Y lo quiero conocer… St Ignatius of Loyola and his Relationship with Women

By Maria Teresa Morgan*

I have been pondering why Ignatius of Loyola insists on showing up in my life. I have informed him that I am acquainted with him through my studies and teaching, adding that I have spoken up in defense of the Society of Jesus since 2013, when, after Francis’ election as Pope, negative comments have populated certain pious milieus. But perhaps Ignatius deems these nods as too casual. I remind him that being married to a man educated by the Jesuits I have absorbed Jesuit influences through my 32 years of marriage. I have also let Ignatius know that by now I am comfortable with my saints and Carmelite spirituality is stamped all over my life; I am not looking for a change. It’s all to no avail, Ignatius keeps interrupting, capturing my imagination as to the why of his persistence. 
While wondering if these Ignatian encounters were a figment of my fancy, I found out in October that mine is not an unusual experience. My Seminarian students told me that young adults refer to this phenomenon as “a stalker saint”. They directed me to a website that offers guidelines as to what to do in case you encounter a “stalker saint”. Among the recommendations given is to get to know him or her.” Thus, in honor of the Ignatian year that the Father General of the Jesuits has declared commemorating the 500th anniversary of his canonization, I proposed to get to know Ignatius in his relationship with women. This reflection is the token I offer to him and to the many women who cared for, befriended and collaborated with him in his ministry, who supported him financially and advocated for him and for the Jesuit order both in the Hapsburg court and in Rome. 


When asked about the role of women in the life of St Ignatius and in the early days of the Society, W. Norris Clarke, S.J. responded “they never told us about that!”
(Joan L. Roccasalvo, C.S.J., Catholic News Agency, July 31, 2012). A long awaited acknowledgement of their vital involvement was provided in 1956 by Hugo Rahner, S.J., in his volume St Ignatius of Loyola; Letters to Women (trans by Kathleen Pond, SHA Weetman: Freiburg, Herder, 1970; New York, Crossroad, 2007), a work that since then has given rise to numerous studies on the saint’s relationship with women, providing rich insights into the historical context of the crucial impact of women in the early days of the Society of Jesus. Rahner’s volume compiles the letters of St Ignatius written to women (89) as well as their letters to him (50), acknowledging that there were probably more that are no longer extant. Rahner divides the139 letters into five categories: 17 to royal ladies, 17 to noble ladies, 30 to benefactresses, 41 to spiritual daughters, 8 to mothers of fellow Jesuits, and 26 to women who were his friends. Ignatius of Loyola’s multifaceted relationships are rich with admonitions, counsels, affection, condolences, details of daily life, respect, listening, gratitude, advice on marriage, comfort given and comfort received. Rahner’s carefully researched notes provide valuable contextualization and broaden the reader’s understanding not only of the circumstances in which the letters were written but also of the personality of the Saint and those of his correspondents. What follows are mere brushstrokes attempting to convey the fascinating webs of relationships between Ignatius and women revealed in Rahner’s 565 pages.  
The starting point of the narrative signals the role a woman played with two gifts: a painting and a book, for, as James W. Reites points out, that’s how it all began (James W. Reites, Ignatius and Ministry with Women, theway.org.uk.). On her wedding day, Ignatius’ sister in law, Doña Magdalena de Araoz received a picture of Mary from Queen Isabel de Castilla. The painting was taken to the chapel in the castle of Ignatius family and is reported to have had a strong influence in the religious formation (and imagination, I may add) of the saint: “In the life of the author of the Exercises, Doña Magdalena’s picture of the Virgin had the first place, long before those of Olaz, Aranzazu and Montserrat.” (Pedro de Leturia: “Damas vascas en la formación y transformación de Iñigo de Loyola” Rome: Institutum Historicum S.I., 1957, cited by Rahner, 116). The second gift is also from Magdalena de Araoz, who not only cared for Ignatius during his convalescence from the wounds inflicted in the Battle of Pamplona but also tended to his broken spirit by providing him with the Spanish translation of The Life of Jesus and the Legends of the Saints by Ludolph the Carthusian (Rahner, 116) a work that, as we know, served as catalyst to Ignatius’ conversion. 


