- Ignacio de Loyola by Enrique García Hernán
Writing a new biography of St. Ignatius Loyola requires great courage and scholarly fortitude, as well as gumption, for there are more than thirty major biographies and thousands of original documents to wade through, including more than 7000 letters written by Ignatius himself. Moreover, there is an additional daunting challenge to take into account: the fact that in these first few years of the twenty-first century, seven new biographies of Ignatius have already appeared.
Given this situation, every reader and reviewer is forced to question the need for yet another biography. What is truly new here? What does this biography have to offer that others have not? How does it interpret Ignatius for our age?
This biography by prolific author Enrique García Hernán is part of the Eminent Spaniards series (Españoles Eminentes). As such, its approach to Ignatius is historical rather than hagiographical, and its main focus is the Spanish context of the saint’s life and work rather than the inner workings of the early Jesuit order.
Not surprisingly, García Hernán pays a great deal of attention to those years when Ignatius lived in Spain, and one of the distinguishing features of his narrative is the way in which he traces the evolution of a brawling, womanizing Basque courtier and soldier named Iñigo—who seemed destined for relative obscurity—into the towering figure now known as St. Ignatius, one of the most important leaders of the Catholic Reformation.
Another distinguishing characteristic of García Hernán’s approach is his consistent focus on the people who helped shape Ignatius’s character and made his accomplishments possible. This Ignatius is a master at networking, and this is a biography full of mini-biographies. In other words, the life of the central figure is never viewed in isolation: Iñigo evolves into St. Ignatius in response to a very specific environment, in symbiosis with the lives of those around him.
This is not to say that the biography lacks balance, but rather to call attention to its unique emphasis. The amount of detail provided here is considerable, sometimes even overwhelming. This is a book written with experts in mind, not neophytes [End Page 636] or a wide reading public, not even in Spain or the Spanish-speaking world. The research is as impressive as it is exemplary, and the narrative is beautifully crafted, even though the attention paid to figures other than Ignatius can sometimes seem more distracting than illuminating.
The Ignatius portrayed in this book is a complex figure, with a life shaped by contradictions. A consummate negotiator, immensely flexible and adaptable, and something of a genius when it comes to attracting followers, Iñigo nonetheless stumbles often and makes plenty of enemies, even after he begins to call himself Ignatius. A man who had a formidable coterie of female followers known as iñigas and whose spirituality and religious thought were shaped by some beatas (holy women), Ignatius ends up barring women from his religious order. García Hernán pegs Iñigo as a quasi-heretic—an alumbrado—who managed to escape unscathed from several encounters with the Inquisition. He also correctly portrays Ignatius as an innovator who never fully convinced everyone during his lifetime that he and his Society of Jesus were truly Catholic.
García Hernán sums up his complex Ignatius as follows:
he knew how to find a via media between the dialectical extremes that were so much a part of his life and times. … and to some extent, he figured out how to be an Erasmian alumbrado and at the same time a staunch supporter of the Roman hierarchy. …(p. 448)
Some devotees might have difficulty recognizing this Ignatius, who is not portrayed as a saint or mystic, but as a man of his age whose shortcomings were outweighed not so much by his holiness as by his peculiar genius for networking, negotiating, organizing, managing, and leading...