual suspicion between nations, he insisted on simplicity and truth.


By Fr Andrew Hamilton SJ

I have always been struck by the changes in St Ignatius Loyola from the hot-spirited ambitious courtier and military officer to the beggar-preacher and wanderer, to the student-evangelist and to the desk-slave governing from a distance a fast-growing religious congregation. He would be a wonderful candidate for a This is Your Life program!

Perhaps the change in him that speaks most directly to our world today lies in his relationships with other people. In our scratchy times the frustrations and anxieties that a hard economic climate brings to most people are expressed in political hostility, in the bad-tempered tone of discussion of the Referendum and in the lack of respect for women, especially through domestic violence. In such a climate, St Ignatius’ growth as a person and as a Saint through the variety and depth of his relationships deserves reflection.

When we first meet Ignatius in the brief account of his early life written at the request of a young Jesuit, he is a young courtier. He was inspired by the desire to win over a noble lady and to distinguish himself in war. He shared the narrow vision of masculinity characteristic of young nobles, with its emphasis on bravery in battle, dominance in love and in other relationships, softened by the desire to serve rather than seize the noble woman of his dreams. He would be faithful in love, loyal to his Lord and to his fellow soldiers and ruthless to his enemies.

He showcases this character by insisting on continuing to fight a lost cause in the siege of Pamplona, and by his vanity and courage in having his leg rebroken when recovering from his wounds. Then after an amicable conversation with a Muslim man who questioned Mary’s virginity after giving birth, he left it to his donkey to decide whether he should pursue and kill him for the perceived blasphemy.

St Ignatius of Loyola SJ. Art by Jesuit Community, Creighton University, Omaha, Nebraska, Society of Jesus.

As he moved abruptly from the world of castles and wealth to begging on the streets, however, he wanted to share the benefits of his own experience by helping people discover God and themselves. In his travelling he met people previously outside his experience – old women, people down on their luck, police, Inquisitors, a range of clergy, prisoners and their guards, poor students and professors, prostitutes, soldiers from other armies, ships’ captains and crew, Cardinals, Muslims in their own country and people from many parts of the world who wanted to join his new Religious Congregation.

In all these encounters he focused on meeting the person with whom he was speaking. He looked into their hearts and not at their robes or weapons. He also set aside strategies and flattery in his dealing with others. He avoided being killed by soldiers because they regarded him as an idiot for speaking truly. He relied on the truth to save him in a time of religious intolerance.

That experience coloured his governance of the new Society of Jesus. In an age like our own in its many wars, religious intolerance and mutual suspicion between people of different nations, he insisted on simplicity and avoiding intolerance and abusive language. Young Jesuits were to relate to one another as brothers regardless of their differences in origin, nation and achievements. Above all they were to win souls, not debates. In a time of religious wars, he wanted the Jesuits to make peace and not war.

This focus on persons and not on their labels led him and other Jesuits to found shelters for women forced by poverty into prostitution. Despite the risk of which others warned him to his and the Jesuits’ reputation, he insisted on keeping them open.

St Ignatius was about inscribing people’s names in the book of life, not cancelling them. For that he has much to say to our own day.

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