Many incidents are related in biographies and panegyrics of St Ignatius that make him appear as a very strict disciplinarian, and the general impression is given that he was rather something of a martinet. Is it not the common opinion that “Ignatius could be very kind, but you had to keep in step . . . or else!”? And examples are cited, names are mentioned: ' He hardly spoke a kind word to Polanco; he made Nadal weep with his severity; and Lainez, poor man . . .” So writes Ribadeneira. And yet the same Ribadeneira insists that the chief means by which Ignatius sought to instil a solid religious spirit into his sons consisted in “winning their hearts by the most exquisite attentions suggested by his paternal tenderness”. “Truly no mother, howsoever devoted, could show her children a solicitude comparable to that of our holy Father for his sons, specially the sick and the (spiritually) weak.” (All quotes are taken from Monumenta Ignatiana IV, in MHSI, Madrid, 1904-18 – Editor)
Others, too, though not unaware of his occasional severity, characterize the Founder rather by his tenderness, and consider his manifestations of rigidity as rare exceptions. They would prefer to say, “Ignatius could be very stiff, but his acts of kindness and consideration were continual, exquisite and unexpected.” “On every occasion”, writes Lancicius,” Ignatius manifested his motherly affection for his companions.” Fr Huonder writes, “ Father Gonsalves relates that his affection was that of a mother, and he wanted all the superiors of the Society to be animated likewise; when, after a number of failures, he finally found for the Roman College a Rector who had this fatherly care, he decided (against all the customs of the Society ) that he should remain in office for life; for he could hardly find a similar one to take his place.”
Which of the two is the true picture? Which is the correct appreciation? - Certain elements of the answer are definitively acquired:
1. “His extreme severity, in regard to even, small defects, was reserved to men of outstanding virtue or men in authority, such as Laynez, Polanco, Gonsalves, Nadal”. “He never reprimanded severely unless they really deserved a correction “. “Whenever he had to admonish novices or juniors, he did it in a gentle way: he made them feel ashamed of what they had done, required submission of will and judgement; but was careful to avoid any expression that might crush them”
2. That to the sick and the young he never showed anything else than solicitude, consideration and affection is beyond all doubts. For the sick he went to any lengths. To the Rules of the Infirmarian he added the clause, “He should diligently inquire from the sick which members of the community they like best and allow only such brethren to visit them:”. “Whenever he noticed that a young religious looked somewhat pale and weak, he earnestly inquired after the cause. Then he would order him to have a longer sleep, or he would tell the minister to give him a special diet, or to diminish his work. He also made it a rule for the minister that those who were making a retreat should have more nourishing food during those days, just as the convalescent. For, at that time, (adds Lancicius) the fervour of the retreatants was so great that it weakened their constitutions”.
“When the season of Lent was approaching, he used to call the doctor and have everybody examined… Those under 21 never received permission to fast every day of Lent, even though they were quite strong . . . He went to far as to spend several hours going again over the list of those whom the doctor allowed to fast, for fear that someone who was not really able to bear the fast should feel himself obliged to fast by the approval of the physician. And he ordered that a similar list should be drawn up in the Roman and the German Colleges. The first year that this regulation was issued, Polanco made some delay in complying: Ignatius thereupon forbade him to take any food himself until he had composed his list in consultation with the doctor”.
Indeed, his exceptional severity was often caused by his discovering some lack of solicitude for the sick. “He punished every negligence in this matter . . . and did not spare the minister if he was not warned immediately when somebody fell ill. He once wanted to expel from the house a minister, called Bernard, in the middle of the night, because he had failed to supply some-thing for a sick man”. When our Father at last was forced by age to give over the reins of government to a Vicar, he reserved to himself the care of the sick.
As to the young, “(At the time that Manareus joined the Society) Ignatius gave permission to him and to the other novices to come freely and have a talk with himself. He invited them to a chat in the garden, or elsewhere. When Manareus fell ill, St. Ignatius went himself to see and comfort him lovingly. Once he brought him a basket of sweets and said, Oliveri, here is something I have just received from a princess of Sicily. It is for you. I hope you will enjoy it. Take it like a prescription from the doctor.' He also invited Manareus sometimes to come and share his own meal (He used to take his meals privately) and would then offer to Oliveri an apple or a pear which he had pealed on his fork”.
