“Go forth and set the world on fire.”—St. Ignatius of Loyola
During the sixteenth century, it seemed to many that the Catholic Church was down for the count and would not get back up again.
Internal corruption had sapped the Church’s spiritual energies; scandal and intrigue left the Church with little credibility; most of the faithful, including the Church’s own clergy, were desperately ignorant of the Church’s noble spiritual tradition; attempts at reform had degenerated into divisions and rancor. It seemed hopeless for the Church.
But then two seismic events took place that would reinvigorate the Church’s life and energies—these events were the Council of Trent and St. Ignatius of Loyola, whose life and holiness the Church celebrates today.
The Council of Trent clarified the Church’s identity and mission and forged a new culture, a new civilization, which transformed the world. For some five hundred years, the Church lived out the reforms and renewals of the Council of Trent, and we still benefit today from the vision and word of that great council. The truth that the Catholic faith is a global reality, embracing people of every race, language and culture, came about in large part because of the vision of the faith that flowed from the Council of Trent.
The second great force that initiated the reform and renewal of the Church was a Spaniard by the name of Ignatius of Loyola. In his youth, Ignatius had little time for the faith, spending his energies in pursuit of honors, recognition, and the comforts of wealth. War changed all that, as a wound to his leg crippled him. But suffering can be the strange crucible of faith, and through this pain and loss, Ignatius came to Christ and gave his life over to him wholly and completely.
Ignatius had to become both spiritually and physically poor before Christ would make him rich in holiness. Through tremendous personal sacrifice, he became a saint and spiritual master. Christ used Ignatius’ gifts on behalf of the reform and renewal of the Church. Soon a community had formed around Ignatius—a community we know today as the Society of Jesus—the Jesuits.
The Jesuits were on the front lines of the reform and renewal of the Church. It was due in large part to their efforts that the vision of the Council of Trent became a concrete reality. Jesuit missionaries carried the faith throughout the world, and their efforts at bringing the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the faithful of Europe revitalized the Church.
It is hard not to see many correlations in all of this to the Church in our own culture, in our own time. Catholic Christianity is blossoming and vigorous in so many parts of the world, but closer to home, our spiritual energies are being spent not so much in evangelization and works of mercy but in the pursuit of power through ideology and antagonism, concern for worldly acceptability, shoring up our status through institutions, and endless internal squabbling.
Further, we are in desperate need not simply of more vocations or lay involvement but of the bold witness of saints, of holy men and women, who would seek what Ignatius sought—to claim the world for Christ and to live in communion with Christ’s Church in fidelity, holiness, and peace.
Let us pray that all of us, the spiritual descendants of St. Ignatius, might be moved by the Holy Spirit and inspired by St. Ignatius’ example to give our lives over to Christ and set about advancing the Church’s mission in bold and courageous ways.
This piece was originally published on Jul 31, 2017 on Evangelization & Culture Online.