The Magnanimity & Humility of St. Ignatius of Loyola
by P. Bracy Bersnak
When Pope Francis, the first Jesuit to become pope, celebrated Mass for the feast of St. Mark last April, he used his homily to exhort the Church to proclaim the Gospel with magnanimity and humility. He noted that St. Thomas Aquinas taught that magnanimity, or great-souledness, means doing great deeds and seeking great honors. Humility, far from being opposed to magnanimity, serves to temper it, because humility makes us recognize the great gifts that God has given to others. Speaking of the boldness of the apostles, the Holy Father said “they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord acted with them. The Lord works with all those who preach the Gospel. This is the magnanimity that a Christian should have. A pusillanimous Christian is incomprehensible: this magnanimity is part of the Christian vocation: always more and more, more and more, more and more, onwards!” Though the Holy Father was speaking of the apostles, but he might have had the example St. Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) and his early companions in the back of his mind.
By his own account, St. Ignatius struggled with the temptation to vainglory throughout his life. When a young Jesuit confided his difficulties with vainglory to Ignatius, by then old and wise in the ways of the spiritual life, Ignatius tried to encourage him by revealing that he too struggled with the vice. This had the unintended effect of encouraging the young priest so much that he and some other Jesuits implored Ignatius to write down the story of his life so that they could benefit from its lessons. That story shows Ignatius’s proneness to vainglory and, through the grace of God, his triumph over it.
St. Thomas Aquinas said that the desire for glory is not bad in itself. On the contrary, he said that it is not a sin to know and approve one’s own goodness, or to be willing to approve one’s own good works. In fact, he cited Matthew 5:16 to prove his point: “So let your light shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven.” But the vice of vainglory is opposed to magnanimity because it is the disordered desire for glory.
The desire for glory can be vain in three ways, according to St. Thomas: first, when one seeks glory for that which is unworthy of glory; second, when one seeks glory from another whose judgment is not worthy to confer it; third, when one fails to refer one’s glory to a proper end, such as when one seeks glory solely for oneself rather than for the glory God or the spiritual benefit of one’s neighbor (Summa Theologiae II-II, q. 132, a. 1).
St. Ignatius had a heart that longed to do great deeds. The first chapter of his autobiography, dictated to the young Jesuit, opens by confessing that “he was a man given to worldly vanities, and having a vain and overpowering desire to gain renown, he found special delight in the exercise of arms.” Fighting for the Spanish cause against the French, Ignatius found himself in a fortress surrounded by a superior force. Though they had little chance of holding out against a siege, Ignatius persuaded his comrades to resist less they lose honor by surrendering. The result was that, not only were the Spaniards defeated, but Ignatius was hit by a cannonball that shattered his right leg.
Nevertheless, the humiliation of defeat did not immediately cause Ignatius to mortify his vanity. The doctors had to break his leg in order to reset the bone, but when it was eventually healed, the injured leg was shorter than the other and the bone stuck out in an unsightly manner. Finding this physical imperfection intolerable, Ignatius ordered them to saw off the offending bump and reset the leg. This caused him greater pain than the original wound, but he was determined that it would not prevent him from cutting a dashing figure in the prominent households of Spain.
While he was convalescing at his family’s home, Ignatius imagined himself doing chivalrous deeds and winning worldly renown when he recovered. But he found that at home they had none of the books of courtly romance that he enjoyed reading, only books on the lives of Christ and the saints. Reading them, he imagined himself imitating the great deeds of the saints, especially those of Saints Francis and Dominic. Eventually, he experienced a conversion, and repented of his worldly ways. After much prayer and reflection, he resolved to go on pilgrimage to Jerusalem when he was well again and perhaps enter a monastery when he returned. Ignatius’s family was alarmed at these plans. They were noble, well-connected at the Spanish court, and had placed great worldly hopes in him. But he was drawn to religious life by the profound consolations he had received in prayer. Instead of adding to his own honor, or that of his family, Ignatius was determined that his deeds would now redound to the glory of God.
Ignatius did many noteworthy pious deeds, like giving his possessions away to the poor, and making his pilgrimage to Jerusalem, which were heralded with all the more acclaim because of his privileged background. But he strove mightily to conceal them from others so that fame for holiness would not tempt him to vainglory.