Now, 451 years after his death, the work of St. Ignatius of Loyola continues to exert an influence on the world, not only because of his founding of the Jesuits, the largest male religious order in the world, but from his writing of the Spiritual Exercises, a guide for retreatants looking to discern the will of God in their lives.
One aspect of this Spanish-born saint that many are only beginning to appreciate, says Ignazio Michael Bellafiore, is that he was also a great mystic.
"He was so attuned to the presence of God in all things, a spider crawling along the wall could send him into a trance. Three objects of anything would remind him of the Trinity. And he had a tremendous devotion to the Eucharist."
Bellafiore, a native Rhode Islander currently at the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley in his 10th year of study as a Jesuit scholastic, could well be the man who will help to make the story of Ignatius even more widely known.
Back in 1996, while Bellafiore was working on a master's degree in philosophy from Loyola University in Chicago, the rector of the Jesuit community asked him to put together a brief skit in which he would play Ignatius for a class of incoming freshmen. His performance was so striking that the Jesuits asked him expand it into a full-blown play. To make it all the more authentic, they sent him off to Europe so he could have a better feel for all the places in Spain, France, and Italy where the saint had lived.
The result was a one-man show that Bellafiore, now 41, has taken to Jesuit high schools, colleges and parishes all over the country and which has now been made into a soon-to-be-released video, Ignatius Loyola: the Story of the Pilgrim.
As with Ignatius himself, Bellafiore, who has also taught at Boston College High School in Dorchester, did not start out thinking he would ever enter religious life. Upon his graduation from La Salle Academy in 1977, he went off to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he studied literature and was part of the Shakespeare ensemble. After his graduation from there, he want off to Catholic University of America to study play writing.
He eventually found his way back to his home town of Cranston to work with his father, Gaspare Bellafiore, in his father's hearing-aid business. When his father died, Ignatius Michael knew he faced some decisions. "I was coming to the point where I knew I just had to ask God what he wanted of me, instead of trying to figure it out on my own."
The conversion was perhaps not as dramatic as the one that visited Ignatius of Loyola. In 1521, during a battle against the French, the 30-year-old Spanish officer was hit by a cannon ball that wounded one leg and broke the other. He was carried to back to his castle in Loyola, where he ordered doctors to break his leg again and reset it again because it had not healed. (For the rest of his life he would walk with a limp, because one leg would be shorter than the other.)
The story is that during his long weeks of recuperation, Ignatius hoped to find some romance novels to occupy his time. But the only thing available was a book on the life of Christ and another on the lives of the saints. Ignatius began to consider that the saints' lives were well worth imitating, making him feel more peaceful than when he turned to worldly concerns.
Turning away from his old desires and plans for romance, Ignatius left his castle for the Benedictine shrine of Our Lady of Montserrat, where he dropped his sword and knife and gave away his fine clothes to live as a poor man.
Bellafiore says that in gathering material for his play, he visited the place in Barcelona where Ignatius used to beg, and the town of Manressa where standing alongside the river, Ignatius experienced a "mystical illumination" that gave birth to his understanding of the presence of God in all things.
The experience provided that basis for his Spiritual Exercises, used by retreat groups around the world, and provided Ignatius with a new apostolic zeal. In time, he would make a visit to the Holy Land, then under Turkish occupation, before returning to Spain.