Saints of the Society of Jesus: Saint Francis Borgia

detail of a portrait of San Francisco de Borja, Alonso Cano, 1624, oil on canvas; swiped from Wikimedia CommonsArticle

10 October, Confessor

When the Blessed Peter Favre died at Rome, the Fathers, in their distress, asked how he could be replaced. “He will be,” answered Saint Ignatius. “A great personage will join the Society, will contribute loyally to its support and propagation, and by his eminent virtues will become an edification to us all.” Favre was replaced in Germany by the Blessed Peter Canisius, whom he had received into the Society. The personage who was to replace him in Spain was Saint Francis Borgia, the third General of the Society. How often we think some loss to be irreparable in this life! “O ye of little faith!” Seek only the glory of God, and fear not that He Who could make children of Abraham out of the stones will neglect His own work. The trouble is that we will not purify our affections, and therefore we suffer when we might be wholly happy. And yet, when we consider the brevity of time, what fools we are not to live by faith alone, and to live up to our faith, and with all the profit our faith can bring to us!

Francis Borgia, Duke of Gandia, Viceroy of Catalonia, and cousin to the Emperor Charles V, entered the Society, on the death of his wife, at the age of forty. Having been obliged to identify the body of the deceased Empress Isabel, he was so impressed by the change in the remains, from a beauty which all admired to loathsome corruption, that he declared in his heart on the spot he would no longer serve a perishable master. In religion he was what he had been in the world, an example of the sublimest virtues, a great contemplative, a man of admirable wisdom. When, in the year 1565, Saint Francis, who had five times refused the cardinal’s hat, learned that he had been chosen General of the Society, he burst into a flood of tears. Great as he was in all the virtues, humility was his virtue of predilection. It was right that he, like Saint Aloysius, being of such exalted origin, should, like the Angelical Youth, endeavor by humility to make himself the lowliest of men. A few months later Saint Pius V was elected Pope. Contrary to all precedent, in going to his coronation he stopped at the house of the Jesuits that he might see Saint Francis Borgia and embrace him. This reminds us of Saint Louis, King of France, stopping at the convent of Brother Giles and embracing him, both kneeling down, and then going away without a word. The saints understand each other. Saint Pius V died on the 1st of May, 1572, Saint Francis Borgia on the 1st of October following. He had been sent with the Papal Legate to visit the courts of Portugal, Spain, and France, and rouse them to united action against the Turks, the enemies of the Christian name. Though in broken health, he obeyed the mandate of the Pope, his only Superior on earth. Had he not returned to Rome a dying man, he might probably have been elected successor to his august and saintly friend. But God never intended to rob Francis of his beloved humility. To obtain this humility, there was no kind of self-abasement which he did not practice. No less constant were his efforts to subdue the rebellion of the flesh; from being a very portly man he reduced himself by his mortifications to a mere skeleton. He spent hour after hour in prayer; he confessed his sins twice a day; by an interior instinct he knew when Jesus Christ was present in the tabernacle, the special object of his devotion. The Emperor Charles V declared that, in abdicating his crown and retiring to a monastery, he was animated by the example of the Duke of Gandia.

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