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St. Francis Borgia

by Sir Arnold Lunn


Amidst the pervasive sensuality of our own dissolute age, the raising up of a saint from the ranks of the infamous Borgias is a timely reminder that the grace to conquer carnality and achieve self-control is ever available to those who seriously desire it. This biographical sketch of St. Francis Borgia was written by Sir Arnold Lunn.

Larger Work

Saints and Ourselves: Personal Studies

Publisher & Date

Catholic Book Club, 1958

St. Francis Borgia has a special message for an age in which there is an increasing tendency to relieve man of any responsibility or sin by attributing all sin to heredity and environment. He was the great grandson of the Borgia Pope, Alexander VI. His mother was the daughter of Alfonso, Archbishop of Saragossa, who was the bastard son of Ferdinand of Aragon, and who had been appointed Archbishop of Saragossa by his father's influence at the age of nine. He was not ordained a priest until twenty-three years later and only celebrated Mass once on the day of his ordination. He had four children of whom two succeeded in the archbishopric. After Alfonso's death his mistress, and the mother of his children, continued to live in the Archbishop's Palace and control his domestic arrangements and finance.

Victory of self-control
At the age of nine Francis Borgia went to live with his Uncle, Don Juan, who soon succeeded to the archbishopric, and whose own morals were no great improvement on those of his father. As if conscious of the urgent necessity to discover some antidote to the moral climate of this episcopal court Francis heard Mass daily and made his confession and communion on the great feasts.

At the age of seventeen Francis was exceptionally handsome and fascinating, yet the Archbishop, writes Margaret Yeo in her admirable life of the saint [The Greatest of the Borgias, Sheed and Ward], "was not wholly satisfied with his ward." Chastity was unfashionable at the episcopal court and the Archbishop, who had never even been ordained priest, but who continued nonetheless to govern the See, hinted that an ambitious man "must know the world from experience."

Now Francis Borgia had inherited fierce passions and the battle against the flesh was not easily won. He remained chaste till and after his marriage. "Once the will," writes Margaret Yeo, "by the grace of God has checked and dominated the passions they are never again so violent." Francis bore the scars of this battle to the end. He had won a self-control which was enduring, which, strengthened by an iron will and an innate reserve, was never to fail through the rest of his life.

Influence of devout women
Francis's advance to sanctity was greatly helped by two women. Maria Enriquez de Luna, after the death of her husband Juan, Duke of Gandia, followed the example of her daughter who had entered the convent of the Poor Clares in Gandia. It was therefore through his Borgia grandmother and aunt that sanctity entered the Borgia family, a work of reparation for the Borgia crimes.

In 1558 Francis entered the service of his kinsman, Charles V, and a brilliant future was assured. On the way to Valladolid, escorted in accordance with the dignity of his rank, he saw a poor man being hauled off to the Inquisition. The nobleman exchanged a sympathetic glance with the poor prisoner, the first meeting between two great Jesuit saints, for the prisoner was none other than St. Ignatius Loyola.

From the moment that Francis entered the service of the Emperor he occupied a unique position. Whenever Charles V left Spain it was to Francis that he entrusted the care of the Empress, and for the Empress Francis felt an enduring affection. He married her favourite lady-in-waiting, Eleanor de Castro. It was Francis's good fortune to be related by blood or marriage with a succession of devout women all of whom were to influence his life: his grandmother, his mother, his aunt, and finally his wife.

It was Francis's duty at Granada to uncover the face of the corpse of the Empress and to swear to its identification. He did so, and uncovered an unrecognisable seething mass of corruption. Many recoiled in horror but Francis pronounced the words of the oath without faltering.

Some have tried to date Francis's conversion from this terrible moment on 7 May, but it was the anniversary of the Empress's death on 1 May which Francis noted year by year in his spiritual journal and which he seems, in retrospect, to have felt as a definite stage in the severance of his ties with the world. That a change had taken place in his outlook is suggested by an incident on his return to Toledo. He had quarrelled with the Admiral of Castille and on his return he sent to him to ask for a meeting. The Admiral appointed a meeting-place for the duel which he expected, and was astounded and edified when Francis knelt at his feet and offered contrite apologies.

Consuming love of God and souls
On 4 June, 1539, Francis was appointed Viceroy of Catalonia. He is still remembered as one of the greatest of Catalonian Viceroys. He helped to stamp out the curse of Catalonian brigandage. He fortified Barcelona, and reformed the finances and - a more difficult task - the monasteries. During his Viceroyalty he communicated frequently in his private chapel, and also publicly in the Cathedral once a month, a fact which aroused interest and provoked occasional disapproval. He dressed himself so that no servant should know that he was wearing a hair shirt.

In 1543 he succeeded to the Dukedom of Gandia and was appointed by the Emperor master of the household of his heir, Prince Philip of Spain, who was betrothed to the Princess of Portugal. The Portuguese sovereigns opposed the appointment, and Francis retired for three years to his Duchy of Gandia. During these years he founded a University in which he himself took the degree of doctor of theology.

In 1546 his wife died, and two years later Francis, who had invited the Jesuits to Gandia, and become both their protector and their disciple, joined the Order, though he was allowed to remain in the world until such time as he had fulfilled his obligations as Ruler to his estates and as father to his children.

On 31 August 1550 the Duke of Gandia left his estates for the last time, and at the end of October arrived in Rome and spent fourteen weeks there before returning to Spain. On 7 April 1551 he settled in the hermitage of Santa Magdalena near Ofiate; six weeks later he abdicated in favour of his elder son. He was ordained priest on 23 May and began to deliver a series of sermons in Guipuzcoa.

