The Magnanimity and Humility of St. Ignatius Loyola

When Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to become pope, celebrated Mass for the feast of St. Mark last April, he used his homily to exhort the Church to proclaim the Gospel with magnanimity and humility.  He noted that St. Thomas Aquinas taught that magnanimity, or great-souledness, means doing great deeds and seeking great honors.  Humility, far from being opposed to magnanimity, serves to temper it, because humility makes us recognize the great gifts that God has given to others.  Speaking of the boldness of the apostles, the Holy Father said “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord acted with them.  The Lord works with all those who preach the Gospel.  This is the magnanimity that a Christian should have.  A pusillanimous Christian is incomprehensible: this magnanimity is part of the Christian vocation: always more and more, more and more, more and more, onwards!”  Though the Holy Father was speaking of the apostles, but he might have had the example St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and his early companions in the back of his mind.

By his own account, St. Ignatius struggled with the temptation to vainglory throughout his life.  When a young Jesuit confided his difficulties with vainglory to Ignatius, by then old and wise in the ways of the spiritual life, Ignatius tried to encourage him by revealing that he too struggled with the vice.  This had the unintended effect of encouraging the young priest so much that he and some other Jesuits implored Ignatius to write down the story of his life so that they could benefit from its lessons.  That story shows Ignatius’s proneness to vainglory and, through the grace of God, his triumph over it.

ignatius-loyolaSt. Thomas Aquinas said that the desire for glory is not bad in itself.  On the contrary, he said that it is not a sin to know and approve one’s own goodness, or to be willing to approve one’s own good works.  In fact, he cited Matthew 5:16 to prove his point: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.”  But the vice of vainglory is opposed to magnanimity because it is the disordered desire for glory.

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The desire for glory can be vain in three ways, according to St. Thomas: first, when one seeks glory for that which is unworthy of glory; second, when one seeks glory from another whose judgment is not worthy to confer it; third, when one fails to refer one’s glory to a proper end, such as when one seeks glory solely for oneself rather than for the glory God or the spiritual benefit of one’s neighbor (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 132, a. 1).

St. Ignatius had a heart that longed to do great deeds.  The first chapter of his autobiography, dictated to the young Jesuit, opens by confessing that “he was a man given to worldly vanities, and having a vain and overpowering desire to gain renown, he found special delight in the exercise of arms.”  Fighting for the Spanish cause against the French, Ignatius found himself in a fortress surrounded by a superior force.  Though they had little chance of holding out against a siege, Ignatius persuaded his comrades to resist less they lose honor by surrendering.  The result was that, not only were the Spaniards defeated, but Ignatius was hit by a cannonball that shattered his right leg.

Nevertheless, the humiliation of defeat did not immediately cause Ignatius to mortify his vanity.  The doctors had to break his leg in order to reset the bone, but when it was eventually healed, the injured leg was shorter than the other and the bone stuck out in an unsightly manner.  Finding this physical imperfection intolerable, Ignatius ordered them to saw off the offending bump and reset the leg.  This caused him greater pain than the original wound, but he was determined that it would not prevent him from cutting a dashing figure in the prominent households of Spain.

While he was convalescing at his family’s home, Ignatius imagined himself doing chivalrous deeds and winning worldly renown when he recovered.  But he found that at home they had none of the books of courtly romance that he enjoyed reading, only books on the lives of Christ and the saints.  Reading them, he imagined himself imitating the great deeds of the saints, especially those of Saints Francis and Dominic.  Eventually, he experienced a conversion, and repented of his worldly ways.  After much prayer and reflection, he resolved to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem when he was well again and perhaps enter a monastery when he returned.  Ignatius’s family was alarmed at these plans.  They were noble, well-connected at the Spanish court, and had placed great worldly hopes in him.  But he was drawn to religious life by the profound consolations he had received in prayer.  Instead of adding to his own honor, or that of his family, Ignatius was determined that his deeds would now redound to the glory of God.

Ignatius did many noteworthy pious deeds, like giving his possessions away to the poor, and making his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which were heralded with all the more acclaim because of his privileged background.  But he strove mightily to conceal them from others so that fame for holiness would not tempt him to vainglory.

Eventually, Ignatius went to Paris to study in preparation for becoming a priest.  While in Paris, he gathered about him a group of companions.  He spoke with them about spiritual things and gave them his Spiritual Exercises.  Ignatius developed the Exercises by reflecting on the movements of his soul when he was convalescing from his leg injury.  Some of the best students at the University of Paris underwent profound conversions while making the Exercises, including Peter Favre and Francis Xavier.  Ignatius’s mystical experiences and the prayer life that was expressed in his Spiritual Exercises were source of every great deed that he and the Jesuits ever accomplished.

Ignatius and his companions resolved that, when they completed their studies, they would try to go to Jerusalem to work for the conversion of the Muslims.  That failing, they would put themselves at the disposal of the pope for whatever purpose he saw fit.  After a year of trying, their plans to travel to Jerusalem were finally frustrated, so they went to the Eternal City.  The constitutions for their new order were approved by Pope Paul III in 1540.  It was called the Society of Jesus, and its motto was Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam: “for the greater glory of God.”  Ignatius was duly elected the first Father General of the order, but he tried to decline the position, no doubt out of concern that it would tempt him to vainglory.  Fortunately, his companions prevailed upon him to lead them further.

Soon Ignatius and the Jesuits were the exemplars of the “new evangelization” of their day.  They sent priests wherever the Church needed them: to win back parts of Christendom that had become Protestant, to preach the Gospel in the New World, and to evangelize even further beyond the reach of European empires in Asia.  Wherever they went, the Jesuits preached they Gospel with magnanimity and humility.  They glorified God by founding excellent schools, building beautiful churches, and above all, winning souls for God.

Precisely because Ignatius and the Jesuits did great deeds, they aroused opposition outside the Church and within her too.  It may baffle us that Ignatius and many of his contemporaries who are now canonized saints were investigated by the Inquisition or ran up against ecclesiastical opposition to their efforts at renewal and reform.  But given that this was the age of the Protestant revolution, abounding with eccentric heresies, ecclesiastical wariness of new spiritual teachings and practices was not necessarily misplaced.  Whenever Ignatius ran into trouble with ecclesiastical authorities, in Salamanca, Paris, or Rome itself, he always dealt with them patiently and reverently.  His obedience was a mark of his holiness as it is a mark of the holiness of all the saints.  But it is also a mark of the humility that tempers magnanimity, compelling it to respect the gifts God gives to others, including the gift of authority.

Based on what he told us, Ignatius’s temptation to vainglory probably lasted his whole life.  That might have been what motivated him to read some of the Imitation of Christ each day.  But his persistence and success in reordering his desire for vainglory to magnanimity and humility is summed up in St. Ignatius’s epitaph: Non coerceri maximo, continuo minimo, divinum est: “Not to be confined by the greatest, yet to be contained within the smallest, is divine.”


  • P. Bracy Bersnak

    P. Bracy Bersnak is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Economics at Christendom College. He earned two Master’s degrees from Catholic University of America, the first in modern European history and the second in political theory.

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