The Spanish captain grimaced in pain, asking for his leg to be broken and stretched again.
Íñigo López de Loyola, age 30, had just returned home from a battle at Pamplona where an enemy shell had smashed into his legs. After he fell, the Spanish surrendered the city to its French besiegers. The enemy doctors set his leg out of respect and had him carried home to Loyola, but he was horrified at what he discovered after getting back there: One leg was shorter than the other.
One leg was shorter because the bones had healed over each other, creating an ugly lump of flesh and bone that protruded from his body.
Either the doctors had botched the surgery, or the the journey home had jostled his leg while it was healing, or else pieces of his bone fragments had forever been lost on the battlefield. But none of this mattered to López. After his family physicians inspected the wound, he told them to break the leg and set the bones again, and then to start stretching it with weights to make it the same length as the other.
It was the 16th century. Without any anesthetics, the doctors did what López asked, and he put up with the pain without uttering a cry. He did so for only one reason that he kept in mind to distract himself from the pain: to fit into his tight-fitting leather boots again.
As a young courtier and self-appointed knight, López wore the finest clothing, adorning himself in close-fitting hose underneath a ruffled shirt and hat with feather on top. He wore expensive leather boots that were all the fashion rage at Spain’s royal court. To his mind, there was nothing to live for if he couldn’t wear these things again.
When he was a child, López’s father had sent him to a nobleman’s court to be trained as a scribe, but the young hidalgo wanted more from life. Spain was the world’s leading power and he dreamed of becoming an important figure in that power. He loved to read chivalric romances, like Amadis de Gaul, the 16th-century equivalents of comic books or drugstore adventure novels. He dreamed of doing great deeds for Spain, acquiring kingdoms and winning the hands of fair ladies.
He grew up to be a womanizer, a gambler and a brawler who started duels with anyone who looked at him funny. Once he was jailed for beating up a priest who owed money to his brother, who was also a priest. He got off on a technicality.
To go through life with one lumpy leg shorter than the other meant that he could never fit into that clothing, or into that lifestyle, again. It meant the death of his youthful fantasies.
The governor of Pamplona had wanted to surrender immediately to the French, who vastly outnumbered the town’s garrison. But Captain López had argued him out of it, praising the honor of Spain and rallying his few hundred men to the defense. When the French woke up next morning to the Spanish flag still flying above Pamplona, they were unimpressed. They shrugged their shoulders and unlimbered their cannons.
After a few hours of bombardment, French cannonballs breached the walls of Pamplona. In the breach stood Captain López, his sword drawn, defying the French to come at him. He wasn’t there long before the cannonball smashed into his legs, sending him to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The Spanish surrendered because their leader had fallen.
Back in his family’s small castle at Loyola, López passed out from the barbaric surgeries he ordered for himself. His doctor gave him a 50-50 chance of surviving until morning. A priest was called to give him the last rites.
Raised Catholic, the good soldier had attended mass twice yearly throughout his life and knew a handful of prayers, mostly because everyone in Spain had the same background. His faith was externally pious but not deeply felt.
Since he had some devotion to St. Peter, López prayed to the chief apostle as he was losing consciousness. Peter heard his prayers and he woke up alive the next morning—as much to his own surprise as to that of his doctors.
Now stuck in bed for 10 months of recovery, he had nothing to do but stare at the walls. There was no television, phone or radio. He asked for books of chivalry to lift his depression, but his family could only find two volumes in the entire house: The Life of Christ by Ludolph of Saxony and the Lives of the Saints, the Golden Legend by Jacobus de Voragine.
López was so bored that he would read anything. He began leafing through the hefty volumes, unenthusiastically at first. But as he read each page with growing interest, something changed within him. He read about Jesus Christ healing the sick, about the great saints like Francis and Dominic preaching to the poor.
When he read these things, it felt like a sword had pierced his heart. Here, for the first time, he was reading about men who had lived their lives for others. And what was López living for? His boots.
Reflecting on his past life, he felt a growing dissatisfaction. Like many young adults, he began to think about the future and to wonder where he would be in five years. Back in the army, throwing himself in front of another cannonball? For what? As the youngest of 11 children, he had always worked extra hard to prove himself in the world, but what was it all for?
