Ignatius on Ideal Qualities in Jesuits (1551)

In 1551, Urbano Fernandes, the newly appointed rector of the scholasticate at Coimbra and the successor there of Simão Rodrigues, had proposed a number of questions having to do with the performance of his office. In this letter, Juan Alfonso de Polanco writes on Ignatius’s behalf and sends his understanding of Ignatius’s mind on the matters inquired about. Besides the perennial question of letters to Rome, these include the qualities sought for admission to the Society, obedience, mortifications, prayer, subjects of study, indifference, differences of opinion, purity of intention, and the observance of rules.

For more sources from Ignatius, please visit the Letters of Ignatius of Loyola.




In this letter I shall reply, dear Father, to yours of March 8. First of all, as regards Our Father’s wishes about writing, you should understand that he does not wish to be supplied only with edifying news and the spiritual fruits reaped in confessions, sermons, etc.; it will suffice to give these things in a letter every four months (as has been written) and there is no need to treat them in detail in a monthly letter. Rather, what he wants to be informed about is whatever, as far as possible, he ought to know in order to fulfill more effectively the responsibility which God has given him. However, since there are countless small matters which one could write endlessly about and which can be sufficiently taken care of through the action of local superiors and provincials, Our Father would like to be given information about things that are of greater importance and present greater difficulty. Thus, he wishes to be kept informed of the number of the brethren and the names of those who enter, leave, or are dismissed; and for this he has asked that a list be sent every four months with their names and qualifications. Once we have a full list here, it will suffice afterwards to mention any changes over the preceding four months.

He would also like to know anything special about the brethren’s mode of proceeding in their studies and spiritual progress, such as whether anyone is notably agitated by this or that significant temptation, and what means are used with him; similarly regarding those who are moving forward securely and strongly in God’s service. It would be good to mention briefly the mortifications being used to cure various attachments, and what success these have—speaking in a general way or with only a brief delaying upon details. Mention should be made of those who are progressing and distinguishing themselves more than others in the doctrine and grace of preaching; of those who are in readiness to be sent to various places, having completed the ordinary course of study; of those who, without having completed [those studies], are sent out temporarily as an experiment or to satisfy some request that could not be denied; and so also of other things which I have mentioned in a memorial which I gave to Father Brandão and of which I think I sent you a copy, or will send one along with this.

As for your request that you be sent some “maxims” for government, etc., I find myself unqualified to speak even of “minima.” However, may the Holy Spirit, whose “anointing teaches all things” to those who dispose themselves to receive his holy light, particularly regarding the responsibilities of one’s office, instruct Your Reverence; and I am confident that he will, seeing that he gives you so much eagerness to do what is right for his greater service. Nevertheless, in order to say at least something of what I have been able to understand of Our Father’s mind and mode of proceeding, I observe, first of all, that he desires members who are fit for something, who have a natural vigor and aptitude either for the study and practice of letters or for helping in external religious works; and they should not lack competence for either the one or the other. Moreover, he will sooner take one who gives hope of distinguishing himself in these external matters of service, even if he is not for letters, rather than one with no inclination or aptitude for external matters and poor ability for letters, though he has some such ability.

2. He wishes that they be past boyhood and of a height which I here indicate, with exceptions being made for rare gifts or extraordinary cases. As a rule, they should have a decent outward appearance, because of the dealings with the neighbor required by our Institute and manner of life. Hence, do not be satisfied with persons of bad external appearance unless they have other rare gifts from God which can compensate for this and perhaps even render it edifying.

3. He is unwilling to accept persons not fully grown, youths, for example, if their bodily health is poor. With persons of learning or particularly good judgment, he is more tolerant of poor health: even half-dead, such persons can be useful.

