St. Francis Borgia, “The Holy Duke”: May a Nobleman Become a Saint?

The death of the Empress and then that of his own wife showed him the emptiness of all things on earth. “Never again will I serve a lord who can die!”

Newsdesk (07/10/2022 8:15 AM, Gaudium Press) Francisco de Borja y Aragón-Gurrea was born on 28 October 1510, in the palace the family owned in Gandia, some 60 km from Valencia. He was the eldest son of the third Duke of Gandia and was related by maternal line to the Catholic King, Ferdinand I of Aragon. While still a boy he lost his mother and lived very little with his father, a man intensely dedicated to affairs of state.

After receiving the most complete education that the Spanish Golden Age could offer, he was sent to serve as a page at court, where he played a brilliant role. It was not long before Emperor Charles realized the value of this young man, in whom were gathered all the qualities one might expect of someone of his lineage, sustained and sublimated by remarkable humility.

At the age of 18, on the empress’ advice, Francis had married one of the noblest and most virtuous ladies of the court: Dona Leonor de Castro Melo e Menezes. He had eight children with her, all brought up according to her example of justice and piety.

On the occasion of this marriage, Charles V bestowed upon him the title of Marquis of Lombay and named him Knight-Major to the Empress.

Resolution

However, Empress Isabel died, after a brief illness, at the height of her power and extraordinary beauty. It was only fitting to bury her next to her grandparents Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic Kings. The emperor entrusted the care of the transfer to Francis, a man he trusted the most. A magnificent procession carrying her mortal remains left for Granada.

On arriving in Granada, the Marquis had to testify before the notaries that this was indeed the body of the sovereign. But when the coffin was opened, the worst of odours spread immediately throughout the whole enclosure and it was impossible to recognize in the putrefied corpse the traces of the woman whose beauty had been the object of general admiration.

Right there, after fulfilling his painful obligation, Francis Borgia consummated with a concrete resolution the inspirations that had come from grace. A famous sentence, often repeated by his biographers, would have sealed that decision: “Never again will I serve a lord who can die!

And shortly after the death of the sovereign, he was entrusted with the extremely arduous and delicate task of Viceroy of Catalonia. The obligations that this difficult post entailed were neither few nor insignificant. Yet in the midst of them all, the Marquis remained assiduous in prayer and cultivated the custom of daily Communion, centuries before it became common among the faithful.

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“The Holy Duke”

On the death of his father in 1543, Francis Borgia became the new Duke of Gandia, a title which carried with it the dignity of Grandee of Spain, which only the top 25 nobles of the kingdom enjoyed. His subjects soon realized how they benefited in every way from the unusual ruler and began to call him “the Holy Duke”. The goodness of his “harmonious, serene, dignified and delicate” soul was evident in him, qualities to which were contributed “his noble education, his fervent, relentless and constant asceticism”.

But the desire to leave the world spoke in his heart more strongly than all earthly greatness. And the death of his wife in 1546, when he was only 36 years old, made possible the realization of his desire to give himself entirely to a life of perfection.

Admitted secretly into the Company

At that time, another Spaniard of noble lineage, who had abandoned everything to dedicate himself exclusively to the service of God, was consolidating in Rome his providential foundation, laying a wise foundation for the work he had begun with audacity: it was Ignatius of Loyola expanding the Society of Jesus.

Francis Borgia admired this new spiritual family, then in its early years. One day in 1541, as Viceroy of Catalonia, he wrote Ignatius a letter. Having it in hand, the holy founder uttered a surprising prediction: “Who would believe that, in time, this gentleman will enter the Society and come to govern it in Rome?”

Some seven years later, the Duke of Gandia – already a widower and unaware of this prediction – sought to know in which religious order God wanted him. When in doubt, he consulted his confessor, the Franciscan Friar John Texeda, who replied: “Your Lordship should enter the Society of Jesus”.

This counsel truly satisfied his inner aspirations, which led him to write to St. Ignatius, who immediately admitted him to the Jesuit Order. He recommended, however, that he keep everything secret for the time being until he was free of the obligations inherent to the dukedom of Gandia and his family.

Thus he made his profession in February 1548, showing impressive composure, but continued to exercise his important public functions.

