May 20, 2021—the 500th anniversary of the date a cannonball hit Iñigo de Loyola and forever changed his life—the Society of Jesus and the Ignatian family will start a worldwide celebration: the Ignatian Year. This jubilee will include March 12, 2022, (the 400th anniversary of the canonization of St. Ignatius of Loyola and St. Francis Xavier), and end with St. Ignatius’s feast day on July 31, 2022.
Father Arturo Sosa, Superior General of the Society of Jesus, has said, “It is my hope and desire that we can work together among the entire Ignatian family to celebrate this year, rediscover our roots, and thus renew ourselves and our outlook to the world.” He has called the Ignatian Year an opportunity for people today to have an experience of conversion—to consider the “cannonball moments” in our own lives, through which we might hear God calling us to transform our own mission. The theme of the celebration is “to see all things new in Christ.” Activities will aim to deepen the Ignatian family’s understanding of and focus on the Universal Apostolic Preferences—the preferences that orient the Society of Jesus toward areas that are vital for our world today.
WHAT IS A CANNONBALL MOMENT?
Sometimes epiphanies come from unexpected moments, and a perceived failure prompts a new way of life. Such was the case for Ignatius. In what is now known as his “cannonball moment,” Ignatius experienced a calamity that marked the beginning of a new purpose—a spiritual journey of conversion to follow Christ more closely, and, ultimately, a catalyst to establish the Society of Jesus.
THE STORY IN BRIEF
From the time he was young, Ignatius had been a vain courtier seeking military prowess, excitement, material wealth, and glory. While he was a practicing Catholic, he fashioned himself more as a soldier and a ladies’ man—an ambitious knight on the move in sixteenth-century Europe.
That was until the Battle of Pamplona. While fighting for the Spanish against a French army, Ignatius—who was by then a captain of infantry—convinced some compatriots that they must hold out, even though the cause was hopeless and most others had given up. Then, after a six hour bombardment, an event took place that would change Ignatius’s life forever: a cannonball shattered one of his knees and severely wounded the other.
Fortunately, the French admired his courage. Instead of taking him to prison, they treated his injuries and carried him to the castle of Loyola. When doctors realized his leg was not healing properly, they broke it again and reset it. By this point, his strength began to fail, and he received last rites. Amazingly, he survived.
But all was still not well. Because of the way his bones settled, one protruded below the knee. He “could not bear this,” according to his autobiography, “since he intended to live a life at court.” So, he asked for the bone to be cut off.
Although the doctors warned Ignatius that “it would cause him more suffering than all that had preceded,” vanity prevailed, and he endured the torture.
As Ignatius recovered, he became bored and restless and asked for some romance novels to pass the time. All that could be found were The Life of Christ and Flowers of the Saints. While these readings caused him to meditate more on holy things, he still returned to “what he should do in honor of an illustrious lady.”
This doesn’t sound like the St. Ignatius we know today, does it?
But God works patiently. Those readings about the life of Jesus and the saints began to make inroads into Ignatius’s way of thinking.
As his autobiography tells us, eventually his “eyes were opened to the vanity of life and the reality of eternity compared with the worldliness of the life he had been leading…”
His transformation was underway, and the question was now how to live out his new purpose. He set off by himself, first as an ascetic in Spain and then as a pilgrim to the Holy Land. Forced to go home by the authorities in Jerusalem, however, his second career evaporated.
Ignatius was persistent, though. As he says in his autobiography, after learning “that it was God’s will that he should not stay in Jerusalem, he pondered in his heart what he should do and finally decided to study for a time in order to be able to help souls.”
He began with elementary grammar lessons and moved on to studies at the universities of Alcalá and Salamanca. Eventually, he came to study at the University of Paris, where he met fellow students, including Peter Faber and Francis Xavier, who would become the first members of the Society of Jesus.
“It took many setbacks, crises, and challenges to form St. Ignatius out of Iñigo de Loyola,” Fr. Brian Paulson, SJ, provincial of the Midwest Jesuits, says. “But his cannonball moment had an impact with great significance, not only for Ignatius, or even the Jesuits, but for all who have drawn from Ignatian spirituality in their own faith journey, and for the Church at large. What perhaps is most important for us at this time, however, is the idea that we can all experience events which trigger a form of conversion, a desire to see things new in Christ. In short, anyone can be hit by a cannonball.”
Amy Korpi, a freelance writer with two degrees from Marquette University, is now based in Green Bay, Wisconsin. She has been working with the Jesuits since 1998.