It is of note that the first extant letter of St Ignatius is to a woman, Inés Pascual. Rahner highlights the formative contrast of this early relationship between the still somewhat Romantic Pilgrim of Holy Poverty and the practical housewife of Manresa (Rahner, 173). As a wealthy Catalan widow she supported him not only at Manresa but also at Barcelona and in Paris. His letters to her express an abiding respect and gratitude. It is touching to read how he advises his benefactress that Our Lord wants her to live with Him in joy and to practice self care “giving her body whatever is necessary for it”(MI 1 171-3, Cited by Rahner, 177).  
It would seem no coincidence that the last letter written by Ignatius is also to a woman, Doña Leonor Mascarenhas, a close friend of the wife of St. Francis Borgia and of Isabel, consort of emperor Charles V. At a young age Doña Leonor became the governess of the future Phillip II and of the Infanta Juana, who was to become the queen regent during Phillip II’s 5-year stay in England due to his marriage to Mary Tudor. Ignatius had known Doña Leonor since 1527and her steadfast devotion and assistance together with the patronage her important role afforded, gained for her the title of “Mother of the Society of Jesus.” Ignatius appealed to Doña Leonor to intervene at a critical moment when the Archbishop of Toledo Juan Martínez Siliceo sought to suppress the work of the Society (Rahner 426-27). In his commentaries of Ignatius letters, Hugo Rahner warns us not to expect the graced elegance and “entrancing brilliance” of Teresa of Avila’s letters to women of the nobility, reminding us that as a Basque, Ignatius was laconic and restrained in his language and displays of affection (Rahner, 7). However, I find that his words are quite tender at times, for instance, shortly before he died he wrote to Doña Leonor in 1556, “How much I have had you and still have you in my inmost soul – and would do so still in the future – if possible (Rahner, 430). In this same letter, written on his deathbed, we notice Ignatius’ attentiveness to details such as sending Doña Leonor the gift of two Agnus Dei and then, as if having second thoughts, telling Dona Leonor he is sending her 8 more, since he had received additional gifts.  


Worthy of mention is an interesting piece of Jesuit history. As previously stated, Juana, daughter of Emperor Charles V was appointed by her father as queen regent during Philip II’s absence. Juana comes down in history as the only woman Jesuit. The cryptic correspondence between Ignatius and the Jesuits of Spain relevant to Juana’s desire to become a Jesuit used the code name of “Mateo Sanchez.” Ignatius accepted her into the Society and she went as far as taking the vows of a scholastic (Rahner, 55-60). This Hapsburg woman (as well as her sister Maria, wife of Emperor Maximilian) became an indispensable advocate for the Jesuits in the Hapsburg court in view of her father’s disapproval of the Society. She also intervened to quell the riots against the Jesuits in Saragosa and defended the Society against the attacks of the formidable Dominican Melchior Cano (Rahner, 59).
Ignatius relationship with Isabel Roser is an unusual one. Rahner’s volume records 9 exchanged correspondences between them. Early on Isabel became a valued benefactress to Ignatius and the Society prompting these words from St Ignatius: “for to you I owe more than to anyone I know in this life” (letter of 1532, Rahner, 265). But fifteen years after their initial meeting their relationship soured over the matter of establishing a women’s branch of the Society of Jesus. Isabel was a capable, energetic and strong woman, who often displayed the shadow side of her gifts. Their relationship was already strained when, unbeknown to Ignatius, Isabel obtained a command from Pope Paul III requiring Ignatius to accept her vows (Rahner, 285). The problems that resulted from Isabel’s increasingly controlling and imposing ways became so disruptive that Ignatius petitioned Paul III to reverse the order. A relentless embroilment in disputes about inheritance, monies, lawsuits and accusations ensued, ending with Ignatius formal letter breaking with his former friend and benefactress. Pained and wishing that things had turned otherwise Ignatius wrote: “The Devil has sown tares here” (Rahner, 290). The eventual reconciliation between Ignatius and Isabel is described by Rahner as “a transfiguring sunset glow after all these storms” (Rahner, 291).


