Out of Darkness, Light: St. Francis Borgia

From out of one of the worst Papacies in the history of the Church comes today’s great saint, without whom the Jesuit order may never have become the great force of evangelical zeal that it was. Today, is the feast of St. Francis Borgia.

Pope Alexander VI already had four children with his mistress before he was elected pope.

Pope Alexander VI already had four children with his mistress before he was elected pope.

Rodrigo Lanzol Borja, of Valencia on the Eastern coast of Spain, would rise to become the bishop of Rome, the pope, in 1492 just as Columbus was arriving in the New World. Through bribery and intimidation the new Pope Alexander VI, the Borgia Pope (Borgia is the Italianized version of the Spanish surname), amassed and wielded massive power in Rome and internationally whilst siring several children. In Rome even today “Borgia” is synonymous with corruption. However, not many know of the other great Borgia.

One of Pope Alexander’s children was Giovanni, whom everyone called Juan, and it was to Juan that the Pope gave the Duchy of Gandia, that is after the death of his older son Pedro. Juan married the woman betrothed to Pedro, a Maria Enriquez de Luna, and with her had two children. However, Juan was murdered after just under 4 years of marriage by one of his brothers. We’re not even sure which, as at least two of them, Cesare and Gioffre, had reasons enough to kill Juan.

Well, the two children that Juan did have with Maria Enriquez de Luna were Francisca de Jesus Borja, who became a nun in a convent in Valladolid, and the boy Juan de Borja y Enriquez. It was this boy who would be the father of Francisco Borja whom we celebrate today.

So let’s note something from the start, for those of us who think our families are messed up. As the story of this remarkable saint unfolds, just keep in mind the familial stock he came from. The generational sin and sordid terror that was Borgia, that became so well known for being corrupt, dishonorable, base, that sin still did not have enough of a hold on Francisco Borja to bar him from great things and holy works. Of what, then, are we capable?

Now, granted, the family tree started to be righted when Maria Enriquez, after the violent death of her husband, determined that she would raise Juan and Francisca piously. In fact, she ended up joining her daughter at the Poor Clare convent. Also, Juan, the son, married the granddaughter of King Ferdinand V of Aragon, yes THAT Ferdinand… as in Ferdinand and Isabella.

Little Francisco de Borja y Aragon was born in 1510 the great-grandson of a Pope and the great-grandson of the Emperor Ferdinand, cousin to current Emperor Charles V. He was the eldest of what would be seventeen. His own mother died when he was only ten, and he was raised under the great influence of the two Poor Clares, his grandmother and his aunt.

St. Ignatius Loyola

St. Ignatius Loyola

At eighteen, he had completed all of his education, which was – according to Fr. Alban Butler – rather pedantic  having little use in secular life and much less in any saintly one. He began work in the imperial courts of his cousin Charles V and never forgot one day witnessing the sight of a man being taken to the Inquisition. He was taken with the look of the man, who was poor, but the way he carried himself was different. Their eyes met, and the prisoner noted the young nobleman’s compassion. That prisoner was St. Ignatius Loyola.

At nineteen, Francisco married Eleanor de Castro with whom, after seventeen years of marriage, he would have eight children. At this point let me draw our attention to this most pertinent fact. We are dealing here with a saint who was married and had children, lots of children. While certainly the roles of men and women there in the high courts of Spain are different than they are now, there is every indication that, for his time, Francisco was an attentive husband and a fine father.

Nevertheless, as with many saints, he understood the priorities of his life to begin and end with God the Almighty. Francisco would spend every spare moment praying, when of course he was not at work or tending to his family. This was in part due to a kind of conversion in 1538 at the death of the Empress Isabella, his great-grandmother. The vanities of life, the empty vagaries of the court no longer held an iota’s of worth for him. The funeral arrangements and such were to be overseen by Francisco himself. The homily was preached by none other than St. John of Avila, who is now in line to become a Doctor of the Church. Thus, by the end of the orations and processions and burial, Francisco, well-established man that he was by then, had decided to be a concerted Christian man.

He became a daily communicant, which was unheard of back then, particularly for a man, and particularly for one in high court. It was just assumed that such men cheat, and steal, and “play the field,” as it were. Several were scandalized that a public courtier would be so presumptuous as to receive the Holy Eucharist so often. But he did. And he did because he was not like the average politician.

St. Francis Borgia

St. Francis Borgia

This reminds me of course of the wonderful line from St. Francis de Sales, the one that tells us it is a heresy to banish the devout life “from the soldier’s guardroom, the mechanic’s workshop, the prince’s court….” This has always given me comfort. Sanctity my friends does not necessarily mean abandoning the world for the small cloistered cell in the high Alps, though for St. Bruno that was just the ticket. No, the life of holiness can be sought in the very place that we are. For Francisco Borja it could be sought in the prince’s court, and so he sought it there. Of course, the other truth that goes hand in hand with seeking the life of holiness in the world is that the world will hate you for it, and Francisco certainly felt it.

When he had the opportunity to become the Duke of Gandia with the death of his father in 1543, Francisco left the court and retired to Gandia to be with his family. He put his energy, then, in repairing the fortifications and building a convent and a hospital. Visiting, ecclesial prelates were impressed with the family man with so much devotion to things of the Spirit. It was three years later that Doña Eleanor died. Their youngest child was eight.

Francisco had already heard of the Society of Jesus and Ignatius of Loyola. He had invited them to come to Gandia and knew Blessed Peter Favre well. Two years after the death of his wife, Francisco made a solemn vow to follow this new rule. Through Favre, he informed St. Ignatius of his desire to become a Jesuit. The founder advised him only to wait until proper provisions could be made for his children, but also to be quiet about his desire and plans.