4. As for those already admitted, I notice that the one thing he strives the most to have truly observed and is most pained to see not observed (I do not refer to mortal sins, which it is supposed are absent) is obedience—an obedience that extends not merely to execution but even to making the superior’s will one’s own and thinking the same as he in whatever one cannot positively affirm to be sinful. He considers obedience imperfect when the subject rests content with doing what is commanded and with willing to do it, and does not also think that it is the right thing to do, overcoming his own judgment and making it captive to holy obedience—always to the degree, I mean, that the will’s writ extends to the understanding, as in cases where there is no compelling evidence, etc. Hardheaded persons who occasion upset and turmoil to others, even in slight matters, he does not tolerate.

5. With regard to mortifications, I notice that he prefers and values more highly those that touch honor and self-esteem rather than those which afflict the flesh, such as fasts, disciplines, and hairshirts. Regarding these, he seems not only not to apply the spurs, but actually to rein in persons who are not experiencing troublesome or dangerous assaults of the flesh—particularly students, who, so long as they are making progress in learning and virtue with no notable harm, he is more inclined to leave to their studies, holding that the better time for mortifications is before beginning their studies or after completing them.

6. As to prayer and meditation, except where there is a special need because of bothersome or dangerous temptations, as I said earlier, I notice that he approves endeavoring to find God in everything one does rather than spending long blocks of time on prayer. This is the spirit he desires to see in members of the Society: that, if possible, they should find no less devotion in any work of charity or obedience than in prayer or meditation. For they should not be doing anything at all except for the love and service of God our Lord, and each one should find greater satisfaction in doing what he is commanded, because he can then have no doubt that he is conforming himself to the will of God our Lord.

7. He desires in the members of the Society a surrender of their own wills and an indifference toward whatever they may be commanded. This indifference he signifies by an old man’s staff, which lets itself be moved entirely at his will, or by a dead body, which goes without resistance wherever it is carried. And although he normally inquires about a person’s inclinations—for example, for studies or for some other kind of service—he is nevertheless happier sending to studies those who have no particular preference for anything but doing the will of God our Lord as interpreted by obedience, than he would be if they had a great inclination for studies.

8. As to studies, he uniformly wishes that all be well grounded in grammar and the humanities, especially if age and inclination are in one’s favor. After that, he excludes no kind of approved learning, not poetry, rhetoric, logic, natural philosophy, ethics, metaphysics, or mathematics—especially, as I said, for those who have the proper age and ability. For he is happy to see the Society furnished with all possible arms for building up the neighbor, so long as those who possess them are ready to employ them or not as shall be judged best.

9. As to opinions, so far as possible he wants no divergences among members of the Society even in more important speculative matters, and all the more so in practical matters. Moreover, he makes much use of having a person set aside his own judgment and permit himself to be judged by others in cases where a person shows himself more stubborn than he should be.

10. As to intention, he would like all to have a very upright intention of seeking God’s glory in their soul, body, and every operation, and of seeking earnestly to help souls, one by this means and another by that, one by himself and another by assisting other persons to do it, always looking more to the universal than to the particular good.

11. Concerning those who are assigned to something, such as studies, for which they are suited but which is unsuitable for them, I observe that Our Father’s practice is to remove them from it; he considers it more important that they advance in virtue than in learning when the two things prove incompatible. He has thus withdrawn a number of men from studies because they were restless and not benefiting spiritually. The same would apply to practical activities.

12. As for strictness regarding observance of the house rules, I do not find that he employs it with those who fail to keep them for so special reason, such as ill health or occupations. In fact, he frequently makes exceptions as discretion requires. He does make those who are not so excepted observe the rules, and gives certain penances to those who do not as a reminder and warning to others who do not keep them. For since there is no sin in not keeping them and it is right that they should be kept, there needs to be some sort of penalty for those who do not. With less substantial rules the penalty is lighter, and in general it is not harsh unless some point of obedience or other matter of greater importance is involved.

This will have to do for a letter. Our Father’s Constitutions, which we hope to be able to send you soon, will have more to say on everything.

No more for now, except to commend myself to the prayers of Your Reverence and of all our dear brothers.

Rome, June 1, 1551

Your Reverence’s servant in Christ,


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