The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Society of Jesus

The Blessed Virgin Mary, Mother of the Society of Jesus (Feast)

St Ignatius’s heritage sparked his devotion to Our Lady, which intensified during his period of convalescence following the injury he received during the battle at Pamplona. Major events in his life occurred on feasts or at sites honouring the Virgin: his vigil before the Black Madonna of Montserrat on the eve of the Annunciation, 1522; his first vows at Montmartre, Paris, on the feast of the Assumption, 1534; his first Mass in St. Mary Major in Rome on Christmas, 1538.

On Friday of Easter week, April 22, 1541, seven months after papal approval of the Society of Jesus and two weeks after Ignatius was elected its first general, he celebrated Mass with the first companions at Our Lady’s altar in the basilica of St. Paul Outside-the-Walls in Rome, during which all pronounced their vows. This feast thus commemorates the birth of the vowed Society and its dedication to Mary as its Mother.

The first church that the Jesuits acquired was a small chapel named after a painting inside: Our Lady of the Way (Santa Maria della Strada). The painting would come to express the essence of Jesuit spirituality. The image, painted by an unknown Roman artist around 1500, probably decorated the church wall that faced Via Capitolina, part of the route of papal processions between the Basilica of St. John Lateran and the Vatican.

The chapel dated back at least to the 11th century and for a while it served as a funeral chapel for the Astalli family who owned properties in the neighbourhood. In November 1540, Codacio, the first Italian Jesuit, was able to use his influence in the papal court to obtain what Ignatius really wanted: the title to the tiny Church of S. Maria della Strada. Early in 1541, the Roman Jesuits moved into rooms rented from the Astalli family right next to the chapel.

When Ignatius died in 1556, the new church was still on the drawing board. Through the influence of Francis Borgia, the third Superior General and the patronage of the rich Farnese family, the church was almost completed in time for the Holy Year 1575. During the construction, the image of Santa Maria della Strada was kept in the neighbouring church of San Marco. Later, it was installed in a place of honour in the Gesù, where it can be seen today. As an Order dedicated to bringing the Gospel to every corner of the world, Our Lady of the Way was a highly appropriate Patron.

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