The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century – Venerable Joseph Mary Pignatelli

Saint Joseph PignatelliAmong the former Jesuits who were so happy as to live until the partial or even until the complete restoration of the Society of Jesus, the Venerable Joseph Mary Pignatelli is pre-eminent. The decree of the Congregation of Rites inaugurating his process says: “He had become like to Saint Ignatius, the founder of the Society of Jesus, had inherited the spirit of Saint Ignatius and distinguished himself by so many and so great examples of virtue that it can truly be said Divine Providence gave him to the Society afflicted by many and grievous adversities for its protection and comfort and kept him, in spite of continual ill-health, to gray old age so that in later days he might be to the survivors an example of the original and genuine spirit.”

It seems, in fact, the providential mission of Father Pignatelli to have carried over into the new Society, as he had lived in the old, the true and genuine spirit of Saint Ignatius. His biographer writes: “Father Joseph M. Pignatelli belonged to the number of those poor and proscribed orphans who even unto death were loyal to their mother, to their spirit and to their virtues and traditions and held fast to the service of God and of His Church. In spite of proscription and exile he persevered for twenty-five years in die practices of his religious life. And when Pius VII issued his call to the sons of Saint Ignatius, to raise again the banners of their forefathers and to engage in new combats, Father Pignatelli was one of those who hastened to enlist again before they died, under the standard of the Society of Jesus and to take up again the yoke of religious life which the long years of exile made only the sweeter. In the new generation of the sons of Saint Ignatius he resembles those venerable ancestors who had nothing more at heart than to leave their posterity the customs, manners, and practices of their forefathers. Father Pignatelli embraces in his person both the old and the new Society. He is like a precious link in the chain of religious life binding the traditions of the past to the future. With love and reverence the young Jesuits gathered around the venerable old man who bore on his meek countenance the stamp of his long and weary trials and had given to his Order as a simple son of obedience his service and his homage along with the priceless treasure of his experience.”

When Pignatelli, a boy of fifteen, entered the novitiate of Tarragona in 1753, the storm of bitter persecution against the Society of Jesus had already broken out. He renounced the prospect of a splendid career in the world and all the advantages and comforts of a distinguished and wealthy noble family. His father was Count Anthony Pignatelli of Fuentos, of the house of the dukes of Monte Leone, one of the first Spanish families of the time. His nearest relatives – his parents were already dead – used every persuasion to keep Joseph from following his religious vocation, but he withstood all their objections. “I consider myself fortunate in following a vocation that gives an opportunity to suffer something for God. I leave the care of my health to Divine Providence. I am ready to shed my blood for the salvation of souls and for the defense of the Holy Catholic Church.”

In religion Pignatelli found all he had desired. Study and meditation on the person and life of Our Divine Redeemer filled his heart with unspeakable joy and a solid enthusiasm for his vocation. He showed himself magnanimous in everything. In fact, his superiors found it necessary to moderate his desire for mortification and study. He wrote a moving letter to Father General Lorenzo Ricci, petitioning to be sent to the foreign missions. The Father General gave the prophetic answer that he believed Pignatelli could best serve the Church and his Order in Europe. In the novitiate and the scholasticate the happy religious noticed little of the storms that were raging against his beloved Society. After finishing his studies he was for three years a professor in the College of Saragossa. But in 1767, in consequence of infamous calumnies, there came the banishment of all Jesuits from the Spanish dominions. For Joseph Pignatelli and his brother Nicholas, who had also joined the Order, their relatives obtained an exception from the decree of banishment, but both declared that they would not be separated from their brethren. Six hundred members of the Jesuit province of Aragon were, with unspeakable suffering and privations, transported in thirteen small and crowded vessels to Corsica, which then belonged to the republic of Genoa. The proscribed Religious were assigned to Saint Boniface for their residence. There were absolutely no preparations for the reception and stay of so many strangers, and they were without the necessary means of subsistence. The chief support of the provincial during these painful days was Father Joseph Pignatelli, who provided for the lodging, food, and occupation of the poor exiles and did everything to keep them from depression and sadness. In particular he looked after the younger members and managed as far as was possible to enable them to pur- sue their studies.

They had scarcely begun to put things in a sort of order when a new decree of banishment was issued. Corsica was acquired by France in 1768, and this country had long before ordered the Jesuits from its possessions. In a few days about 2400 Spanish Jesuits were landed in Genoa, but this city refused to receive them. The exiled religious now bent their steps to the Papal States. Ferrara was the journey’s end for the members of the Aragonese province. The pru- dence and kindness of Father Pignatelli won the good will of the citizens of Ferrara for the sorely tried Jesuits, who were at least relieved from the bitterest want. The Pignatelli family frequently tried to pur- suade the brothers to leave the Order, even offering to use their influence to have the Pope release them from their vows. But neither wavered a moment, and for Joseph it was the greatest happiness when on 2 February 1771, he was bound most intimately to his Order by the solemn vows.

But the flood of suffering was not yet full. On 21 July 1773, Pope Clement XIV, yielding to the insistence and threats of the Bourbon Courts, gave way to force and signed the decree suppressing the Society of Jesus. How bitter this cup of sorrow, how heavy this grief for the stricken fathers is beyond words to tell. Only one who has been bereaved of the dearest and most beloved, who finds all the ideals which inflamed his heart made nought at one blow, can understand. But as their Master, so died the Society of Jesus – “obedient unto death.” Without a word of complaint or disapprobation they bowed to the will of the Vicar of Christ.

