Saint Joseph Pignatelli, Priest, SJ

Joseph Pignatelli was born of a Spanish mother, and a father who was an Italian noble in 1737. He lived in the family palace in Saragossa (Zaragoza) in north-eastern Spain, about half way between Madrid and Barcelona. When his mother died in 1743, his father moved the family to Naples. Four years later his father died.  In 1749, at the age of 12, he returned to Saragossa and went to the Jesuit College there.  He lived in the Jesuit community house.

On 8 May, 1752, he entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tarragona, south of Barcelona on the Mediterranean coast, and went through the normal formation programme of philosophy and theology. He was ordained a priest the week before Christmas in 1762, and spent the next four-and-a-half years in Saragossa doing ordinary pastoral work, including teaching grammar to young boys and visiting the local prison ministering to prisoners awaiting execution.

The hidden life of an ordinary teacher changed suddenly when, on 3 April, 1767, King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from his territory and seized their property. Overnight, 5,000 Jesuits lost everything and were left without a roof over their heads.  Joseph might have used his aristocratic background to stay on in Spain, but he chose to go with his Jesuit brothers into exile.

The elderly superior at Saragossa, anticipating the difficulties ahead, passed his authority to the 30-year-old Joseph.  On arriving in Tarragona, the Saragossa Jesuits found other Jesuits also waiting to be deported.  Among them was the provincial superior, who also passed his authority on to Joseph, in effect making him superior of 600 or so Jesuits.

A fleet of 13 ships was needed to carry the Jesuit exiles to Italy.  However, they were not permitted to land at Civita Vecchia on Italy’s west coast nor at Bastia, a port in Corsica.  They were finally able to come ashore at Bonifacio, at the southern tip of Corsica.  They were only able to stay there for a year when France acquired the island from Genoa in September, 1768 (thus making a Frenchman of its most famous inhabitant, Napoleon Bonaparte!).

Crowded into ships, the Jesuits were brought to Genoa, and then had a 500 km trek to Ferrara in the Papal States.  It was a difficult and tiring journey for those who were elderly or in bad health.  Thanks to Monsignor Francesco Pignatelli, a cousin of Joseph, the Jesuits were welcomed in Ferrara. 

But their situation was still precarious, because the rulers of Europe were pressuring Pope Clement XIII to suppress the Society everywhere.  He resisted, but his successor, Clement XIV, gave in and on 21 July, 1773, with his brief Dominus ac Redemptor noster, abolished the Society.  Suddenly its 23,000 members were now ex-Jesuits and no longer bound by their vows.

The priests, of course, were still priests, but those in formation and the Brothers were now just laymen.  Joseph (now an ex-Jesuit priest) moved to Bologna and from there maintained contact with his brothers scattered in many places.

There was one striking exception to the decree of suppression.  Catherine the Great of Russia had not allowed the papal brief to be promulgated in her territories.  This meant that, technically, the Society of Jesus continued to exist in White Russia (now Belarus).  So Joseph wrote to the Jesuit provincial superior there asking to be re-admitted to the Society. 

At the same time, Ferdinand, Duke of Parma, also wanted to have Jesuits in his territory and began negotiating with the Jesuits in Russia.  In 1793, three Jesuits went to set up a Jesuit community in his duchy.  Joseph became a member of this group and on 6 July, 1797, at the age of 60, again pronounced his vows as a Jesuit.  Two years later, he became the novice master at Colorno, the only Jesuit novitiate in Western Europe at the time.

On 7 May, 1803, the Russian superior named Joseph as provincial superior of Italy, although the Society was still suppressed in most of the country (including the Papal States).  However, this haven was not to last.  When French forces seized the Duchy of Parma in 1804, the Jesuits had to move on to Naples.  This was possible because Pope Pius VIII, by a special letter of 30 July, 1804, restored the Society in the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies.  But, Joseph was able to stay there for only two years. When Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, took over the Kingdom, non-native Jesuits were forced to leave. 

Finally, in 1806, they were welcomed by Pope Pius VII in Rome where they set up a community at St Pantaleon’s, near the Roman Coliseum, followed soon after by a novitiate in Orvieto. After 40 years of a life in exile, Joseph was full of hope that the Society would be fully restored, even though he might not live to see it.

During the last two years of his life, his health deteriorated and he suffered from haemorrhages, perhaps caused by stomach ulcers.  In October 1811, he was confined to his bed and died peacefully about a month later on 15 November, in his 74th year.  Just three years later, in 1814, Pope Pius VII fully restored the Society of Jesus.

Joseph Pignatelli was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954, and is remembered for his kindness, humility, gracious manner, as well as for his undaunted courage in keeping his exiled companions united in spirit.  He is, in some respects, almost regarded a second founder of the Order.

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