St Joseph Pignatelli, Priest and Religious, SJ (Memorial)

Commentary on St. Joseph Pignatelli, S.J.

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 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 were needed to carry the Jesuits 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.  So Joseph wrote to the Jesuit provincial superior there asking to be re-admitted to the Society.  Then 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 the 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.  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.

He was canonized by Pope Pius XII in 1954.

Joseph Pignatelli 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.



Readings: 2 Corinthians 4:6-15; Ps 115; Matthew 10:16-23


The Gospel reading is from Matthew.  It is a passage from the 10th chapter which contains the second of the five long discourses given by Jesus in this gospel.  This second discourse consists of instructions given by Jesus to his disciples before he sends them out on a mission to do the same work that he is doing – to proclaim the Kingdom of God and “to expel unclean spirits and to heal sickness and disease of every kind”.  For that is the sign of the Kingdom’s presence – healing and wholeness at every level in individuals and communities.

In today’s passage, Jesus is warning his disciples what to expect.  Jesus puts it very bluntly: “What I am doing is sending you out like sheep among wolves.”  In other words, they are going out with their message of love and compassion and healing but are going to be met with strong hostility, hatred and violence.  That is how they treated the Son of God himself; they should not expect a different reception.

They will be brought to court and flogged; they will appear before rulers and kings which will be an opportunity for them to give witness to the Gospel they represent.  But when they are “handed over” (a refrain-word in the Gospel), as they handed over John the Baptist and will later hand over Jesus, they are not to be anxious how they should respond.  Because, when the time comes, they will be given what to say.  For, in fact, it will not be they who are speaking but the Spirit of Jesus in them.

Joseph Pignatelli and his Jesuits were the targets of extreme hostility by many elements, including “rulers and kings”.  They were handed over and expelled from their homelands.  They were thrown into jail.

Through all the violence of word and action, Joseph remained a figure of peace and, like his Master turning the other cheek, a source of strength and perseverance to his brothers.


In the First Reading from the Second Letter to the Corinthians, Paul speaks of how the light of Christ continues to shine through them in spite of the great tribulations he and they have been through.

“God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, has shone in our hearts, that we in turn might make known the glory of God shining on the face of Christ.”  At the same time, he acknowledges there are weaknesses and the Jesuits would acknowledge that some would see the suppression as the price of a certain arrogance that had appeared among their numbers in some places.  “This treasure we possess in earthen vessels in order to make it clear that its surpassing power comes from God and not from us.”

And so Paul speaks of the trials and tribulations that he and his companions experience.  “We are afflicted in every way possible, but we are not crushed; full of doubts, we never despair.  We are persecuted but never abandoned; we are struck down but never destroyed.  Continually we carry about in our bodies the dying Jesus, so that in our bodies the life of Jesus may also be revealed.”  And so he continues…

And Paul goes on to say that the very sufferings he and his companions endure are themselves carrying a message – the message of Christ suffering and dying for his people.  “Death is at work in us, but life in you.”

And, he concludes, “everything is ordered to your [i.e. the Christians of Corinth] benefit, so that the grace bestowed in abundance may bring greater glory to God because they who give thanks are many.”

And in this last sentence we have the very motto of Ignatius Loyola and his Society – ‘the greater glory of God’.  So that even the suppression of the Jesuits was, in its way, ordered for the good of others.  It was a cross bringing death but which, in turn, produced its resurrection, new life.


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