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Marking the Feast Day of St. Ignatius of Loyola, Creighton recalls the life and mission of the Jesuit founder

He wanted fame, glory, valor.

What he got was love.

St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Society of Jesus whose feast day is celebrated July 31, was a wounded soldier laid up in his father’s castle when he experienced the first tinge of a spiritual conversion. His legs badly mangled by a cannonball in 1521, the young Basque nobleman could do little else but lie in bed and read.

Having exhausted all other reading material, Ignatius picked up religious books, including one on the life of Jesus that he read with great enthusiasm. Afterwards, he decided he would dedicate his life to God and do all within his power to spread God’s word and, in his soldierly way, he thought he might — through these mighty acts — obtain God’s healing and redemptive love.

“What’s perhaps most important to know about Ignatius is that he discovered God in a way that surprised him,” said the Rev. Andy Alexander, SJ, director of the Collaborative Ministry Office at Creighton University. “He tried to earn God’s love and, in his pride and arrogance, he discovered it was a gift. Mercy was free. And this, then, became what he wanted to share with everyone.”

At Creighton, this central thrust of Ignatius’ message — which the saint continued to refine throughout his life — has been amplified in nearly every channel of the University’s operation. A method for the examen developed by Ignatius — calling for regular reflection and discernment in a spirit of wonder and gratitude — is found on cards tacked to cubicle and dormitory walls and taped to bookshelves in the rooms and offices of staff, faculty and students of all creeds and faith traditions alike.

Leonard Greenspoon, PhD, professor of Near Eastern Studies and the Klutznick Chair in Jewish Civilization, recounts the story of Seth Rich, BA’12, who came to Creighton with some trepidation over how he would fare with Creighton’s theological degree requirements, being a Jew at a Catholic university. On July 10, Rich, an employee of the Democratic National Committee, was shot and killed near his home in northwest Washington, D.C.

“His concerns soon changed to excitement, as he reported to his father that his professors, especially the Jesuits, established an environment in which lively exchange of ideas was coupled with respect for differing intellectual and spiritual perspectives,” said Greenspoon, who knew Rich as a professor and a mentor during the young man’s time at Creighton. “The courses that included a theological component were among Seth’s favorites.”

Rich’s father, Joel, also told Greenspoon that Seth was a keen practitioner of Jesuit values.

“His father told me that upon being introduced to the full range and meaning of Jesuit values, Seth frequently included them in his daily life as a source for meaning and mindfulness in an otherwise near chaotic world,” Greenspoon said. “Seth spoke these words as a Jew. And, as a Jew, I find myself turning now to Jesuit values for exactly the same inspiration and direction that Seth found.”

Ignatius’ appeal and his development of a capacious, instructive, love-bound theology embracing not just Catholics or Christians has found its way into many spiritual movements over the last 450 years.

In that time, the Jesuit educational model, initiated by Ignatius during his own studies at the University of Paris, started to coalesce around the notion of students and mentors working together, traveling the same path of self-discovery with the teacher allowing the student to discover for himself or herself the truths of the world’s workings and the spirit of God alive within each person.

“What is particularly striking about St. Ignatius is that, in the upshot of his discovery of the mercy of God as a gift, he felt that he needed to be a more educated person in order to spread such a message to the wider world,” said Creighton President the Rev. Daniel S. Hendrickson, SJ. “Attaining this education, he saw that finding the true heart of Jesus was still a very simple pursuit, the only true education a person could really need. Out of these two seemingly competing views, Jesuit education has stressed that a student finds wisdom and truth and the true heart of Jesus through personal discernment and the teacher finds these again in accompanying the student on such a journey. In turn, the student seeks ways to help others find that wisdom and truth by going alongside and being a companion. I’ve found this spirit particularly at work with the students and faculty at Creighton.”

Once out of his bed, there was little stopping the new convert. Rather than dreams of glory on the battlefield, Ignatius now aspired to sainthood. He lived an ascetic lifestyle in a cave and had visions. He joined up with a group of Benedictines on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, where he started inviting Christian converts, was quickly ferreted out as a troublemaker, and sent home by the Franciscans in charge.

In all this, Ignatius’ transformation was really only half complete, said Eileen Burke-Sullivan, STD, a Creighton theologian and vice president for the Office Mission and Ministry.

