At the University of Paris in 1529, Pierre Favre, Francisco Xavier, and Iñigo de Loyola began sharing a room. They went on to change the world.
Early 16th-century Paris was a time of major changes. Influenced by the discovery of the Americas and an ongoing European Renaissance, the culture began embodying the new values of a modern world. Economies were shifting, and a time of scientific innovation was dawning. Stirred by the advent of the printing press, information spread with hitherto unmatched ease. Similar to how the Internet is influencing our times, mass-produced printed materials fueled a new level of literacy, as publications of the Bible, theological concepts, and philosophical musings blew a spirit of inquiry through the Church. Long before electricity had been discovered and harnessed, the urban landscape of what would one day be called the City of Lights took on a new energy.
This was the city into which Iñigo Lopez de Oñaz y Loyola (Ignatius of Loyola) trekked, on fire with a desire to attend the University of Paris and expand his own intellectual and spiritual horizons. He was assigned to a room with two younger men—Pierre Favre (Peter Faber) and Francisco de Isaau de Xavier (Francis Xavier). The friendship of these three college roommates would profoundly affect the times in which they lived and all the centuries since.
Historians usually search for deep causes of developments that reshape the world, but sometimes luck or chance play the major role.
Such was the case in 1525 when fate, fortune, or maybe the mysterious working of divine providence assigned Pierre Favre and Francisco Xavier to the same room at the University of Paris, which they shared until 1536. A third roommate, Iñigo de Loyola, joined them for six years (1529-35) until returning to Spain.
From their relationship, the Society of Jesus arose. The blessings that have flowed from this event reach down to our day and affect more than half the nations of our world. St. Francisco Xavier and Blessed Pierre Favre were both born in 1506, so this is the 500th anniversary of their births. St. Ignatius of Loyola died 450 years ago, in 1556. We celebrate all three of these anniversaries in 2006.
In 1534, the three roommates and four friends celebrated Mass in a chapel atop Montmarte. All seven took a vow to work for souls in Jerusalem.
Of peasant origins, Favre worked as a shepherd in the hill country of Savoy in his youth and was fortunate to receive an excellent education in the cities of Thônes and La Roche, both near his home village of Villaret. His training included Latin, Greek, philosophy, and some theology—a fine combination for success at Europe’s finest university. A degree from Paris would open many doors for a peasant lad. An accomplished student, and almost certainly more learned than his more famous roommates, he helped Loyola grapple with the Greek text of Aristotle. Loyola more than returned the favor.
Favre was a devout student but tortured by scruples till Loyola opened his eyes to see and rejoice in the God of mercy and forgiveness. After returning to Paris from a seven-month visit to Villaret, Favre spent 30 days in 1534 on retreat making the Spiritual Exercises under the direction of Loyola, their originator. Favre was ordained a priest in May of the same year and became a superb director of retreats. St. Peter Canisius made the Spiritual Exercises under Favre’s direction in 1541 and wrote, “Never have I seen nor heard such a learned or profound theologian, nor a man of such shining and exalted virtue…. I can hardly describe how the Spiritual Exercises transformed my soul and senses…I feel changed into a new man.”
Xavier and Favre made an odd pair. Favre was a peasant, pious and studious; Xavier was a Basque nobleman—dark haired, tall, a fine athlete, outgoing. Noblemen of that era seldom took university degrees, but Xavier had few career opportunities in Spain since his family had fought against Charles V during the same French invasion in which Loyola was wounded. This undoubtedly influenced Xavier’s decision to seek an academic career in Paris. While Favre was pious, Xavier was worldly, so Loyola, who wanted to recruit others to serve God, needed a different strategy to win over Xavier. Loyola attended some classes in philosophy taught by Xavier at the College of St. Bauvais and helped pay some of his debts. Several accounts relate that he kept asking Xavier the question of Jesus: “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and suffer the loss of his soul?”
Gradually Loyola won Favre and Xavier over to his own plan to spend their lives in Jerusalem working for souls. Once won over, Xavier, with his usual enthusiasm, wanted to cancel his three-year commitment to teach at Paris. Loyola and Favre dissuaded him, but as a result he could not devote 30 days to making the Spiritual Exercises until late 1534.
Meanwhile Loyola was winning other gifted students to his Jerusalem plan. On the feast of the Assumption 1534, the three roommates plus four new companions (Diego Laínez, Alfonso Salmerón, Simón Rodrigues, and Nicolás Alonso Bobadilla) climbed up to a chapel atop Montmarte in central Paris. Favre, the only priest among them, celebrated a Mass at which all seven took a vow to work for souls in Jerusalem. From these seven companions sprang the Society of Jesus, the religious order of priests and brothers commonly called the Jesuits. Loyola always regarded the original seven as the Society’s co-founders.
