Feb. 5 (Providence)--He began as a sometimes vain, ill-tempered and contentious man, a soldier and royal courtier with an eye for noble ladies of the court, who went on to become one of the Catholic Church's most illustrious saints.

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."

Bellafiore remembers the key moment quite well. In 1991, while the nation was in the midst of the Gulf War, the Diocese of Providence had called on Catholics to join in a week of prayer and fasting. During that week, Bellafiore went to pray at one of the designated sites, St. Francis of Assisi Church in Warwick, where participants were asked to pray for an increase in priestly vocations. It was while kneeling and praying before the Eucharist, he says, that he received his "call."

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.

After his attempts there at teaching others got him into trouble with the Spanish Inquisition, he traveled to Paris, where he met the men who would become his companions, Peter Farber and Francis Xavier.

"They made a vow to go to Jerusalem to serve as poor priests in the Holy Land, or if that was not possible, to go to the pope, because, as the Vicar of Christ, he would know best where they should serve," Bellafiore recalls.

Very "humbling"

As it was, the group made their way to Italy, and since chances of going to the Holy Land had dimmed, placed themselves at the disposal of the pope. The following year, 1540, Pope Paul III formally approved their new Society of Jesus, a religious order that would soon be at the vanguard of the Catholic Church's own renewal efforts to counter the effects of the Protestant Reformation.

The pope's "shock troops," as the Jesuits would sometimes be called, would dedicate themselves to spreading the Spiritual Exercises and to bringing the teachings of Christianity to schools, colleges, and universities around the world.

Bellafiore, whose mother, Nina, still lives in Cranston, and who has 16 months to go before ordination, said he found it very "humbling" to have had the opportunity to play Ignatius and to bring his life to people all over. Last year, he had asked TV producer Richard Leach, the original producer of the Barney series, for help in producing the video. Leach, who also produced a three-part series on the Vatican that aired on PBS last fall, offered his enthusiastic support and donated the use of his production crew. The resulting video is being distributed by Loyola Press and should be available at religious bookstores starting this month, at $21.95.

The Jesuit scholastic says that one of his biggest hopes is that, through the play and video, people would come to know Ignatius's qualities as a person, and "how grace transformed him from someone who was strongly centered on his own will, to someone working to do the will of God."

Even now, he says, he feels moved by Ignatius's apostolic zeal and his "cosmic vision" of what it means to be a Christian and an evangelist.

"The more I learn about him, the more the mystery of his life opens up to me, he says."

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