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.
ST. FRANCIS BORGIA
SIR ARNOLD LUNN
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 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
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
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'."
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
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.
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.
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.