Loyola returned to Spain while the others completed their academic degrees and recruited three more students for the Jerusalem project.
They gathered at Venice in 1537, where all but the previously ordained Favre and Salmerón became priests.
Again chance and luck intervened. Bad luck: War between Venice and the Ottoman Empire (which controlled Palestine) broke out. There would be no ship to Palestine. Good luck: The Turks would never have allowed 10 companions to proselytize in Jerusalem. They would have been executed or made into galley slaves, never to be heard from again.
Fortunately, the Montmarte vow had a backup clause: If the companions could not go to Jerusalem, they would put themselves at the pope’s disposal to work for souls. They waited several months, preaching and helping the needy, before they went to Rome and undertook work suggested by Pope Paul III. Favre lectured on scripture at the University of Rome. Loyola directed people through the Spiritual Exercises. Later the pope assigned others of the companions to preaching in various Italian towns. While this arrangement offered opportunities to serve God, it placed their companionship at risk, prompting them to form a religious order whose rules and goals would bind them together, however dispersed their work.
In 1540 they requested and received papal approval for the Society of Jesus. Loyola remained in Rome as superior general of the Jesuits until his death in 1556. The others brought the good news of Christ to the far corners of the world.
Favre helped reform the diocese of Parma in north-central Italy before being sent to the famous Colloquy of Regensburg in Germany, which tried and failed to work out a doctrinal agreement between Lutherans and Catholics. There, Favre gave the Spiritual Exercises to bishops and priests. His next stops were his native Savoy, then on to Madrid where he spent three months preaching, hearing confessions, and explaining that new order—the Jesuits. He also lectured on the psalms at the University of Cologne, where he gave the Exercises to Peter Canisius, who then entered the Jesuits. Favre’s next assignment was Portugal. Paul III also appointed him a papal theologian at the Council of Trent. He went to Rome where he conversed with Loyola for the first time in seven years. But his health was broken, and he died at age 40 on Aug. 1, 1546, with his old roommate, Loyola, at his bedside.
Xavier’s travels dwarfed those of Favre. King John III of Portugal asked for two Jesuits to serve as missionaries in India. Loyola appointed Rodrigues and Bobadilla, but Bobadilla fell ill. Loyola then asked Xavier, who had been serving in Rome as his secretary, if he would take Bobadilla’s place. Xavier volunteered enthusiastically, left Rome on March 15, 1540, and never saw Loyola or Favre again.
Xavier sailed from Lisbon on a 13-month journey, six of them working in Mozambique, before arriving at Goa, the main Portuguese base in India.
He set up confraternities to help ex-prostitutes find better lives and another confraternity to prevent poor young women from falling into prostitution.
At Goa he preached to the Portuguese and tried, not very successfully, to learn the Tamil language. Therefore he required translators during two years of work along the south coast of India where it is believed he baptized more than 10,000 converts. In September 1545 he sailed to Malaysia and spent the next year working in Indonesia. In 1549 he and several other Jesuits sailed to Japan where they converted some 700 Japanese, a people who impressed him as extremely intelligent. He returned to Malaysia and then India in 1551, almost perishing in a typhoon.
Back in India, he reorganized Jesuit work there, then departed for China at a time when foreigners were forbidden to enter. He tried persuading Chinese smugglers to take him ashore, but they considered it too risky. He died on the little island of Sancian near Hong Kong on Dec. 3, 1552, at age 46.
Xavier pioneered and organized Jesuit missionary work in Asia and the Pacific islands. The publication of his letters in Europe attracted many young men to missionary work. Xavier is considered the greatest missionary since St. Paul.
But what of Ignatius of Loyola? He lived a far longer life than his widely traveled roommates. Except for a trip south to Monte Cassino to give the Spiritual Exercises to a Jesuit benefactor, he spent his last 16 years in Rome. He set up confraternities to help ex-prostitutes find better lives and another confraternity to prevent poor young women from falling into prostitution. He spent most of his days dictating letters of spiritual advice and directives for Jesuit superiors. (We still have 6,590 items of his correspondence from his final 10 years.) He oversaw the translation into Latin and publication of his Spiritual Exercises in 1548; since then it has appeared in some 5,000 editions and has been translated into all the major languages of the world.
Loyola’s companions commissioned him to write the rules, regulations, and guidelines for Jesuit life and works known as the Constitutions of the Society of Jesus. A draft was circulated in 1552, and input from Jesuits around Europe was incorporated in the final document, which was officially ratified in 1558. He also dictated a short but fascinating autobiography that covers only the years before the founding of the Jesuits. Loyola and Xavier were canonized March 12, 1622. Their college roommate, Peter Favre, was beatified Sept. 5, 1872.
– An earlier version of this article by John Patrick Donnelly, S.J., appeared in Jesuit Journeys, published by the Wisconsin province of the Society of Jesus. Reprinted with permission.