An interesting project of Ignatius was the reform of the moral life of Rome, a city teeming with prostitutes at that time. For that purpose, he founded the Casa Santa Marta, funded and run by women friends and benefactresses of Ignatius. Doña Leonor de Osorio, wife of the Spanish Imperial ambassador to Rome had direct access to the Pope and played a key role as collaborator in this ministry, becoming also a staunch advocate for its continuance. The House of St Martha provided a safe haven for endangered women; there they received assistance, education and training so that they would have opportunities other than prostitution. There they also encountered a love and safety that they had never known and became deeply grateful and devoted to Ignatius and to the dedicated women running Saint Martha (Rahner, 18). The foundation, as one might imagine, met with fierce opposition. Not only did the papal postmaster general and his wife sue to close St Martha (probably because the mistress of a high placed official had taken refuge there), but a Franciscan friar, Valentino Barbarán, also complained to the Pope regarding the existence of such a house and said that “all Jesuits living between Perpignan and Seville ought to be sent to the stake.” To which Ignatius replied: “Tell the Reverend Fray Barbarán I wish that he and all his friends and acquaintances, not only between Perpignan and Seville, but throughout the whole world, may be seized and consumed by the fire of the Holy Ghost” (Rahner, 19). Pedro Ribadeneira noted that while St Martha was being established in Rome, “Ignatius made a habit of accompanying them (the prostitutes) in the public street… It was a wondrous sight to see the holy old man running before a young and pretty street- girl, in order to save her from the clutches of the most cruel tyrant…” (Rahner, 436).
I would not want to close without also honoring St Teresa of Avila, St Philip Neri and St Francis Xavier, who were canonized together with St Ignatius of Loyola. For all other enthralling matters about Ignatius of Loyola and his relationship with women that are here omitted due to limits of space and time, I refer the reader to my primary source, Ignatius of Loyola; Letters to Women by Hugo Rahner, S.J.  


The detailed task of gathering and sifting information for this article was often overtaken by the quiet joy of getting to know Ignatius of Loyola in a personal way. I met the women in his life, their generosity and desire to collaborate in his ministry, their all too human stories. Among the newly acquired and most enjoyable perspectives about Ignatius was that he had been a page, affording him valuable experience in dealing with the influential people of this world; that he seemed to have a fondness for receiving and giving Agnus Deis; I learned about Ignatius’ wit, about his fighting spirit, one not easily cowed by the tangle of oppositions from the powerful that most of his work encountered, an area where strong women advocates in court and in Rome helped him the most; I learned about his compassion for the afflicted and the unfortunate. The most poignant image that remains with me is that of Ignatius, as an old man, accompanying prostitutes in the streets of Rome in order to protect them from their masters. I admire the witness of his reconciliation with Isabel Roser after the bitterness of their tumultuous rupture. It is in the seemingly trivial details gathered from his correspondence that one glimpses his humanity: while involved in the work of spiritual direction and the myriad trials of the early days of the Society, one is surprised by his engagement in the “quotidian mysteries” of every day which is where life usually takes place for us. Most of all, I am grateful for Ignatius’ deliberate presence in my life, for leading me to this research so I could know him better as well as the women who were part of his story. At the end, I am left pondering his words: “Porque la escritura queda y da siempre testimonio.” We are the privileged recipients of this, his living witness.

*Maria Teresa Morgan, Assistant Professor of Theology St. John Vianney College Seminary; D. Min Barry university; M.A. and B.A St. John’s University.
Professor Morgan is a resident columnist of El Ignaciano.