Universe Column for September 14th 2003
By David Alton
Every English Catholic knows the debt we owe to the Society of Jesus. When St. Edmund Campion famously remarked that “the expense is reckoned” he knew that the Queen’s pikes and the gallows at Tyburn and Lancaster would demand their price in Jesuit blood.
Visiting Loyola recently, in the heart of the Basque country, I understood more clearly from where the Jesuits derive their courage and tenacity. Geography and topography – and the isolation of rugged inaccessible terrain – must have had an enormous influence in shaping the outlook of their founder, St. Ignatius of Loyola.
Ignatius – the most universally known Basque – was born 500 years ago in a beautiful corner of Guipuzcoa, often described as “rough and idyllic.”
The house of Inigo’s warlike ancestors – a defensive tower – stands alongside the basilica dedicated to the saint and reminds us that this was remote and lawless country dominated by feudal clans. The occupants of these towers and fortresses often inter-married: strengthening their ties by blood.
That the young Inigo wanted to become a knight, and learn the use of arms, was probably inevitable. How, at Pamplona , in 1521, he was wounded by a falconettball, his right leg shattered, and his left one wounded, is well known.
That expedition and the subsequent story of deep religious conversion, of Inigo’s penitential pilgrimage in the cave at Manresa , and his vigil before the statue of Our Lady of Montserrat , are all beautifully documented in the museum at Loyola.
The Loyola exhibition also traces the times of trial that follow. Several times he was hauled before the Inquisition. A latecomer to academic life, he found study hard going. He also had to abandon his cherished dream of working in the Holy Land – and gradually learn to abandon himself to God’s plan.
Frequently misunderstood and rejected his own life would become a template for the privations and suffering that would beset the Order he founded. Ignatius would have sympathised with the old Irish saying that “where there is no pain there is no gain.”
Gain certainly followed. On the death of its founder, in 1556, the Jesuits counted almost one thousand members. To them Ignatius bequeathed his Spiritual Exercises, the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. He also bequeathed men of zeal prepared to travel to the corners of the earth to proclaim the gospel.
Along with countless educational institutions – the most important part of the Jesuit legacy – spirituality centres, like the one at Loyola, continue the Jesuit mission of inspiring men and women that grace may transform their hearts.
Today there are about 21,000 Jesuits worldwide. They have given the Church 44 canonised saints: 162 canonised or beatified martyrs. Nor is this the stuff of history. In the last century some 340 Jesuits were victims of xenophobia or racial hatred, antireligious persecution, Nazism and communist or dictatorial regimes. And Jesuits are on the frontline in many parts of the world today.
This weekend, a new Jesuit, Simon Bishop – a former Stonyhurst pupil – will be ordained to the English Province .
We should give thanks that Ignatius’ torch is being passed to another generation. We also should give thanks to the English Jesuits who, like Campion, reckoned the price and have been prepared to pay it.