Father Pignatelli went back with his brother to Bologna. As far as possible he maintained the old manner of life. Prayer and study were at first his only occupations, since it was not considered expedient at the time that former Jesuits should engage in the care of souls. By degrees he acquired a considerable library. He attended lectures at the University and thus endeavored to extend and deepen his many-sided learning. The saints are always apostles. This truth was manifest in the character of Pignatelli. In private conversation the influence of his word and example was the greater since it evidently proceeded from inner conviction and not from any desire of earthly reward. He was an angel of charity to his old companions, many of whom had fallen into extreme want.

One day there came joyful tidings to him. In distant Russia, it was said, there existed a branch of the Society of Jesus. He at once resolved to journey thither. But he began to doubt whether the Society of Jesus in Russia had a right to exist. To settle this he went to Rome to obtain information from the Pope himself. Pius VI answered, *Yes, it exists . . . and it is not because of me that it does not spread throughout the whole world. I am in complete understanding with it. Go to Russia. I give you full power without fear that the habit of the Society will again be taken away. I have considered the Jesuits in Russia as true Jesuits and the Society of Jesus which exists in Russia as existing there by right.”

But when Pignatelli was preparing for departure his health broke down. It was reaction after all the hardships and sufferings he had borne for long years. He was obliged to be patient. Meanwhile Duke Ferdinand of Parma asked Catherine II to permit some Jesuits to come to his states. The vice-general, Father Gabriel Lenkiewicz, sent three fathers. They were obliged to proceed slowly and prudently, lest the old hatred against the Society, still glowing under the ashes, should be kindled anew. After the principal arrangements had been completed, Father Pignatelli received an invitation to join the fathers. Seldom can news excite such joy in the heart as this offer did in his. He could scarcely await the hour when he would again be united with his well beloved Society. On 6 July 1797, he was able at last to renew his vows at Parma. His spirit and strength were rejuvenated. His activity, rich in blessing, soon gave the young Society great reputation. When in 1799 it could venture to open a novitiate at Colorno, Pignatelli was appointed first novice-master. He, if any man, possessed the neces- sary prudence and experience in spiritual matters and the love for his vocation which is required in so important an office. In him was embodied the spirit of the Institute of Saint Ignatius. The novitiate of Colorno soon resembled the ideal novitiate of San Andrea in Rome. The Servant of God endeavored to enliven not merely the novices but all Colorno and the region about it with spiritual and corporal good works. The Duke of Parma called him only his “saint.” His sublime example of virtue, especially hns unbounded confidence in God, which was often rewarded in miraculous ways, justified this mark of veneration.

Pignatelli was appointed provincial in 1803. In the following year he made a journey to Naples. Here he successfully negotiated with King Ferdinand concerning the admission of the Society into that city and the happy result was approved by Pius VII. There was great joy among the people of Naples when the sons of Saint Ignatius came back to them. Former Jesuits hastened from all quarters of Italy and asked admission. But some of these were from the dukedom of Parma, for the French were there again, and had expelled them. It was a trying labor for the provincial to organize a new province so speedily in those troubled times. His chief care was to establish from the outset the true religious spirit in every house. The people clung to the fathers with love and enthusiasm. The college at Naples soon numbered over 1200 students. Again it was Pignatelli who by his example excited his subjects to imitation, and won admiration from the people.

But after two years the French came down on Naples also and expelled the Jesuits. Pignatelli went to Rome to find here a refuge for his brethren. In spite of the objections of the diplomatic corps, Pius VII opened the gates of the Eternal City to the refugees and restored to them the Roman College and the professed house at the Gesu. The bishops and the people soon manifested such a desire for the fathers that Pignatelli could not possibly accommodate all. Many cares pressed heavily on the provincial, especially the matter of temporal support for the Order. But Provi- dence never deserted him. He expended large sums on the poor outside. His friends could not explain it except by supposing that money was miraculously multiplied in his hands. Pignatelli’s character won for him the sympathy of both high and low. Pius VII wished to raise him to the purple, but the friends of the father took pains to dissuade the Pope from a step which would make the humble servant of God altogether unhappy. It is inspiring to read how, in spite of his many occupations, he preserved continual intercourse with God and how great were his mortification, detachment and love of poverty. He could not bear to be praised, sincerely considering himself to be the least and most unworthy of all the sons of Saint Ignatius. Seldom do we meet with a sanctity so evident as is manifest in his life. The restored Society of Jesus can never be sufficiently grateful to him.

During his scholasticate, Pignatelli suffered a hemhorrhage, and during his whole life had very poor health. Severe headaches often tortured him for days. Add to this the hard trials and strenuous labors in which he continually showed great heroism and we must be astonished that his powers were not sooner consumed. He showed great joy when, at the beginning of October, 1811, he became aware that his release was near. His subjects stormed heaven with prayer that the life of their beloved provincial might be spared. But in vain, for on November 15, Father Pignatelli departed from this earth which had so often refused him a place of rest. Belief in the great sanctity of the Servant of God increased after his death. Numerous miracles were worked through his intercession. Among others the well-known writer Bresciani was thrice miraculously cured by him. Valiant bearers of the cross like Pignatelli can not fail to triumph.

– this text is taken from The Holiness of the Church in the Nineteenth Century: Saintly Men and Women of Our Own Times, by Father Constantine Kempf, SJ; translated from the German by Father Francis Breymann, SJ; Impimatur by + Cardinal John Farley, Archbishop of New York, 25 September 1916