The Borgia who became a Jesuit in secret

St Francis Borgia (October 10), cousin of Emperor Charles V, became known as the Jesuits’ ‘second founder’

St Francis Borgia Helping a Dying Impenitent by Francisco GoyaSt Francis Borgia Helping a Dying Impenitent by Francisco Goya

The Borgia family is generally associated with murder, intrigue and debauchery. Francis Borgia (1510-72), however, proved an outstandingly virtuous exception.

The great-grandson of Pope Alexander VI, and of King Ferdinand V of Aragon, Francis began his career in Spain as a favourite of his cousin, the Emperor Charles V. He married a Portuguese aristocrat in 1529 and fathered eight children.

In 1539 his appointment as Viceroy of Catalonia appeared to be the crown of a successful secular career. Up to this point, he had been merely conventionally religious.

Now, though, wrestling with his responsibilities as viceroy, Francis found himself changing. “He saw with other eyes than before; he spoke with another tongue, because his heart also was not the same.”

Indeed, he took Communion so frequently that he attracted criticism from those who felt that it was unfitting for a mere layman to presume so much.

In 1543 Francis succeeded as Duke of Gandia and retired to his estates in order to devote himself to piety and good works. Then in 1546 the death of his beloved wife persuaded him to abandon all secular pursuits and join the Society of Jesus. From Rome, Ignatius Loyola counselled delay, that he might see through the education of his children. Nevertheless, Francis secretly joined the Society of Jesus in 1547 and in 1550 travelled to Italy to meet Ignatius Loyola.

Back in Spain he resigned his dukedom and lands to his eldest son, and retired to the hermitage of Oñate, near Loyola, in the north of the country. Here he was condemned to menial labour and treated with especial harshness. The only time Francis complained, however, was when he was addressed as an aristocrat.

Still, rank will out, especially in the Catholic Church. In 1554 Loyola made Francis Borgia head of the Jesuits in Spain, where he vastly increased the Society’s reach. He also visited the abdicated Emperor Charles V on his deathbed in 1558. Summoned to Rome in 1561, Francis soon won the admiration of Cardinal Charles Borromeo and Cardinal Antonio Ghislieri, the future Pius V.

In 1565 he was elected vicar general of the Jesuits, an office he discharged with such energy that he has been called the Society’s second founder.

He established a new province in Poland, new colleges in France and initiated Jesuit missionary work in the Americas. His emissaries visited Brazil, India and Japan.

In Rome, where he became a close adviser of Pius V, he worked fearlessly to help plague victims and to feed the poor. He also built the church of St Andrew on the Quirinal, and began the Gesù church.

Francis Borgia sought humility before all other virtues. “Hell is my due,” he reflected when feted by crowds. He was canonised in 1671.