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Ignatius of Loyola and Ideas of Catholic Reform | Vince Ryan | IgnatiusInsight.com

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How to categorize or describe Catholic reforming activity in sixteenth century has been the subject of intense historical debate. The term Counter-Reformation itself presupposes that any reforming activity by the Catholic Church was in response to the ideas and actions of the Reformation. In the nineteenth century, the German historian, Wilhelm Maurenbrecher, began using Catholic Reformation to describe the reforming activity within the Church that did not arise in response to Protestantism. Pre-dating Luther, this movement of Catholic reformers in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries sought to rectify the abuses in the Church and thus renew its practices and mission.

A useful parallel for the early stages of this movement would be the Gregorian reforms of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, when a group of churchmen, primarily in response to the various clerical abuses of the time, implemented a series of ecclesiastical reforms to eliminate the lax and sometimes scandalous activities of the clergy and to guard against the encroachment of secular powers upon Church offices. Those who called for and carried out reform within the Catholic Church on the eve of the Protestant Reformation were working within this tradition. Prominent figures in this movement were Ximenes de Cisneros, John Colet, John Fisher, Gasparo Contarini and even Erasmus of Rotterdam. These men advocated reform through improved education, greater emphasis upon the New Testament, and the good example of Church leaders. [1]

St. Ignatius of Loyola

Today most scholars agree that Catholic reforming activity in this era should be viewed through both the Counter-Reformation and Catholic Reformation lenses. While such revision has gained more general acceptance, various figures of the period need to be re-examined under this enhanced perspective. St Ignatius of Loyola is one such individual.

While many are familiar with the life of Ignatius, a brief recounting of his conversion experience will be beneficial for the discussion. Born to a Basque noble family, Ignatius was consumed by the chivalric concept as a young man and attempted to make a reputation through military valor. Such illusions were crushed when his leg was shattered by a cannon ball at the siege of Pamplona in 1521. His injury left him convalescent for many months. To pass the time, Ignatius requested a book of chivalric romances that had delighted him so in his youth. None being found in the castle where he was recuperating, he was brought Ludolph of Saxony's Life of Christ and Jacopo da Voragine's lives of the saints known as The Golden Legend. The spiritual satisfaction and peace provided by these works gradually changed his outlook; visions of knightly glory were now replaced by the desire to do great deeds just as the saints had for the love of God.

When Ignatius gathered together the small group at the University of Paris who would become the first Jesuits, their concern was not the combating of nascent Protestantism. In fact, an initial goal of the company had been to seek passage to the Holy Land to minister to Christians and convert the Muslim inhabitants. Such a desire seems to indicate that these men were somewhat oblivious to the internal problems that Christendom was facing. But Providence did not permit such early ambitions to be fulfilled. Ignatius and his companions went to Rome where they put themselves at the service of Pope Paul III. The pope approved the order in 1540, and Ignatius was chosen as the first superior general.

Ignatius's concept of renewal was very much in keeping with the spirituality advocated by other contemporary Catholic reformers. Whereas in the Middle Ages religious experience was more communal and contemplative, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries this experience tended to be more individual and active. The Imitation of Christ by Thomas a Kempis was a popular meditative tool that emphasized the individual's relation with Jesus, particularly stressing Christ as a model even when carrying out the most mundane tasks. Thomas a Kempis' work would strongly influence Ignatius's own spirituality. [2]

The Jesuit founder's most famous theological composition, the Spiritual Exercises, a well-ordered manual of meditations, rules, and practices culled from his own experiences, was a guide for the Christian's journey from purgation to enlightenment to union with Christ. A practical and ascetical handbook often used for retreats, the Exercises reflect the shift toward interiorized and personal spirituality. Demonstrating the active nature of this spirituality, the Jesuits did not celebrate the Liturgy of the Hours in common or choir for fear that this would interfere with their commitment to ministry. These notions of interior conversion to Christ and active service in his name would become central to Jesuit identity.

The Jesuit Agenda

Jesuit service encompassed a multitude of duties, preeminent among which was catechesis of the young and uninformed. In an initial sketch of the order drawn up by Ignatius and his companions in 1539 to present to Paul III, the theme of educating the youth is quite prominent:
Whoever wishes to be a soldier for God under the standard of the cross and to serve the Lord alone and His Vicar on earth . . . bear in mind that he is part of a community founded principally for the advancement of souls in the Christian life and doctrine and for the propagation of the faith by the ministry of the word, by spiritual exercises, by works of charity, and expressly by the instruction in Christianity of children and the uneducated. [3]
The emphasis on teaching reappears in section three of the document where Ignatius instructs future Jesuits to hold esteemed the instruction of children and the uneducated in the Christian doctrine of the Ten Commandments and other similar rudiments. [4] The founding of the first Jesuit institution completely dedicated to secondary schooling for the laity at Messina in 1548 was only a natural extension of the catechetical duties Ignatius deemed so critical to the order.