Feeling inspired to imitate Jesus and the great saints he read about, Íñigo López began to alarm his family, now headed by his older brother Martin after the death of their father. When Íñigo was healthy enough to walk, Martin took him on a tour of the castle, pointing to all of the beautiful things in each room. This is all yours, he told his little brother, so why throw it away? He added: I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I can see that crazy look in your eyes, so don’t do it!
In the midst of his pain and confusion, only one thing made sense: Íñigo wanted to be as close to Jesus Christ as possible. Having read that many of the great saints went on pilgrimage to Jerusalem, Íñigo had decided to do the same. He went to his superior, the Duke of Nájera, and resigned his commission in the army despite the duke’s offers of money and promotion.
He then took a staff and began walking to Jerusalem—from Spain! He first stopped at Our Lady of Montserrat, a Benedictine abbey situated high upon a sheer mountain cliff, to dedicate his life to God. There he spent the night in a medieval “vigil of arms,” sometimes standing and sometimes kneeling in prayer before the Black Madonna—an African depiction of Mary left behind from the days of the Muslim conquest.
In the morning, he left his sword and dagger at the altar, and walked out to the entrance of the church. There he gave all of his clothing to a beggar. He gave away his hat with the feather, his ruffled shirt and his boots. Then he donned a rough potato sack and a staff to continue his journey.
He stopped a second time in Manresa, staying with the Dominicans and going to a little cave on the banks of the Cardoner River to pray each day for 10 months. There he would open up a notebook where he had jotted down events in the life of Christ. Imagining himself present with the Lord, he immersed himself in the scenes of the Gospels and paid attention to the thoughts and feelings that arose. Some of them seemed to come from God and others from the Evil Spirit.
Gradually, he discerned that God was calling him to continue on his path, and he published the notes he kept on these prayer experiences in a book called the Spiritual Exercises. Struggling with scrupulosity over the sins of his past life, he had been inflicting long fasts and severe penances on himself, allowing his hair and fingernails to grow wildly as his body wasted away. But now he realized that the greater penance was to serve others out of love for God, rather than to punish his own body.
Because of fighting in the Holy Land, his trip to Jerusalem was cut short and he returned to Spain, where he spent all of his time preaching God’s word in the streets and sleeping with the homeless. He was jailed by the Inquisition, who suspected him during this Reformation period of being an alumbrado who denied the sacraments in favor of inner experience. He was eventually acquitted.
Deciding he needed an education to dedicate himself to God, he ended up at the University of Paris, a 40-year old college student with two roommates in their 20s who he helped to become saints: Francis Xavier and Peter Faber. He gradually acquired influence over these men and others, gathering a small circle of wealthy youths who made his Exercises and went with him to care for the sick and dying. He changed his name to “Ignatius” to symbolize his change of life.
After earning their Master’s degrees, Ignatius’s little group of friends wanted to spend their lives praying in the Holy Land, but war would not allow it. So they ended up putting themselves at the service of Pope Paul III, who established them as a missionary order called the Society of Jesus that would eventually span the globe in its educational and pastoral reach. He established the order in 1540.
The so-called “Jesuits” of this order achieved such vast influence that in 1773, Rome formally suppressed the Society under pressure from Europe’s monarchs. A forgotten remnant of the Society survived for 40 years in White Russia, where Queen Catherine the Great refused to promulgate the papal bull of suppression because she liked Jesuit schools. Rome finally restored the order in 1814, exactly 200 years ago this August 7.
Ignatius spent the rest of his life in Rome, overseeing the growth of his new order and starting a home for reformed prostitutes as well as caring for others in the city’s streets.
History records that Ignatius of Loyola died on this day, July 31, in 1556, at the age of 65. The Catholic Church made him a saint. Pope Francis is one of his sons. Today is Ignatius Day, his liturgical feast.
But for we who are Jesuits, St. Ignatius of Loyola will always be the broken soldier who entrusted his life to Jesus, because he was too humbled to be proud anymore.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a summer editorial intern at America.