The Jesuits, who are known worldwide for
their schools, their writings, their missionary work, and much
else besides, have a founder who’s one of the great ‘unknowns’
in church history: Ignatius Loyola. Whenever he is mentioned,
people seem to remember that he was a soldier, that he was
wounded in battle, that he changed his life … and then stop.
Francis Xavier, Ignatius’s friend is the stuff of legend, and
there are hundreds of St Xavier’s schools and colleges. But
Ignatius ? Whatever happened to him after his conversion ?
It’s a long story, and an interesting one, but what is not
generally known is that Ignatius Loyola is one of the key
figures, not just in church history, but also in the western
world. He changed the way in which we think and pray.
This was through two important things he did.
Before we come to this however, let me locate Ignatius in
history. He was born in 1492, the year Columbus discovered
America, and began the age of European exploration. When he was
30, he was wounded in battle. The year was 1521, the very year
in which Luther defiantly posted his challenges to the Pope on a
church door in Wittenberg, Germany. Five years later in north
India, a young Turkish commander won the battle of Panipat in
1526 by using cannon on the battlefield for the first time. He
was Babur, the first Mughal emperor. It was a time of turbulence
and change, both in India and in Europe.
I said just now that Ignatius was a key figure in history. What
did he do which made him so important?
Two significant things. First, he authored a book, a slim volume
called the Spiritual Exercises; then, he started a group of men
called the ‘Jesus Company’, or the Society of Jesus, who changed
the world through the schools they built.
First, the book we call the Spiritual Exercises. It’s a small
book, and you can probably read through it in two or three
hours. The point is that it’s not a book to be read and
forgotten, but to be worked out and practiced. It is a workbook,
a practical, “how to” book. If you ever go for a retreat with
Jesuit fathers, the preacher will give you practical exercises
from this book. The purpose of these exercises? To get to know
the Jesus of the Gospels better, and to guide you in making the
right decisions in your life.
Let’s face it – life continually confronts us with many choices,
many decisions. What shall I do next year? What job shall I take
up? Shall I take that promotion? Is this the time to get
married? How shall I use my money? And so on and so forth. These
are “life choices”. They often make us anxious, because we don’t
know whether we’re doing the right thing. Ignatius’s book helps
us to “discern”, to make the right choice, to see where God is
leading us. It has made millions of men and women aware of God
in their lives leading them, showing them the “right decision”,
supporting them with peace and quiet courage.
The Spiritual Exercises taught the modern Church to pray.
But Ignatius did more, much more. He formed a group of men who
soon dazzled the world with their zeal and energy. History knows
them as the Jesuits, an array of men who in Macaulay’s words
became “the schoolmasters of Europe”. For the greatest
contribution of the Society of Jesus was their setting up
schools wherever they went, an innovation which captured the
imagination of Europe, and, if I may make so bold to say, taught
the modern world to think. The ‘Jesuit school’ is the
Spiritual Exercises adapted for a younger, wider audience.
Before the Jesuits came on the scene, you didn’t go to school.
If you wanted to learn a trade, you apprenticed yourself to a
craftsman. The Jesuits were the first to inculcate graded and
systematic knowledge, not just of crafts and skills, but also of
Let me briefly mention some of their innovations.
Jesuits invented the textbook. This was possible because of the
invention of printing, which allowed books to come into common
use. Today we take textbooks for granted, not realizing what a
‘new thing’ it was – to have selections of writings for
reference, in a graded and systematic way, leading the reader to
a mastery of the subject.
One of the classic textbooks was the catechism (today we call
these FAQ), where simple but persistent questions on a topic are
reproduced with their stock answers.
Jesuits wrote the first dictionaries, grammars; and designed the
first maps. All these are corollaries of the printed page, for
print was the device which carried the revolution in learning
forwards. The first map of the moon was plotted by the Jesuit
Jesuit education took place in a personalized context, stressing
the contact between teacher and student. This is why even today,
old students remember their Jesuit teachers with great
affection, never mind they’ve all but forgotten the subjects
they were taught. The inspirational value of the teacher was
Finally, their education was in the widest sense ‘humanistic’,
not ‘classist’. A Jesuit school was where you’d find
aristocrats, merchants and peasants. There were even schools for
tribals. Technical skills as well as communication skills were
emphasised, like public speaking, play acting and music. Volumes
have been written about Jesuit theatre. The scholar Kirchner
invented the “magic lantern”, the forerunner of today’s movie
All this was done – in the words of the Jesuit motto – “for
God’s greater glory”, and for the uplift of men and women
everywhere (or as they worded it in the 16th century, “for the
salvation of souls”).
The first Jesuit school was started in 1548 by one of Ignatius’s
followers, in Messina, Sicily, in his own lifetime. The second
was started in Goa by Francis Xavier. It was called St Paul’s
College, and ruins of its façade can still be seen today. From
Ignatius too comes the “seminary”, which taught young men ‘in a
graded and systematic way’ how to become educated priests.
All this is our heritage, as Jesuit teachers and Jesuit
students. It’s something to cherish and preserve, and even more,
to activate. For learning is not just books on a shelf, but
going out to into the field to innovate and experiment, to
discover and invent.
What the printing press was to yesterday, the electronic media
are today. They have changed the way we think and relate to each
other. They are already transforming education, and so the
What would Ignatius Loyola have done today with television,
radio, the internet and cell-phones?
The question is ours to answer.