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It all began with a ricocheting cannon ball

From May 2021 until July 2022, the Jesuits and the Ignatian family, including Jesuit Social Services, celebrate an Ignatian Year. The Ignatian Year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of St. Ignatius’ transformation from Ignatius the soldier into Ignatius the pilgrim. ANDY HAMILTON SJ reflects on the events that led Ignatius to find the space to listen to God’s call for him and, ultimately, to found the Jesuits.

In our work at Jesuit Social Services we are constantly reminded how important apparently trivial events can be in people’s lives. A domestic dispute or an unexpected kindness can change a young person’s life.

That lesson is written large in the story of St Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits. May 20 marks the 500th anniversary of an unfortunate but not life-ending incident in his life. He had a small part in defending a castle in Pamploma in Spain. It was one of many forgotten incidents in a struggle by the local kingdom of Navarre to resist the Spanish King in his attempt to unify the country.

In the battle, Ignatius’ leg was struck and broken by a ricocheting cannon ball. His injury led to the inevitable surrender of the castle. For the wounded knight it also led to a long convalescence which changed the direction of his life and shaped the church and world that we inherit.

The key to this change lay in the history and the inner life of the injured man himself. He was a representative of his age – with high aspirations, his heart set on life at court, on military prowess, achievement in war, on falling in love, on public esteem and on rising in society. He was a doer and a goer, always at the centre of things. Being laid up with a busted leg that out of vanity he had had rebroken, with nothing to dream about but jousting and lovemaking, with nothing to read about but the extraordinary lives of saints, was not part of his plan. He found himself dreaming about these opposing ways of life. And crucially, he began to reflect both on his dreams and on his life, and then to reflect on his reflections.

In this process he found what mattered most to him. And he put his discovery into action. As he devoted all his energies to following God’s calling, he went to the margins of his society to open this reflective way of life to others. He lived as a beggar who in the marketplaces engaged people in conversation that led them to reflect on their own lives. When the religious authorities stopped him from doing this because of his lack of qualifications, he went to Paris to study. There he gathered around him a group of fellow students whom he also taught to reflect on their lives and to ask where God was leading them. Their shared journey led them to a failed attempt to work in Jerusalem, and eventually to form a religious congregation characterised by its gift for spiritual conversation and by its treasuring of Ignatius’ way to a reflective life.

They also went to the margins of society to find what mattered – to India, Japan, Ethiopia and to conflicted areas of Europe. They worked in hospitals and on the streets. Ignatius himself sponsored a home for prostitutes, and persisted with it in the face of slander and the risk of reputational damage.

Ignatius’ experience lies at the heart of the Ignatian tradition that Jesuit Social Services has inherited. The reflectiveness and boldness that led him to focus resolutely on what matters is also central to our way of working. We are called to seek out the people who most need our help, to help them also to find what they want most deeply in life, and to reflect constantly on our own way of working to ensure that we continue to serve faithfully and effectively.

We do not know what happened to the canon ball which bounced off the castle wall on to Ignatius’ leg. But its apparently accidental path remains an image of Ignatius’ own change of trajectory, one to which he brought all his natural gifts of leadership and persistence. He harnessed these to the radical new life he discovered through reflection on where God was leading him. In doing that he has left us a tradition and a challenge.