St. Ignatius liked young people to have a good appetite, “and for this reason liked to invite to his table Benedict Palmius, a bulky youth whom he enjoyed to see eating. Fearing he might feel shy, Ignatius would press him to take another helping . . .”.
“He was most careful that there should be no reason for anybody - particularly the young - to feel slighted. One day he received three candidates from Ferrara. An abbot, who was related to them, had accompanied them to Rome and had been invited to the Roman College: Ignatius told the three candidates to come to dinner with him (although they were still in the First Probation). But he took the trouble to inform the other candidates at the same time that they too were invited to the Roman College for the next day, lest they should feel themselves treated with less favour and courtesy”.
3. But what about the healthy and the formed Fathers? “He always spoke to his companions in such a benevolent way, and dealt with them so gently, that he appeared to be all affection. The result was (explains Lancicius) that all without exception loved him in return: in those days there was no one who was not convinced that Ignatius loved him dearly”.
An overstatement? Well, Nadal himself, who reputedly was one of those treated with severity, writes that “everyone was always happy and radiant in his room”.
And the encouragement he gave! He used to speak highly of the work of others in their absence and with special delight “praised their efforts in the presence of men from whom he could expect that they would report his expressions of esteem to those who had earned them. He really used all possible means to keep everybody content, generous and happy”.
“One day he heard that Benedict Pererius, a professor at the Roman College, had courageously denounced the writings of Ludovicus Vivio as suspect of heresy: he called the Father and generously praised him’. “Benedict Palmius, not yet a priest, was already a preacher of some renown. One day Ignatius heard that Benedict had been telling an old lady that he would preach the following day and urging her to come and listen to his sermon. Ignatius relished such candour; and when, soon after, he had an occasion to commit some work to him, he added teasingly, 'Benedict, if you do this well, I'll get you one more old lady to come and listen to your sermons'.”.
4. And when he judged that it was necessary for someone to receive an admonition, “if he knew that the fact of the admonition coming from himself would cause special grief, he would try to have someone else make the remark, so as to avoid discouragement”.
He did, of course, give admonitions in person, and punishments too: but Ribadeneira insists that “he made it evident that his severity was inspired by zeal for discipline and observance of the rules, —not by any natural harshness”.
Besides, nobody who encountered him would have dreamt of suspecting Ignatius of being swayed by natural passions. He undoubtedly had his natural character in hand; he had rather an oversensitive conscience.
“Whenever our blessed Father met one of ours,” so Lancicius writes, “the thought came to his mind of the price paid for that soul by the Redeemer . . . This thought gave him so much consolation that for some time he could not refrain from beaming upon those he met. But later on, he discovered that such a thing was exaggerated: he checked himself and even punished himself with one stroke of his discipline for every fault in this matter. Still, he always kept smiling so kindly at the companions he met that they were sure he kept them ever in his heart.”
“He was very watchful to avoid even the slightest appearance of partiality, was most careful to give to nobody the impression of being less dear to him than others. That is why at the election of the first General he did not name any one of his companions but wrote that he gave his vote to the one who would receive the majority of the suffragia (except himself). And again, when he fell ill and a Vicar General had to be appointed, he did not make the nomination himself but entrusted the matter to the consultors.”
On another occasion two Jesuits were to be appointed who would stay in the Papal palace and advise Pope Marcel II on the reform of the Church. “He did not designate them by himself; he asked the consultors to do it. Only, he listed so many talents and qualities required in the candidates, that the consultors could only choose those he had in view. But in that way, nobody could feel slighted by Ignatius or reasonably envious of those appointed; nor did the common good suffer in any way.”
Conclusion: Such are the outlines of the over-all picture: a deeply religious man, who looked at everybody through the eyes of the Redeemer; continually anxious to give encouragement; always fearful of even appearing to slight or grieve; desiring nothing so much as to see contentment and happiness around him . . . and perfect master over his natural propensities. Does it look like a martinet?
Fr. Luc Verstraete SJ