It did not take long for Francisco to see his children settled. In 1550, Francisco was accepted into the formation for the Jesuits. He shaved his beard and his head. He became a priest in 1551, and the crowd at his first Mass was so great it had to be celebrated outside. It is not every day that a Duke becomes a Jesuit priest after all.

Francisco’s formation within the Jesuits was marked by a great deal of severity both by Francisco on himself and by his superior. It seems that Francisco was quite the portly Duke, enjoying the finer things of life. He rejected all of that and did so violently. Such a decadent lifestyle would have been difficult to stop just there. Francisco had to be tough on himself, which is perhaps why he didn’t much mind the superior’s constant admonitions and corrections. Indeed, the only time he complained was when servants or visitors to the Jesuit house would refer to him as “my Lord” or “your grace.” At such words, Francisco would grow angry and impatient, insisting that no greater insult could be given him.

By 1554, however, St. Ignatius had made Francisco the head Jesuit in all of Spain. In 1561 he was summoned to Rome to aid Fr. Laynez, who succeeded St. Ignatius as the General of the order. At his death in 1565, Fr. Francisco Borja became the third General of the Order of the Society of Jesus, a post which he held for only seven years…but what a seven years.

In that time, Francisco  drew up a new edition of the rules for the order as well as some special rules for new apostolates. He secured further missions to the Far East as well as to the Far West, or the New World. The first Jesuits to come to the Americas were sent by St. Francisco Borja. He also directed missionary action within Europe to the Protestantized northern, German towns as well to Poland. His political connections in France, allowed him to gain greater influence there for the Jesuits. Furthermore, he knew that a properly formed presbyterate was the key for the evangelical work of the Society, so he founded a college in Rome for just this purpose. This college would become a university, indeed perhaps THE university in the Church, the Gregorian University in Rome at which so many American seminarians in Rome attend. He built San Andrea and was the great founder of the work on the Gesú, which holds the relics of St. Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier.

The Gregorian University

The Gregorian University

But these ad extra efforts didn’t exhaust Francisco’s zeal. A pestilence broke out in Rome in 1566, and he organized the relief work with his own Jesuits in the lead, putting themselves at great mortal risk. He would preach throughout Rome as well, and his sermons would be events for the learned and the pious to attend. Among them were St. Charles Borromeo and Cardinal Ghislieri, the future Pope Pius V, who would of course close out the Council of Trent and provide us with the so-called Tridentine Mass. All of these things and more were accomplished in just seven years.

The toll on Francisco proved to be too much. In 1571, while on an ambassadorial trip to Spain, for the sake of the pope, Francisco took very ill. He was sent back to Rome, and died two days after arriving home. Humble to the end, when a painter was sent in to immortalize the Spanish saint, Francisco raised his hand and gave a look of such displeasure that the project was abandoned immediately.

Indeed, it was the great humility of this man that struck so many. It is seldom the case that one of such noble birth and such high estate should give all of it away for the sake of becoming a priest, much less a priest in a newly founded, unproven order. But Francisco did not think anything too lowly for him. His friend and companion Fr. Bustamante once spoke to him about his humility and Francisco explained:

I considered in my morning mediation that Hell is my due. I think that all men and even dumb creature ought to cry out after me, ‘Hell is your place.’

This might seem like the piety of a saint of yester-year, but it is absolutely true even today, even for me. Thus, I am left dumbstruck when I read that St. Francisco Borja once explained to his novices that he used to associate himself with Judas Iscariot when he meditated on Christ’s Passion, until, that is, he realized that Jesus washed Judas’ feet too. Now, said the Spanish Saint, now he couldn’t even associate himself with Judas of the holy feet.

A fascinating note about St. Francisco Borja just has to be mentioned. St. Francis and Pope St. Pius V were quite close confidants, and it was St. Francis who suggested to the pope that he order the Universities of Perugia and Bologna to make a profession of the Catholic Faith. This is fascinating because of course it is Jesuit Universities today that seem to have the problem with professions of faith. As I sit at my computer, a certain Jesuit University just ten blocks east of me employs theologians who openly challenge the Church’s Magisterium, the teaching on contraception, abortion, homosexuality, priesthood, etc, etc, etc. One wonders, then, whether a University “in the Jesuit tradition” means to take into account the tradition of St. Francisco Borja?

In all, in this great Spanish saint, we have the example of a man who saw with clarity the world around him and ordered his own life to that reality. Though most of us might be tempted to transform the world around us to suit our needs, St. Francisco changed himself – or rather allowed the Spirit to transform him according to the truth. That truth, of course, is the person of Christ Jesus, and so it is fitting that this saint be one of the founders of the Society of Jesus which at one time lived so desperately to do the will of the man they longed to serve well.

But apart from this general note about St. Francisco, which could be said of any saint, is the fact that he was a man in the world through and through, that is he was a man who found himself exactly where we are right now. We might not be noblemen and ladies, or outstandingly wealthy, but certainly compared to the people of that time, everyone reading this is much better off in terms of material wealth. We all struggle with the temptations of life, the temptations to buy something to make us feel good, the temptations to drink one more, to have another helping, to ignore the duties to the Church. We all have immense influence over the world around us. Our politicians certainly have a great deal of power.

So, as we are ourselves trying to conform our lives to the reality that is Christ Jesus, what can we learn from St. Francisco? The answer seems to be to be faithful in all things at all times, to seek humility, and to obey, to understand that this world is vanity, vanity, all is vanity so that we can better focus on the world to come and the visages of souls that have made it do heaven thanks perhaps in part to our care and love.

Here’s to St. Francisco Borja, or St. Francis Borgia if you prefer. May he continue to intercede for us, for our nation’s leaders, for our priests, for our Jesuits, for our Church. Amen, and Long Live Christ the King.

Hands down one of my favorite images for any saint.

Hands down one of my favorite images for any saint.

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