500 years later, millions of us still feel its impact
As an alumnus of a Jesuit university, I enjoy following prominent Jesuits on social media, many of whom were excited last week because of the 500th anniversary of the conversion of Saint Ignatius de Loyola, the founder of this Catholic order. The story of how Íñigo López de Loyola, later known as San Ignacio, started a path to sainthood is undoubtedly the greatest tale of conversion I’ve ever heard. There are many great biographies of San Ignacio; I really like how Father James Martin, SJ, an outspoken Jesuit in the media, portrays him in his book, The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life. What follows in this post is my general understanding of Ignacio’s story, based on Martin’s and other biographies, and some reflections on conversions, in general, and my own.
Having grown up in a big family in the Basque Country (Spain), young Íñigo (1491-1556) was an avid reader of chivalric novels, the kind Don Quijote read, as well as epic poetry, like El cantar de mío Cid, and he dreamed of becoming a soldier. His adolescence was far from pious, as he was something of a womanizer; apparently, he would get away with a lot of mischievous (or even criminal) activities due to his privileged position in life. At still a young age he was involved in a skirmish in Pamplona when a cannonball ricocheted off a castle wall and shattered his leg. Although he survived, he would have a long and painful recovery, which he spent in a castle. You can imagine how many times his bones must have been reset, and without anesthesia! During his downtime, which was basically all the time, he read. Unfortunately, his favorite chivalric books weren’t available, so he had to settle for books about the lives of Jesus and the saints. Knowing that his military career was over, he had to discern a new path for himself, which was greatly influenced by these religious books. For the next 18 years, more or less, he was a bit lost, knowing only that he wanted to have a religious life and do penances, but not knowing exactly how to go about doing it. So, he spent some time on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. He spent a number of months isolated in a cave, practicing asceticism. He would also study theology in Paris, France before becoming a priest, and later, finally realizing his life’s purpose as the founder of the Society of Jesus, better known as the Jesuits. The video below is a nice summary of Ignacio’s life and his approach to spirituality.
For a time, the Jesuits were quite controversial. I won’t go over those controversies here, as I prefer to focus on those aspects of the Jesuits that, for me, are particularly attractive and undoubtedly positive. For instance, as an academic, I appreciate the Jesuit commitment to education. In the United States alone, there are 27 Jesuit colleges and universities, some of which are extremely prestigious, like Georgetown University, not to mention the plethora of high schools they also run. (When I was on campus at MU, the Jesuits had a reputation for being fond of a good joke; they were talented musicians, and they enjoyed an occasional drink.) There is a lengthy list of Jesuit scientists who made significant contributions to their fields, too, dispelling the notion that Catholics are ignorant of science. One characteristic of Jesuits is that they are “contemplatives in action,” meaning that they do not simply sit in a monastery or library and avoid interacting with the world; on the contrary, they put their faith in action, reaching out to communities in need and preaching about social justice. These characteristics of the order can be traced back to Ignacio. There are many aspects of Ignatian Spirituality that I find fascinating. Whether it’s the process of “finding God in all things,” the famous retreats based on San Ignacio’s classic book Spiritual Exercises, or the particular way of reading sacred scripture (or any text, really) using Ignatian Contemplation, this Spanish saint has left a toolbox of resources that still help us find meaning in our lives today. And it all started with a cannonball!
Most Hispanophiles know about El Camino de Santiago, Spain’s most famous pilgrimage that winds through northern parts of the Iberian Peninsula, leading to the city of Santiago de Compostela (in Galicia), where it is said that the remains of Saint James the Great is located. I’ve been to the cathedral in Santiago, and I found my experience there to be extremely spiritual, even though I wasn’t Catholic at the time. There is a lesser known pilgrimage in Spain known as El Camino Ignaciano, which leads the faithful through the most important places in the life of San Ignacio de Loyola, including where he was born, where he walked, prayed, stayed, and where he is buried. Both of these caminos are on my bucket list.
While some conversions, like Ignacio’s, can be dramatic and powerful, most of us who have experienced a conversion have stories that are much less impressive. My own conversion story isn’t about a cannonball or any other single life-changing instant; it’s maybe more about small breadcrumbs of curiosity that I followed, which led me down a long and winding road to where I am today.
One thing that a lot of people don’t know about me is that I was brought up in a Mormon family. (It’s not really a secret; it’s just something I don’t talk about much.) As a youth, I didn’t have a particularly good or bad experience with the Mormon Church. I recall that I didn’t like the three-hour church service and religious education obligations we had on Sundays; I would’ve preferred watching the Green Bay Packers play. Of course, many kids of all faiths don’t enjoy going to church and would prefer to do anything else. I also remember that it felt strange to be a Mormon, not because of any negative stereotypes about the members of the faith or the uniqueness of their doctrines, but because my brother and I were the only Mormon kids in our elementary and middle schools. (That might be a slight exaggeration, as there may have been one or two other kids in the district but if there were, we weren’t friends.) For a variety of reasons I won’t go into, as we got to the end of middle school and the beginning of high school, we slowly became less active with the church until we eventually didn’t go at all anymore. My parents would later go back, but for a long time I didn’t identify with any religious beliefs. I wasn’t an atheist, necessarily; I just avoided thinking about the topic.