“It was still about self,” Burke-Sullivan said. “The first part of his conversion was that he was going to stop doing bad and start doing good. The second conversion happens when he begins to realize that he didn’t have to earn anything. God is teaching him lessons, very directly and very individually. He had the sense that God is treating him as a schoolmaster treats a child. And in this process, he recognizes that God is revealing his profound love for him. It wasn’t about hitting some mark. And when he discovered this, he felt only two things: one, a profound sense of gratitude, and two, a desire to give back.”

Out of these elements of Ignatius’ conversion blossomed the Spiritual Exercises — the meditations and prayers the Jesuits encourage people to undertake for a period of weeks to grow in the knowledge of God’s will and love and be empowered to carry it out and reflect it. And Ignatius’ next steps started him down the path to founding the Society of Jesus and inaugurating the educational processes for which the Jesuits are well-known.

It started with his own education, and Ignatius trundled off to the Sorbonne. He was already in his mid-30s, but for another seven years, he studied theology and earned a master’s degree at the age of 43.

“So he became a credentialed person,” Fr. Alexander said. “But the heart of the message remained. He wanted people to know Jesus and the heart of Jesus.”

Toward that end in Paris, Ignatius befriended and assembled six men who would become the first Jesuits. Together, the friends began creating a platform by which they could spread the word of God’s love to a wider circle. They set about doing just that.

Pledging their services to the Church, Pope Paul III approved the Society of Jesus and urged the new order to take to the streets in Europe’s major cities preaching and teaching.

Gradually, the great families of Europe recognized the Jesuit gift for education and more and more, the priests found themselves called upon to instruct the laity, as well as the Church leadership.

Ignatius himself lived out the remainder of his life as an administrator in Rome. But he still encouraged the Jesuits to remain an agile force and he compelled each one of them — about 1,000 by the time Ignatius died on July 31, 1556, to keep in touch with their superior general and one another.

“It was as if they had been shot out of a cannon,” Burke-Sullivan said. “They gathered together so many young men and started educating them. Ignatius didn’t want the Jesuits to become teachers, really, he wanted everyone to stay mobile because the Jesuits first and foremost charge, still, is the preaching and teaching of Jesus. They became prolific letter-writers and their knowledge and their desire to know more and to do more really fueled this worldwide initiative.”

The peak of Ignatius’ earthbound career roughly coincided with that of the Protestant reformer Martin Luther, and much of the early Jesuits’ work was taken up in trying to keep Catholics from leaving the fold.

Still, the touchstones of Ignatius’ and Luther’s careers, given nearly a half-millennia of distance, look more similar than divergent. Barbara Dilly, Ph.D., an associate professor of cultural anthropology and a Lutheran, said her readings in both Luther and Ignatius point to the daily need to encounter God and feel his will at work in one’s life.

“What I like most about Ignatius are his challenges,” Dilly said. “They are as timely and timeless as those of Martin Luther. Both sought to get closer to God through Jesus and both were looking for ways to help other people connect with God where they were. Their spirituality centered on the fact that we’re all children of God. Ignatius takes it a step further. Both Luther and Ignatius challenge us intellectually in our spiritual development, but Ignatius teaches me how to become a more adult child a God. Through companionship with Jesus, Ignatius calls us to develop true companionship with other people also. Our relationship with God remains deeply personal, but not me-centered.”

With the first Jesuit pope now seated in the Vatican, many are sensing a growing resurgence of the Church, centered around the discernment and reflection Ignatius stresses in the Spiritual Exercises. Pope Francis has widely advocated for breaking down barriers, for connecting all people and walking humbly.

“The heart of the message is alive in this pope,” Fr. Alexander said. “He is asking us to see God’s mercy in us so we might be merciful to others like Jesus was. What Pope Francis is trying to do, what Ignatius was trying to do, is build bridges rather than walls, to be as loving to other people as God is to us.”

To observe the feast day, Creighton will celebrate its usual weekend Masses at St. John's Church. The Saturday Mass at 5 p.m. will be followed by a picnic in the Jesuit Gardens. Sunday Masses will be celebrated at 8 a.m. and 10:30 a.m.

Creighton University is a Jesuit, Catholic university bridging health, law, business and the arts and sciences for a more just world.