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Ignatius of Loyola and Ideas of Catholic Reform | Vince Ryan | IgnatiusInsight.com
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. 
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
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.
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. 
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
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.  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.
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.  The Constitutions of the Jesuits
stipulated that teachers should, in their courses, regularly touch upon
matters valuable for forming good habits, evangelizing and promoting
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.  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
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
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
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.
 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).
 A. G. Dickens, The Counter Reformation (New York: W. W.
Norton & Co, 1968) p. 22.
 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.
 Ibid, p. 85.
 Michael A Mullett, The Catholic
Reformation (London: Routledge, 1999) p. 95.
 Olin, p. 84.
 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.
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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