Working at a Jesuit university, I must say that St. Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits whose feast day is celebrated on July 31, is never far from mind. This is especially true at the moment, as the Society of Jesus celebrates the “Ignatian Year,” commemorating the 500th anniversary of St. Ignatius’s famous conversion from a hardened soldier to a religious leader after his leg was struck by a cannonball in 1521.
Despite my professional associations with St. Ignatius’s legacy, my strongest affinity with this model of faith is actually much more personal. In 2009–2010, I completed the Nineteenth Annotation, a guided version of St. Ignatius’s famous Spiritual Exercises that takes place over a 30-week retreat instead of the original 30-day version. Like most participants, I found this “Ignatian Retreat in Daily Life” a significant spiritual experience, and as a result my strongest connection to St. Ignatius is really through his legacy as a spiritual leader.
On the basis of this association, the piece of the readings for St. Ignatius’s feast that creates the most direct connection to the saint for me is actually the responsorial psalm. “May God have pity on us and bless us; may he let his face shine upon us. So may your ways be known upon earth,” Psalm 67 proclaims. That last element, “So may your ways be known upon earth,” strikes me as the essential element of St. Ignatius’s spiritual mission.
Long before he founded the religious order that keeps his legacy alive today, Ignatius devoted his life to God with the hope that he would be able to help more people discover how God was at work in their own lives, directly. This was the point of his Spiritual Exercises, and a conviction that led to some significant turmoil for Ignatius when he was alive as the authorities of his day feared such a personal emphasis on discernment would leave individual Catholics aloof from the Church. Yet he was really stressing a fundamental Catholic claim, namely that God is active in the world and that we have a responsibility to discern how God is calling us.
The point of Ignatius’s life’s work, the very reason that gave rise to the Jesuits, can be characterized by this point of the Psalm: So may God’s ways be known upon the earth and have a real impact in people’s lives.
St. Ignatius certainly practiced what he preached on this point. He spent his life after his conversion working to understand how God was calling him to be of service to God and others, and he dedicated himself completely to that task. In this way, St. Ignatius had strong parallels with the other holy man mentioned in the Gospel reading on his feast day, for John the Baptist earned the reputation that brought him to Herod’s attention precisely because he had a single-minded devotion the work of God in his life.
Although Ignatius was, thankfully, not martyred for his dedication, he was no less committed than John the Baptist. It is fitting that we would be learning about Jesus’s cousin on this feast of the man who founded a group envisioned as the companions of Jesus.
Just as importantly, those companions—the Jesuits—have been shaped by this example of prioritizing discernment of God’s call ever since their founding nearly 500 years ago, a strategy that has led to some profound developments for the Society of Jesus.
The most notable result of this approach is arguably the shift that occurred at the Jesuits’ General Congregation 32, which announced the Jesuits’ new dedication to “the service of faith and promotion of justice,” a formula that often leaves Jesuits and social justice synonymous for many Catholics. This commitment arose as result of the Society’s collective discernment that perfectly mirrored the kind St. Ignatius expected each individual Catholic to pursue. Lest we should think this was a strategic political shift or a matter of convenience, the first reading for this year’s Feast of St. Ignatius reminds us that social justice is indeed an immediate concern of God.
The first reading includes the biblical rules for the Jubilee, a unique feature of the Israelites’ commitment to following God’s guidance that resulted, in practice, to a periodic restoration of the balance between rich and poor. The Jubilee was a tool for the promotion of justice in its most radical form. The Jesuits’ commitment to the service of faith and the promotion of justice, the conviction “that love of God which does not issue in justice for men is a farce,” is therefore a return to these biblical roots. It is, if anything, not radical enough when compared to the Jubilee, and it was certainly inspired by a desire to follow God’s guidance in the immediate context of everyday life, just as St. Ignatius encouraged.
Let us all follow suit, praying with St. Ignatius and asking St. Ignatius to pray for us, so that we might better discern how God is calling us to move forward in our lives.
So may your ways be known upon the earth.