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igo, the unlikely Ignatius

(Article published in the Aug 1,2012 issue of Manila Standard Today)   

He certainly was not what your spinster aunts would describe as “santo santito”.  Certainly not, if the information relayed by  John W. Padberg to James Martin is reliable: He “may be the only saint with a notarized police record: for nighttime brawling with an intent to inflict serious harm.”

James Martin, (I need to disclose before I further proceed in order to avoid exposing myself to the accusation of plagiarism ) is the author of “The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything”  with the subtitle “A Spirituality for Real Life”.  His book, save for data freely downloadable from the net, is the source of my information for this piece.  John W. Padberg, who is Martin’s source of the information concerning the saint’s criminal record, is a noted historian.  Both of them are Jesuits.  Hence,  caveat lector. Verbum sapientia satis.

At any rate, Iñigo was born in 1491 in the castle of Loyola above Azpeitia in the Basque province of Guipuzcoa in northern Spain. It is possible (and I am tempted to so believe) that he was named after Iñigo Arista, who according to WikipediA, was the first king of Pamplona in the first half of the 9th Century; the more reliable Catholic Encyclopedia, though, says he was named after St. Enecus, Abbot of Oña, a municipality in the province of Burgos, Spain.


History is certain, though, that Iñigo was the youngest son of Don Beltran Yañez de Oña  y Loyola. His mother, Marina Saenz de Lieona y Balda, died soon after he was born and was therefore mercifully spared the sufferings essential to being the mother of a son like him.  He was thus brought up by the local blacksmith’s wife and later found himself serving as a page in the household of  a relative, Juan Velásquez de Cuellar, a contador mayor,  or treasurer, of the kingdom of Castile.  It must have been there, as well as while in the service of Antonio Manrique de Lara, Duke of Nájera and Viceroy of Navarre, that he acquired, relished and, in fact, fell in love, with the ways of the world.

“The young Basque,” writes James Martin, “was something of a ladies’ man and, according to some sources, a real hothead.”  A contemporary is said to have written that he “is in the habit of going around in cuirass [a metal armour] and coat of mail...wears his hair long to the shoulder, and walks around in a two-colored, slashed doublet with a bright cap.”

He had reason to swagger about.  He was a soldier, after the death of Velásquez in 1517, in the service of Antonio Manrique de Lara who found his leadership qualities useful; he was after all a gentilhombre, a gentleman (“gentle” from the original “genteel”, or man of noble birth).  Under the Duke, he participated in many battles, but suffered no injury therefrom.

But the law of averages caught up with him.  On May 20, 1521, during the siege of the fortress of  Pamplona which he was defending, the French, who did not have qualms about interfering in the political affairs of its neighbor, sent a cannon ball in his direction.  The cannon ball was no respecter of men who would get in its way and unceremoniously passed between his legs.  In the process, it tore open his left calf and broke his right shin.  Seeing their leader struck down, the defenders of the fortress lost heart and surrendered.

The French, exhibiting their signature savior faire, did not put him in chains as is done with captured enemies.  Instead, they treated him well and carried him on a litter back to his castle in Loyola.

At Loyola, his leg had to be broken and reset, and a protruding end of the bone was sawn off.  The limb, which was shortened by inept setting, had to be stretched out by weights.  In sum, he  underwent several surgeries, all of them very painful as those were the days that did not have the benefit of anaesthesia.   Despite being in the receiving end of all that torment from the tedious series of leg repair and refixing, Iñigo suffered voluntarily and without a cry or scream escaping from his lips. He wanted the surgeons to do a good job; it was his desire, writes James Martin, that his  leg, when everything was said and done, continued to look “good in the fashionable tights of the day.”

To while away his time while convalescing, he asked for reading materials.  Iñigo wanted tales of romance and chivalry as were his favourites before the cannon ball.  But the library of the castle of Loyola was not as well stocked as the Rizal Library of the Ateneo University in Quezon City’s Loyola Heights.  There were none.  So, instead, his brother’s wife, like many in-laws very nice to their family by affinity,  gave him to read materials about the life of Christ and the lives of the saints. 

Not at all humbled by the consequences of his clumsy inability to avoid a cannon ball coming in his direction, he was challenged by the saints’ capacity to express their love for Jesus.  He asked himself “What if I should do this which St. Francis did and this which Saint Dominic did?”  Thus began a transformation of a self and of many other selves thence, moving like the ripples that rush from the epicenter caused by a pebble thrown into the water. 

         My point though is not what every Jesuit, or ex-jesuit, or Jesuit-product would tell you at the lightest provocation about how Iñigo became Ignatius.  What I marvel at is how a most exhaulted God could  chose to use as a channel of His glory an instrument most lowly.