Besides being the founder of one of the largest religious orders in the world and the author of the “Spiritual Exercises,” St. Ignatius of Loyola is also the patron saint of soldiers. Here’s how this Iberian soldier-turned-priest and missionary was canonized a saint and came to be the protector and patron of soldiers across the world.

The soldier

Ignatius was the youngest of 13 children, born in a castle in 1491. Though we know him as Ignatius, his true Basque name was Iñigo López de Oñaz y Loyola. To be born into a noble Basque family in what is today northeastern Spain meant the life of a warrior.

By all accounts, Ignatius embraced this life heartily and seemed to have enjoyed it. He was knighted in 1517 and known as a rugged fighter and somewhat vain noble.

While the major Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille were just uniting and beginning to turn their gaze to new far-off lands being discovered by Columbus, the far northern kingdoms of the fiercely independent Basque and Navarrese were in a struggle to remain independent.

From the south, “the Catholic kings” — Isabella of Castille and Ferdinand of Aragon — threatened, while to the north French forces were constantly attempting to move in.

At 30 years old, Ignatius was stationed at the Citadel of Pamplona. He was tasked with repelling an invading French force that had dramatically superior numbers. Ignatius and his companions valiantly held the fortress until he was struck by a cannonball that shattered his leg.

With their leader down, the defense crumbled, and the citadel fell.

Ignatius was carried home to Loyola where he underwent a painful operation in an attempt to reset and heal his leg. Though he chose to undergo a second procedure to try to restore his leg, he was never fully healed, and he is said to have walked with a limp for the rest of his life. 

More in US

It was during this terrible low point in his life that Ignatius, bedridden and desperately bored, began reading the only books available to him: a book on the life of Christ and another on the lives of the saints.

In reading these works, Ignatius came to reflect on his own life and worldly ambitions. He came to realize that all of his exploits seeking earthly glory were vain attempts to fill a void that could only truly be filled by God.

Ignatius likely felt convicted by the same question he later posed to St. Francis Xavier: “What will it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

By the time he was healed enough to leave his bed, the trajectory of Ignatius’ entire life was changed. Rather than attempting to continue chasing after his own glory, Ignatius resolved to become a champion for Christ for the glory of God.

A man with a mission

In 1522 Ignatius became a pilgrim, giving away all his clothes and possessions to the poor and devoting himself to prayer and contemplation.

He was filled with a zeal to convert others who were blind to God’s love, as he had been. He even made it all the way to the Holy Land, preaching about Jesus Christ to the Muslims.

(Story continues below)

Throughout his travels, Ignatius maintained a deep, contemplative prayer life. He realized the importance of maintaining one’s relationship with God amid the bustle and hurry of life.

Between the years 1522 and 1524, Ignatius composed the now globally practiced “Spiritual Exercises” as a guide to maintaining one’s spiritual health as one would exercise his or her physical body.

Just as soldiers must constantly exercise to maintain a high degree of physical prowess and ability, so too must God’s warriors exercise in their spiritual life.

Though his days of fighting for earthly kings and armies were over, his days as a soldier for God had just begun.

God’s special forces

At the age of 38, Ignatius began attending the University of Paris to learn more about God. It was there that he met a fellow Basque noble, Francis Xavier, and another friend who in 2013 would be canonized as St. Peter Faber.

Struck by Ignatius’ sound teachings and holy example, Francis and Peter, along with a few other companions, formed the Society of Jesus, now known as the Jesuits.

Alongside Francis Xavier, Ignatius was ordained a priest in 1537.

In 1540, the Jesuits received official papal approval from Pope Paul III. 

The society quickly became the pope’s response force. He sent them to preach first to the most difficult regions of Europe, where Protestantism was spreading like wildfire. In no small way, the Jesuits were responsible for stemming the tide of Lutheranism, Calvinism, and many other heresies that were growing at rapid rates. 

From its beginnings, the Jesuits, as established by Ignatius and his companions, held a militaristic mindset of dedication and service to God and his Church. 

Besides taking the usual religious vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, members of the society would take a fourth vow: “obedience with regard to mission.” By this, the original Jesuits vowed to be ready to accept whatever mission God, through the pope, called them to. 

These vows sent Jesuits preaching God’s message to every corner of the earth, even to the most dangerous places. Jesuit priest Father Isaac Jogues was brutally tortured by being partially flayed alive and finally beheaded by Iroquois natives in the forests of Canada in 1646. 

For centuries, Ignatius’ Jesuits were unafraid to boldly take the Gospel of Christ wherever they were called. 

In a way, Ignatius’ new order could have been considered God’s “special forces.” 

‘Ad Maiorem Dei Gloriam’

In 1541 Ignatius was elected the first superior general of the Jesuits, a position from which he led the order for the rest of his life. 

Throughout his time leading the Jesuits, Ignatius would call on his brothers to be fearless and strong for the glory of God. He would tell the brothers to “go forth and set the world on fire.”

Another famous invocation of Ignatius to his brothers was his prayer: 

To give, and not to count the cost, to fight, and not to heed the wounds, to toil, and not to seek for rest, to labor, and not to ask for any reward, save that of knowing that we do thy will.

Ignatius died on July 31, 1556, at the age of 64. Along with Francis Xavier, he was canonized a saint in 1609 and made the patron of retreats, the Jesuits, and, of course, soldiers.

Though he never achieved the glorious military victories he had dreamed of during his youth, Ignatius is considered a true soldier for Christ. 

As the patron saint of soldiers, especially Catholic soldiers, he serves both as an intercessor for protection and safety in the face of danger and also as a reminder for every soldier that our true mission is to serve God. 

Ignatius’ life can perhaps best be summed up by his most famous saying: “ad maiorem Dei gloriam” — that is, “all for the greater glory of God.”