When it was time to choose a university for my undergraduate degree, I chose Marquette University (MU), which, as mentioned previously, is a Catholic institution run by the Jesuits. Basically, I chose MU because they offered a program I wanted to major in, International Business, and it was familiar because of its location. However, I knew very little about the Catholics and even less about the Jesuits. I’d like to say that I fell in love with Ignatian spirituality at MU and converted while still an undergraduate student there, but that’s not what happened. The very first class I had my freshman year was a theology course. That day, our professor, who is a Jesuit priest, walked in and started the class by making the sign of the cross and leading us in the Lord’s prayer, which I didn’t know. Again, I felt like the strange one. I could say that my failure to explore Catholicism at MU was a missed opportunity, and of course it was, but the truth is that I wasn’t ready to receive it at that point.
My priorities as an undergraduate student at MU were my classes and having fun, and not necessarily in that order. One activity that became all encompassing for me was my dedication to the Spanish language and Hispanic culture, because it was both academic and fun. Of course, the more I became aware of my Hispanophilia, the more curious I became about Catholicism. Studying in Spain during my junior year, I marveled at places like the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela, the Basílica de la Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, and the Mezquita in Córdoba. Despite these moments of wonder and contemplation, I didn’t know many Spaniards who were devout; in fact, most of the ones I was in regular contact with at that time had an aversion to religion.
My curiosity about Catholicism didn’t evolve into thoughts of conversion until a few years later when my Mexican girlfriend (now wife) and I started to discuss marriage. I had already finished my Master’s program and began work on my doctorate. Dulce never insisted that I become Catholic. Neither did her family, but I know that my future father-in-law consulted his priest about concern that his daughter might marry a non-Catholic. The truth is, I understand his concern, even though it maybe sounded a bit silly to me at the time. My wife’s Mexican family allowed me access to their world, which included religious ceremonies, like the vía crucis during Holy Week, and other celebrations, like Día de Muertos. They taught me about Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe, whose appearance to San Juan Diego is a super interesting event. My fascination with Mexican religious practices was growing, but I still didn’t have a formal religious practice of my own. After Dulce and I were married in a civil ceremony and had our first child, I started to take a greater interest in matters of the spirit. Having a first child was especially significant in my conversion because of the feelings of mystery and awe that accompany that event. It occurred to me that I should at least investigate the possibility that I could be a Catholic, thereby satisfying my curiosity about the faith and, if it were to work out, we could give our children a cohesive approach to the topic. (I have nothing negative to say about mixed-faith marriages, but I wanted to avoid any problematic questions like: “Why do I have to go to church if dad doesn’t?”) I also came to see Catholicism as a significant part of Hispanic culture that I hadn’t truly tried to understand on a personal level, and I thought I should do something about it.
I completed my doctoral studies in Hispanic Languages and Literatures at University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and I lived in LA from 2004 to 2010. I must have attended mass at a dozen Catholic churches prior to settling on the Saint Timothy Parish, in West LA. Before talking about this parish, I should mention that one of the things that I always enjoyed about Catholicism was mass itself. I always liked old, ornate churches that provide a feast for the senses, and experiencing a good mass in such a place can be a mystical experience, even for people of other faiths.
I was immediately attracted to Saint Timothy church because of its aesthetics. I’m sure some students of architecture will call this next comment ignorant or at least inaccurate, but the outside of Saint Timothy’s looks, to me, like it wouldn’t be totally out of place on a Spanish mission. Although the building itself, finished in the 1940s, is not especially old, relatively speaking, some of the artwork inside is. For example, the altarpiece, originally from Spain, may be a few hundred years old. (It’s impossible to date with precision.) Throughout the church, there is beautiful stained glass, tile work, woodwork, and ironwork. Many of the details were created by the parishioners themselves, some of whom were employed creating sets in the nearby movie studios. I won’t delve more into the history of this church here; suffice it to say that the building enamored me, and the masses always had the most beautiful music. We were welcomed openly, and after a year or so I joined their RCIA program, which converts to the faith must go through. This program was a positive experience for me, and it affirmed that I was doing the right thing. Sure, there was a little guilt about leaving officially my parents’ faith, but they themselves were converts to Mormonism; later I would find out that I was a few generations removed of some Catholics on my dad’s side of the family, so my conversion could be viewed as a restoration of the faith.
My conversion was complete on the Easter Vigil of 2009 (Saturday, April 12), when I had my baptism, first communion, and confirmation all at the same time. Although our marriage was officially blessed at that time, we decided to have a religious wedding ceremony in Coatepec, Veracruz, Mexico in the summer of 2010. This event was a wonderful celebration for our families. It may have taken a long time for me to convert, which I regret, but at least I didn’t have to get shot in the leg with a cannonball for it to happen!
Post any thoughts you may have on San Ignacio or the topic of conversion in the comments section below.
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Photo credit: Featured image of Saint Ignatius in bed from https://www.jesuits.org/stories/a-cannonball-strike-kept-saint-ignatius-stuck-in-bed-thank-god-for-that/