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Catholic Heroes… St. Francis Borgia

October 10, 2019 saints No Comments


The mere sight of the name Borgia brings to mind the family that was influential in both the Church and society — notorious for their political maneuvering and murder. But God can bring good out of evil and even from this family: Francis Borgia had great influence in the development of the Society of Jesus and served as its third superior general.
Francis Borgia was born on October 28, 1510 in Valencia, Spain. His father, Juan Borgia, was the Duke of Gandia, and the grandson of Pope Alexander VI. Juana, his mother, was the daughter of the archbishop of Zaragoza.
When Juan died, Juana took her children back to her duchy to raise them in peace and quiet away from unsavory influence of the Borgias. There she taught them to love Catholic teachings and to cultivate a deep prayer life. Years later when Francis married, she joined her daughter in a Poor Clare convent.
As a child, Francis yearned to become a monk and live a hermit’s life. However, his family sent him to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, where he was welcomed as a kinsman. With his humility and perseverance, he quickly became a favorite of the emperor.
When he was traveling on a mission for the emperor, his company passed a man dressed in rags, who was on his way to the Inquisition. Their eyes met, making a great impact on Francis. This man would one day look down on Francis who would throw himself at his feet in homage.
In September 1529 Francis married a woman of noble birth from Madrid. Eleanor de Castro Mello y Meneses bore eight children with Francis between 1530 and 1539.
During this time Charles V appointed Francis to take care of her horses and hounds of the empress. When Philip II of Spain’s mother Isabella died in 1539, Francis was selected for the honor of escorting her remains to Granada for burial. St. John of Avila preached the eulogy inspiring Francis to seek Christian perfection.
Charles V also gave Francis the office of Viceroy of Catalonia, responsible for reforming the administration of justice, improving the finances, fortifying the city of Barcelona, and repressing outlaws. He also reformed monasteries and encouraged education.
Even with these increasing worldly honors, Francis remained faithful to the teachings of the Church. He loved music and is credited with helping to restore sacred music in the sixteenth century.
Francis continued to rise in the ranks of nobility when his father died, becoming the fourth Duke of Gandia. However, his diplomatic endeavors came to an end when he failed to arrange a marriage between Prince Philip of Spain and the princess of Portugal.
Providentially, he was exiled for this and he returned to his homeland to dedicate himself to serving God and doing charitable work. Not one to waste time, Francis built a university, reorganized his duchy, and applied himself to both spiritual and doctrinal development by earning his doctorate in theology.
In 1546, Eleanor died, so Francis returned to his thoughts of becoming a monk. He cared for his children for several more years as he carefully discerned his future. The time came when he put his affairs in order and arranged for his eldest son to be his heir.
Francis left his estates, arriving in Rome on October 23, 1550, throwing himself at the feet of Ignatius of Loyola. This act of humility by a Borgia was strange and edifying for Ignatius.
Francis joined the Jesuits, but when the Pope called him to higher honors he fled Rome and returned to Spain, choosing to live in the hermitage of St. Magdalene near Onate. Soon Charles V relieved Francis from his obligations, leaving him free to be ordained on May 25, 1551.
Fr. Borgia began preaching in Guipuzcoa, drawing persons from far and near as word spread of his eloquence, zeal, and holiness. Thus, although he sought quiet and isolation, demands for his preaching came from throughout Spain.
In 1553 the court of Portugal eagerly anticipated the arrival of Fr. Borgia and pledged unwavering honor to him. As he was returning to his hermitage, he received the troubling news that the emperor had persuaded Pope Julius III to bestow a cardinalate on Francis. Francis begged the Pope to reconsider and thus avoided the office.
However, two years later the request was renewed. Francis wondered if he could in good conscience refuse the Pope. To ease the situation, St. Ignatius had Francis profess his solemn vows of the Jesuits, which included a vow not to accept any dignities except at the official command of the Pope.
On June 10, 1554, Ignatius named Francis commissary-general of the Society in Spain. Within seven years, he greatly expanded the influence of the Jesuits by his limitless energy and vision. His years at court as nobleman and priest paved the way for him to accomplish much for the new order. His holiness and regal bearing drew men from all walks of life to serve the Society. As a result, many foundations were established.
As Francis attended Queen Juana the Mad on her deathbed, his austerity, sacrifice, gentleness, and charity brought the queen much peace. This kindness drew many more to the saintly man. Likewise, his service to the poor and needy, and the graces of God which flowed through him transformed the faith of the people.
In 1565 and 1566, he sent men to establish missions in Florida, New Spain, and Peru. During this time Charles V remained close to Francis and would frequently retreat to Yuste for days of quiet and prayer. When the emperor died, Francis gave the eulogy. However, Philip II of Spain did not favor Francis, so he returned to Rome where he had great influence in the life of Charles Borromeo and Pope Pius V.
On July 2, 1565 Francis was appointed superior general of the Society of Jesus. Despite many ailments, he attended to vast projects and voluminous correspondence. Although he no longer preached, he wrote many letters of advice and consolation to kings, bishops, and anyone serving the Catholic Church.
His vast ambitions for God’s Kingdom led to the establishment of missions in India, Japan, and Latin America. In addition he completed and published the Jesuit rules of conduct in 1567 and standardized novitiate formation. He established Jesuit houses all over the world as centers of prayer, study, and cultivation.
In France alone he began eight colleges. Francis was the man who convinced the Pope to require professions of faith for Catholic universities.
Many other projects were innovative for his times such as reaching out to heretics and Muslims. Jesuit missions grew all over the world so that within a few years the Jesuits counted 66 martyrs.
As Francis became thinner and weaker, he continued to develop the apostolate of the Jesuits. When Pope Pius V asked him to go with Michele Cardinal Bonelli on an embassy to Spain and Portugal, he agreed despite his illness. Then the Pope sent him to France, but Francis became more ill in Lyons and had to be carried back to Rome where he died on September 30, 1572.
His feast is celebrated on October 10.

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