6 things you didn’t know about the canonization of St. Ignatius Loyola and St. Francis Xavier
On March 12, the Society of Jesus celebrates the 400th anniversary of the canonizations of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier, two of the seven men who together formed the Society of Jesus under Ignatius’ leadership in 1540 and its greatest saints.
While the lives of Ignatius and Xavier are well known, less has been reported on the events around their canonization. So on this anniversary, here are six interesting facts about this important moment in the life of the Jesuits and the Catholic Church.
1. Ignatius’ canonization process led to him being presented in more and more saintly ways.
According to Penn State professor Ronnie Po-Chia Hsia, almost from the moment that Pope Sixtus V established the Sacred Congregation on Rites in 1588 (the antecedent of today’s Congregation for the Causes of Saints), the Society pushed to have Ignatius canonized. In 1594, Jesuit Superior General Claudio Acquaviva asked for the process to be opened, with statements of support from King Philip II and Maria of Austria and the Spanish ambassador.
On March 12, the Society of Jesus celebrates the 400th anniversary of the canonizations of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier.
This was not simply an act of devotion on the Society’s part; as spiritual founder and first general of the order, Ignatius’ standing in the church had ramifications for the Society. His canonization would give the order a greater degree of legitimacy and security, both within the church and in its works in the world.
But despite the support Ignatius received and the case made by the Society’s first Jesuit cardinal, Francisco Toledo, Clement VIII rejected the request, because no miracles had thus far been attributed to Ignatius.
As Hsia reports in his bookThe World of Catholic Renewal 1540-1770, this led to the Society shifting the way it represented Ignatius in art and elsewhere. As demonstrated in his famous autobiography, even before Ignatius died, the Jesuits around him were intent upon creating a portrayal of him that would be compelling for others. But after that rejection, that portrait emphasized his holiness to an ever-increasing degree.
In 1601, Pedro de Ribadeneira, S.J., published a new version of his famous biography of Ignatius. But now it included 80 woodcuts of Ignatius having visions and sporting a halo, and Ribadeneira described him as a hero who had already been canonized in heaven. Other art of the period has Ignatius similarly be-haloed or engulfed in the light of heaven, like the famous Peter Paul Reubens painting of Ignatius in a red chasuble holding the Constitutions while looking to heaven, his face glowing, or another in which Ignatius, in an almost identical posture and outfit, extends his hand above a group of wailing people in a church, drawing the demons out of them while cherubs float above his head and a dark spirit flies away.
As demonstrated in his famous autobiography, even before Ignatius died, the Jesuits around him were intent upon creating a portrayal of him that would be compelling for others.
In 1605, the Bavarian Jesuits would go so far as to include the text for Ignatius’ canonization in their own biography of his life, as though it was a certainty, with blanks left so readers could later insert the name of the pope and date that the canonization occurred.
The high point of this process of recreating Ignatius as a saint is the extraordinary “Apotheosis of St. Ignatius” on the ceiling of the Sant’Ignazio Church in Rome. Designed and painted by Brother Andrea Pozzo, S.J., the trompe l’oeil work makes it seem as though the ceiling of the church actually opens out onto the sky and heaven, where Ignatius, with beams of light coming from his head, looks upon the nearby Christ.
The artistry alone required to create that level of illusion was itself a powerful expression of Ignatius’ miraculous powers. (If you’re ever in Rome you really need to see it.)
2. The 1622 canonization was important to more than just Jesuits.
While some in the Society of Jesus may describe March 12 as the canonization of Ignatius and Xavier, in fact, five men and women were canonized on this day: in addition to the Jesuits, St. Teresa of Avila, foundress of the Discalced Carmelites; St. Philip Neri, founder of the Oratorians; and St. Isadore the Laborer. In this one event, Pope Gregory XV put the church’s stamp of approval on not only the Jesuits but these other young and thriving religious communities.
3. The canonization was part of a larger process to strengthen papal authority.
The 1622 canonization was also the first time that those canonized had to go through the process of being beatified first. As Simon Ditchfield, a professor at the University of York, told Catholic News Service, for most of the history of the church, saints had been named mostly by the popular acclamation of the community in which they worked.
In this one event, Pope Gregory XV put the church’s stamp of approval on not only the Jesuits but these other young and thriving religious communities.
The Reformation brought with it new levels of scrutiny and organization of the church from the Vatican, including the Congregation of Sacred Rites and a clear sequence for the evaluation of candidates and process of canonization. Now sainthood came through Rome.
In naming five saints all at once, Pope Gregory made that abundantly clear.
4. The canonization also served an important political end.
According to the Jesuit historian John Padberg, in a story relayed by the U.S. Jesuits’ Central and Southern Province communications specialist Jerry Duggan, Gregory chose these saints very specifically. In his prior life as Cardinal Alessandro Ludovisi, Gregory had been known for his good judgment and diplomacy. He had sat on the Apostolic Signatura, the Catholic Church’s highest judicial authority apart from the pope himself. He had also been called on to settle disputes between the pope and different governments and also among various parties.
