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Catholic Heroes… St. Joseph Pignatelli

November 7, 2019 saints No Comments

By CAROLE BRESLIN

Since the founding of the Society of Jesus in 1540 by St. Ignatius of Loyola up to the mid-eighteenth century, the order of priests and brothers had met with phenomenal success. But despite the high respect the Jesuits received from Popes, bishops, and kings, they eventually found themselves exiled and suppressed. The same bishop who started the Jansenist movement had been rejected by the Jesuits when he applied to become a novice.
Enraged by this rejection, he vowed to destroy the Jesuits and — along with other forces working against the order — nearly did so. His undermining of the order slowly worked its way through all levels of society and the Jesuit priests were suppressed in one country after another, including France, Italy, and Spain. The order seemed doomed. At the time, the Society of Jesus was the largest missionary order in the Catholic Church.
One of those expelled from Spain was a frail, quiet priest who would later be credited as the second founder of the Society of Jesus: Fr. Joseph Pignatelli. He was born on December 27, 1737 in Zaragoza, Aragon, Spain, about 75 miles south of the border with France. His parents were members of the nobility and faithful Catholics. When he was nine years of age, Joseph lost both his parents.
However, Joseph and his younger brother, Nicholas, managed to study with the Jesuits. For college, he and his brother became resident students at the college in Zaragoza where Joseph contracted tuberculosis in 1953. The bout left him weak and frail for the rest of his life.
On May 8, 1753, Joseph entered the Jesuit novitiate and went to Tarragona — located on the Mediterranean coast about 50 miles southwest of Barcelona. Joseph continued his studies with the Jesuits and was ordained a priest in 1762 after nearly ten years of formation.
Immediately after Ordination, Joseph was sent back to Zaragoza to teach at the college and minister to the people. He became known as a peacemaker, especially in 1766. The people were enraged at a threatened famine and gathered to attack the governor’s palace. Fr. Pignatelli addressed the throng with his eloquence and logic and dispersed the mob.
King Charles III wrote a letter of thanks to Fr. Joseph for his part in averting violence. However, this episode and the letter did nothing to stop the hostility brewing against the Jesuits. Shortly after this incident, King Charles expelled them from Spain.
In 1767, when Fr. Joseph was just 30 years old, he and his brother were offered the chance to stay in Spain if they would give up their membership in the Jesuit order. Their noble lineage brought them such a privilege. They both refused to abandon the order, however, and set sail with 6,000 other expelled Jesuits who had been marches to the coast.
Their ship was headed for Italy but it was refused docking by several ports. Eventually, the Corsicans allowed them to land. Once they landed, Fr. Joseph — despite his weakened condition — organized the 300 priests and seminarians so that they could continue studying and living a somewhat communal life.
The Duchess of Acerra, Pignatelli’s sister, provided funds for Fr. Joseph to find food and housing for the exiled Jesuits. Under his leadership, the Jesuits managed to stay there for three years. During this time, Fr. Joseph labored to acquire all the books from the libraries and the other treasures of the Jesuits that had been confiscated from their institutions.
When the French acquired the island of Corsica, the men were once again forced to leave. “Foxes have dens, and birds of the sky have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head” (Matt. 8:20).
Once again they set sail and this time they landed in Genoa. However, the situation became critical because the Jesuits from the Americas had also been expelled and were seeking shelter.
Then the final blow fell when Pope Clement XIV suppressed the entire order in August 1773, forcing the band of men to disperse.
Joseph and his brother, Nicholas, then traveled to Bologna, forced into early retirement and banned from priestly ministry when Joseph was age 36. Still, they made good use of their time by researching the origins and the history of the Jesuit order. Joseph gathered many of the Jesuit books and preserved them for prosperity.
In addition, he kept in touch with Jesuits all over the world. One of these with whom he communicated was the first bishop of the colonies that would become the United States of America. Bishop John Carroll urged him to preserve all Jesuit possessions in his diocese.
Slowly things seemed to be changing in favor of the Jesuits. Shortly after his election, Pope Pius VI granted permission for the Jesuits in Russia to remain in the order there. Encouraged by this development, Fr. Joseph planned to go to Russia where he could live out his vows.
However, there were many delays for various reasons and Fr. Pignatelli never made it to Russia. He did find favor with Ferdinand, the Duke of Parma, though. Even though the duke had violently driven the Jesuits out of his duchy in 1768, he had a change of heart and re-established the order. Sadly, Nicholas had already died from the wretched conditions like thousands of other Jesuits.
The duke received permission to invite three Jesuits from Russia to Parma. When Fr. Joseph learned of this, he wrote to Pope Pius VI and received verbal permission to open a small house and then to profess private vows. He became superior of the small group and also served as the master of novices in Colorno in 1799. In 1800, Pope Pius VII named him superior.
Permission was given to open another house but none could make their public vows unless they went to Russia, where the Orthodox religion flourished.
In 1801, the Jesuits were finally recognized in the small kingdom of Naples, Italy. At this time, Fr. Pignatelli became “Provincial” of the Jesuits there. A college and some Jesuit schools were opened in Sicily, but when the French acquired that island, the Jesuits were forced to flee once again.
Though still weak, Fr. Joseph managed to found Jesuits colleges in Rome, Tivoli, and Orvieto. Slowly, the Jesuits were invited to other cities. In 1807, after prudently avoiding conflict with Napoleon’s forces, Fr. Pignatelli obtained the restoration of the Jesuits in Sardinia.
With these small successes, Fr. Pignatelli had great hopes for the order. Sadly, before that happened, he fell ill from hemorrhaging. In October 1811 he became bedridden. He suffered for another month before he died peacefully on November 15, 1811. Just three years later, the labors of this poor, humble priest bore fruit when Pope Pius VII fully restored the Society of Jesus in 1814.
Dear St. Joseph Pignatelli, with your heroic virtues of loyalty to the Pope, obedience, prudence, and patience, you rescued the Jesuits from extinction. Help us during our struggles and confusion to hold on to the Truth and be confident in our obedience that your Church will not be overcome by the gates of Hell. Amen.

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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)

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