The Jesuit university was a synthesis of social education, rhetoric and the classics taught under the pedagogical techniques Ignatius himself had experienced at Paris. However, as Reformation historian Michael Mullet notes, The highest of Loyola's educational priorities, the ultimate purpose of schooling, was piety. [5] The Constitutions of the Jesuits stipulated that teachers should, in their courses, regularly touch upon matters valuable for forming good habits, evangelizing and promoting Christian living.

While the ability to evangelize was one of many skills that Jesuits hoped to instill at their schools, it was also one of the primary functions of the Society itself. The early Jesuits dedicated themselves to a worldwide ministry of evangelization. As Ignatius explained in the 1539 proposal, their goal was to propagate the Faith, especially wherever the pope desired them, whether he sends us to the Turks or to the New World or to the Lutherans or to others, be they infidel or faithful. [6] It is worth noting that missions to the Turks and the Americas were placed ahead of those to Protestants. The reference to Lutheranism is even more striking because it figures so rarely in the early writings of Ignatius. Noting this absence, John W. O'Malley remarks that even in the saint's autobiography, he scarcely mentions the Protestant Reformation. [7]

Whence the Image of a Counter-Reformation Leader?

And yet why have many considered Ignatius in particular and the Jesuits in general as hallmarks of the Counter-Reformation? The problem, in part, is due to the debate over how to describe the reforming activity of the Catholic Church of the time. Until the twentieth century, Counter-Reformation was the preferred description. However, such an assessment is not due merely to historical generalizations. After his death in 1556, Ignatius of Loyola was regularly presented in contrast to Martin Luther, and the Jesuits themselves were the prime culprits for this portrayal. Viewed in the context of post Tridentine counterattacks, such a rendering is understandable. Moreover, the military metaphors that Ignatius himself used in much of his writing, while ultimately rooted in his previous chivalric fascinations, corresponded nicely to the image of Ignatius and the Jesuits as the shock troops of the Counter-Reformation.

Of course such a view of the Jesuits has some truth to it. Jesuits participated at Trent (though in a more peripheral manner) and were instrumental in implementing the decrees of the Council. Robert Bellarmine was one of the most distinguished persons of the era with his attacks on Protestantism and his defense of Catholic theology. Toward the end of his life, Ignatius himself was more active in the fight against the Lutherans. He frequently communicated with Peter Canisius, who was on the frontlines of the conflict in Germany, about his growing awareness for this aspect of the Society's mission. In 1550, Ignatius revised the bull that established the Jesuits, stating that the purpose of the order was now the defense and propagation of the faith. [8]

Still, even taking into account the actions of the last decade of Ignatius' life, it is inaccurate to see Ignatius and the Jesuits as an outgrowth of the Counter-Reformation. The spirituality, the outlook, and the purpose of the early Jesuits are examples of a Catholic reform movement that was not prompted by opposition to the Protestant Reformation.

End Notes:

[1] For a lucid and detailed discussion of the historiography of this debate, see John W. O'Malley, SJ, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

[2] A. G. Dickens, The Counter Reformation (New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1968) p. 22.

[3] Document found in John C Olin, Catholic Reform from Cardinal Ximenes to the Council of Trent 1495-1563 (New York: Fordham Univerity Press, 1990) p. 83.

[4] Ibid, p. 85.

[5] Michael A Mullett, The Catholic Reformation (London: Routledge, 1999) p. 95.

[6] Olin, p. 84.

[7] John W O'Malley, SJ, "Was Ignatius Loyola a Church Reformer? How to Look at Early Modern Catholicism", Catholic Historical Review, 77 (1991), p. 184.

[8]Terence O'Reilly, Ignatius of Loyola and the Counter-Reformation: the Hagiographic Tradition, Heythrop Journal, 31 (1990), p. 446.

This article originally appeared in the September/October 2001 issue of Catholic Dossier.

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Reformation 101: Who's Who in the Protestant Reformation | Geoffrey Saint-Clair
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