The first step in the creation of the Society of Jesus was taken in 1534 when Ignatius Loyola and seven companions in the church of Montmarte in Paris promised that when their studies were finished they would continue their association, live lives of evangelical poverty and go on mission to Jerusalem. They called themselves “friends in the Lord”.
The founder of the Jesuits, St. Ignatius Loyola, was born in Spain in 1491 in the northern Basque Region. The son of a nobleman, he grew up with the dream of becoming a courageous soldier and courtier in the service of the king.
However in 1521 at the age of 30 his right leg was shattered in battle by a cannon ball and he had to be carried home for a long period of convalescence. During that time he had nothing to read but some religious books about the life of Christ and the saints. Under the influence of these books in isolation from the world, Ignatius began to pray and fast, do penance and good works and resolved to offer his life to Christ. The first seeds of the Society of Jesus had been planted.
Whenever we reflect on the life of a great man, we can ask ourselves “in the final analysis, did the times make the man or did the man make the times?” In the case of Ignatius both statements are true. Ignatius was born right at the end of the eight hundred year long Middle Ages. Europe was just beginning to enter the Renaissance. The life of Ignatius bridged the turn over from one to the other.
European adventurers had discovered America and Africa, scholars were rediscovering the long forgotten cultures of Rome and Greece. As luck would have it, 1521, the year Ignatius was injured was also the very year that Martin Luther was excommunicated beginning the Protestant Reformation. In the next twenty years England, Holland, Switzerland and Northern Europe broke from the Catholic Church under a cloud of deep religious differences. In society a hitherto non-existent middle class was emerging and the invention of the printing press began to fulfill the thirst for knowledge.
The knights of the Middle Ages gave way to the humanists. Society was racked by turmoil and wars. They were earthshaking times.
In 1540 Pope Paul III gave formal approval to the Society of Jesus. Ignatius was elected first Superior General and served until his death in 1556 at the age of 65.