As Padberg explains it to Duggan, at the time, France and Spain were the two main Catholic powers in Europe. Gregory’s predecessor Pope Paul V had shown favor to France. So, as an attempt to balance the scales, four of the five canonized on March 12, 1622, were from Spain. The fifth, Philp Neri, was from Italy. (As an Italian, Neri was the hometown favorite. Many Romans supposedly described the event as “Four Spaniards and a Saint.”)
Gregory also chose this moment to give Spain’s new capital Madrid its patron saint, St. Isidore. In fact, Isidore’s canonization was the main event of the day, according to Simon Ditchfield; King Philip IV had paid for a “teatro” structure to be built within St. Peter’s, decorated with scenes from the life and miracles of Isidore. “The others were, technically, piggy-backed onto this ceremony,” Mr.Ditchfield told CNS.
At the time of the canonization, the nations of Europe had already begun the descent into the series of conflicts that would be called the Thirty Years’ War.
More than good etiquette was at work here: At the time of the canonization, the nations of Europe had already begun the descent into the series of conflicts that would be called the Thirty Years’ War. Over eight million people would die over these years from violence, famine and disease.
Though those wars are often presented as being between the Protestants and the Catholics, the reality was far more complicated. When Gregory took office, France, Venice and Savoy were near the point of war with Spain and the Holy Roman Empire. As an attempt to prevent matters from escalating further, Gregory had the papal army guard a series of Alpine passes that Spain relied on for communication with the Empire.
In the end, France and Spain would indeed descend into war. But it did not happen during Gregory’s reign.
5. Pope Gregory XV’s relationship with the Jesuits would go on.
Pope Gregory was the first pope ever to have been taught by the Jesuits, studying with them in Rome at the Jesuits’ German and Roman Colleges—and not that many years after Ignatius’ death. Although he was only pope for 30 months, elected Feb. 14, 1621, and dying July 8, 1623, in that time he not only canonized Xavier and Ignatius, but he also used his own money to pay for churches and schools on missions run by Jesuits and others.
Pope Gregory was the first pope ever to have been taught by the Jesuits, studying with them in Rome at the Jesuits’ German and Roman Colleges—and not that many years after Ignatius’ death.
Gregory had poor health when he was elected pope. Like Ignatius, he suffered from stomach ailments that may have been caused or worsened by his practice of fasting. And upon his death, he bequeathed to the Society money to build the church in Rome named after St. Ignatius that would sport the astonishing artistry of Brother Pozzo. When it was completed, Gregory was buried there, along with the remains of his nephew and aide-de-camp Cardinal Ludovico Ludovisi.
His tomb sports a beautiful set of sculptured figures designed by the students of Gianlorenzo Bernini. Gregory sits surrounded by angels, like Ignatius above him. And where Ignatius’ hands extend in wonder at the sight of Jesus, Gregory’s hand reaches out in welcome.
6. Ignatius and Xavier’s lives ended without any of the grandeur they received in death.
The paths of Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier as Jesuits were in many ways opposite. Xavier spent his life on the road, meeting people and building churches. Ignatius spent his life as a Jesuit in Rome, sitting in a room writing the Constitutions, responding to letters and building the Society as an organization (a job he hated and did not want).
But the two men died in sadly similar ways. For years, Xavier had dreamed of going to China. And in his final days, he waited on a barren island in the Bay of Canton for the ship that was going to take him to the mainland. But the boat never came. In the meantime, Francis got sick. He died in a straw hut on the beach. He could see China in the distance.
Finally, they had surrendered everything, all of it, and it could be just God and them. God took them by the hands.
It was almost four years later that Ignatius died in Rome. And even though he was living at the Jesuit Curia, the Society’s motherhouse, he, too, found himself more or less alone at the end. He’d been sick so many times only to bounce back, it had grown hard to tell how seriously to take any particular bout. On July 30, he asked his secretary Juan Polanco, S.J., to go to the pope and get his blessing because he believed he was dying. Polanco asked him if it would be O.K. if he waited a day because he had a lot of letters to get through. (This is a very Jesuit story.)
By dawn it was clear that Ignatius was actually going to die. But by then it was too late to go to the pope, although Polanco went anyway, or to get him the confessor he had also asked for. It is unclear who exactly was with Ignatius at the end. Some accounts suggest no one.
It seems like there’s great irony in this. These are two of the great saints of the church, people believed to be saints even during their lives, and yet in their moment of need no one was there.
But one Jesuit I know, Paul Harman, S.J., insists no, this is not irony. It is grace. Early on Ignatius and Francis threw away all the fancy dreams they had planned for their lives, all the great things they were going to do because they decided they wanted something else: to be in the hands of God. And it took their whole lives, but in the end they were given that grace in full. Finally, there was no romance left, no devoted followers, no heroic deeds. Finally, they had surrendered everything, all of it, and it could be just God and them. God took them by the hands.
Their surrender and God’s response: That is what the church celebrates today.