Meeting with St. Ignatius

Upon possessing the full freedom of the children of God, Francis went to Rome to meet Ignatius of Loyola. He set out with a supernatural eagerness to arrive quickly, but could not avoid an illustrious entourage of clerics and noblemen. Towards the end of October, he arrived at the door of the Casa Professa of the Jesuits, where St Ignatius was waiting for him at the head of the whole community. The two saints prostrated themselves on their knees before each other, and Francis repeatedly touched the hands of his founder.

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God surely wished to make up for the troubles Ignatius had suffered in the early years of the newly-founded Order by sending him this golden child. Everyone in Rome was amazed at his unpretentiousness. This led him, for example, to serve the table and wash the pots with the same naturalness with which he had shortly before governed Catalonia. And nothing could charm those around him more than to hear him speak about Our Lady, for when he did so, he had the gift of increasing the devotion of his listeners.

The months he spent with the founder were intense and fruitful. Like St. Francis Xavier, this other Francis was one of those who knew his heart most deeply and was able to mirror it in his own.

Francis Borgia was the confidant and later the executor of the founder’s great desires, since it is known that in this early period “the two saints communicated their projects at length”. During this time together, he was able to receive the Ignatian Charism in its purity and fullness.

Great also in times of sorrow

Back in Spain, the Duke of Gandia renounced before a notary public all his Estates, titles and possessions, put on the Jesuit habit and was ordained a priest on 23 May 1551.

He celebrated his first public Mass the following month before an attendance of ten thousand faithful, and all who received communion wished to receive the Holy Eucharist from his hands. He made a pilgrimage to Loyola Castle, in whose oratory he celebrated Mass, and finally settled in Onhate, in the Basque Country, a long way from the court and his relatives.

Despite his wishes, he could not go unnoticed in those parts, not least because his apostolate drew large crowds. But his initial success did not prevent the arrival of unspeakable sufferings that were interwoven into a dramatic picture.

Some arose from the hostility of King Philip II, who had complaints against the Borgia family, others stemmed from internal problems within the Company, to which were added a long series of illnesses. By proving it in this way, Providence was manifesting through a higher prism the predestination of Francis, who was great in everything, especially in suffering.

Successor of St. Ignatius

After the death of St. Ignatius in 1556, Father Diego Laynez governed the Society of Jesus for nine years, two as Vicar General and seven as Superior General. On his deathbed, he looked longingly at Father Francis Borgia, in a premonition of the future that awaited him. The elections held that same year confirmed his mute prediction, for he was the one chosen. The unanimity with which they all turned to the Saint is proof of their conviction of how much he represented the spirit of the Institution.

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Precious documents have come down to us from this period of his life, such as his diary and letters. The missives he wrote as General reveal the profile of the saint and of the man of government: in clear and direct language, they offer guidelines given by someone who knows both the roughness of the roads and the fragility of the men who walk them.

From the local superiors, too severe with their subordinates, he demanded greater gentleness and affability. To the missionaries, tempted to be discouraged by the labours of the apostolate, he did not hide how much his fatherly heart was sensitive to the bravery they were showing: “Be encouraged, still thinking of the consolation that we, in Europe, feel, praising the Lord for the courage He gives to those who fight for His love far away”, he wrote in 1568 to Father Gregorio Serrano, in a mission in the recently discovered Brazil.

However, in the face of stubborn religious, he knew how to use the authority conferred by his position and would not allow any complacency. One of his biographers comments that “he was emphatic, saying that St. Ignatius preferred to see a bad person leave the Company than to see a good person enter it“.

Departure to eternal glory

For seven years he governed the Society of Jesus. In those seven years he had the grave responsibility of forming the first generation of religious who had not known the founder, a task he carried out with exquisite fidelity. Under his generalate, the Order acquired stability, opened numerous colleges and consolidated itself in the missions. In such a short period 66 Jesuits were martyred, among them Blessed Ignatius de Azevedo and his 39 companions.

The death of St. Francis Borgia, which occurred in Rome in the early hours of October 1, 1572, was a joyful departure for the Eternal Homeland, proper to one who had given everything for God and was about to receive incomparably more from Him.

Let us pray that from Heaven Saint Francis Borgia may lead us to the most daring and courageous evangelizing initiatives that the greater glory of God so richly deserves.

Text taken, with adaptations, from the magazine Heralds of the Gospel, Sept. 2011, n. 117.

Compiled by Roberta MacEwan

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