Francis was canonised by popular acclaim long before he died. He was followed by crowds every time he walked to Mass. His confessional was always crowded. He was in Basque country, and most of those who listened to his sermons only talked a few words of Castilian, and Francis could not speak one word of Euskera, the most difficult language in Europe. "In his talk and in his sermons," wrote his first biographer, Ribadeneira, "one saw that the ideas he expressed were freely poured into him by God rather than culled from books." And Margaret Yeo adds, "His absolute and simple sincerity, consuming love of God and souls were gifts of the Holy Ghost, like the tongues of fire at Pentecost which enabled the wondering multitude to exclaim, 'We have heard him speak in our own tongue the wonderful works of God'."

Self-renunciation through mortification
Francis's entry into the Society of Jesus was the sensation of the year. That a nobleman should enter the secular priesthood would not have been a subject of comment, for in such case ordination would have been regarded as a tiresome formality leading at once to consecration as the Bishop of some wealthy See, but that the Duke of Gandia should enter an Order which demanded vows of poverty and strict obedience, an Order with no prestige at the time and which the Emperor was known to regard with distrust, this indeed was a marvel of marvels. But the great world was reluctant to admit defeat. Twice the Pope pressed Francis to accept a Cardinal's hat, twice Francis refused. The former Viceroy of Catalonia had indeed renounced not only the world but the last vestige of personal pride, as his eagerness to perform the most menial duties so clearly proved. The inner renunciation of self was perhaps more difficult than the renunciation of rank. "Contra te ipsum was a saying of Ignatius of Loyola which held no obscurity for Francis Borgia."

The fasts and penances and terrible scourgings had left their scars. "Every man must realise," wrote Francis, "that he is bound by unbreakable chains to a fierce lion always ready to slay and destroy him. Mortification is the road to heaven."

Second Founder of the Jesuits
In 1554 St. Ignatius appointed Francis Commissary-General of the Society in Spain. Two years later he confided to Francis all the missions of the East and West Indies. Within seven years Francis transformed the provinces confided to him. His personal example attracted many recruits drawn from the highest ranks of Spanish society, a fact which in an age uninfected by inverted snobbery helped to disarm the prejudices against the Society which were once so strong in Court circles. Even so, after the death of Charles V his successor Philip II made it clear that Francis was out of favour. Francis meanwhile had left for Portugal, but before long another trial awaited him. He fell foul of the Inquisition. Francis in particular and the Jesuits in general had never been enthusiastic supporters of the Inquisition. The great Lainez, one time Vicar-General, was, like Torquemada, Jewish by race. St. Ignatius felt great tenderness for the Jews, and when a certain noble lady, the Marchioness de Priego, to whom the Jesuits were heavily indebted, begged Nadal to prevent the admission of any conversos (converts from Judaism) into the Jesuit community at Cordoba, St. Ignatius cancelled the ban which Nadal had issued against his own inclinations [The Progress of the Jesuits, James Brodrick, S.J., p.119].

In Spain, Portugal and Italy the Jesuits were often invited to serve as theologians to the Holy Office but always contrived to evade the appointment. The Inquisition was well aware of the Jesuit attitude. Francis, moreover, was out of favour because of the sympathy he had shown for the Archbishop of Toledo, Carranza, whom the Inquisition kept in prison for some years, and in due course a book attributed to Francis was condemned as heretical. The book in question was a pirated edition of The Practice of Christian Works which Francis had composed while Viceroy of Barcelona, and published at Valencia. The pirate published and cunningly inserted into this book other matter tainted with the Lutheran heresy. These trials passed. The Inquisition in due course cleared Francis and his writings from the slightest suspicion of heresy.

On 2 July 1565 Francis was elected General of the Jesuits. "During the seven years of his Generalship," writes Fr. Pierre Suau, S.J., "he introduced so many reforms into his Order as to deserve to be called its second Founder." He died on 1 October 1572 and was canonised on 12 April 1671.

Heroic faith
St. Francis Borgia was recognised during his life by his notes of sanctity, and consequently his canonisation by popular acclaim anticipated the infallible judgement of the Church. He exhibited in an almost exaggerated degree the virtue of humility. His diary for the day of his election as General contains the words Dies Meae Crucis (The Day of my Crucifixion). He was as determined as St. Francis to marry poverty. He had prayed on the feast of St. Clare for "the perfect poverty of this saint and more also." The ardour with which the General of the Jesuits embraced this ideal must sometimes have been slightly worrying to less heroic members of the Society, as, for instance, when it took the shape of such resolutions as this which he notices in his diary on 20 July 1566, "To distribute the income of the (Roman) College so that the house remains in the more perfect poverty."

It is, however, a stubborn fact of Christian experience that those who act with heroic faith on the principle that God will provide what is strictly necessary for our needs are never let down. In St. Francis's case faith, as Margaret Yeo said, was always justified.

There had been that occasion in the Valladolid college when the Rector had come in despair to Francis, to tell him that three was not a farthing in the house and no food but two small stale loaves. "Ring the bell as usual for dinner." The Commisary-General was obeyed. Novices, students and fathers said grace before an empty table. The brother porter answered a knock at the front door. An old man and a young one handed him baskets heavily laden with meat, fish, bread, cheese, wine, fruit and money and left in silence. All sat down to a lavish meal and it was hardly surprising that the messengers were supposed to be angels in disguise. The same thing had happened more than once and now, in Rome, when there was no money nor any apparent likelihood of alms to supply urgent needs, some had always been given in time to avert starvation or debt.

The beautiful serenity of his death was in keeping with his life. "In Francis Borgia," says Father Martindale, "is all the human tragedy of the isolated spirit, moving untainted like Christ, amid the jostling crowd, and all the splendour of the God-indwelt soul, supremely companioned all the while and imparting its virtue to those who, with the lightest touch of faith, enter into communion with its secret."

Extracted from Saints and Ourselves, The Catholic Book Club, 1958.

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