Saint Francis Borgia, Priest

St Francis Borgia, Priest, SJ (Memorial)

Francis Borgia was born in Gandia, Spain, in 1510. He was the eldest son of the Duke of Gandia, great grandson of the notorious Pope Alexander VI (known as the ‘Borgia Pope’) and of King Ferdinand V of Aragon. He received a private education and was presented to the Emperor’s court at the age of 18. In the following year (1529) he married Leonor de Castro and was made viceroy of Catalonia by the Emperor Charles V. He and Leonor had eight children.

In 1543, he succeeded his father as the fourth Duke of Gandia. Because of problems arising from his attempts to put an end to corruption by legal officials, he retired to his estate. He then devoted his time to the development of his property, including the setting up of a Dominican house and the restoration of a hospital.

His happy family life came to an end when his wife died in 1546. In the following year, he quietly entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) and passed the dukedom on to his eldest son, while making provision for the rest of the family, including arranging their marriages. The news of this very distinguished candidate to the Society could not remain a secret for long and, although he tried to down play his social status, his genuine ability could not be hidden.

He was ordained a priest in 1551. Because of his aristocratic birth, great abilities and wide reputation, he was immediately offered a cardinal’s hat. This he refused, preferring the life of a travelling preacher. However, in 1554 he was made Commissary General for the Jesuits of Spain and Portugal by St Ignatius Loyola, the founder and first superior general of the Jesuits. Here his previous experience of government and administration proved invaluable and he established many colleges and other Jesuit houses.

In 1561 he was called to Rome, and in 1565 was elected Superior General of the Jesuits. For the remaining seven years of his life he was so active and effective in governing that he has been called the Society’s second founder. He worked for the reform of Christian life in Europe and set up a new Jesuit province in Poland as well as new colleges in France. He also promoted missionary work in other parts of the world, especially in the Americas. In Rome, he was one of the founders of the Roman College (later known as the Gregorian University), he built the church of St Andrew on the Quirinal as well as initiated the building of the Gesu church. Despite the high status of his office, Francis led a humble life and was widely regarded, even in his own lifetime, as a saint.

When the plague struck Rome in 1566, he organised relief for the poor as well as sending Jesuit priests to take care of the sick in hospital.

In 1571, he accompanied a papal ambassador on a visit to Spain, Portugal, and France, which was very successful. However, under the burden of both sickness and the cares of office, he died on 30 September, 1572, soon after his return to Rome, but not before giving his blessings to his children and grandchildren. He was 62 years old.

Francis was canonised by Pope Clement X in 1671 and is remembered for his spirit of prayer and his humility that led him to renounce worldly honours in order to live for Christ alone.

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