Upon researching for my new book, How the Saints shaped History, I reached the conclusion that St. Ignatius Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, was the MVP of the Catholic Counter-Reformation. And that is a bold statement, given the many saints who helped turn the Catholic Church from the mess she was in to a much better place of spiritual renewal. What Ignatius and the Jesuits did in fanning across Europe to light fires of reform and renewal was remarkable. He fostered individual renewal via his Spiritual Exercises (which most every significant Counter-Reformation leader participated in) and spearheaded education, holiness of life, and orthodox teaching throughout the continent. But Ignatius is not my story.

Often, when a great leader founds an organization, it is difficult to impossible for any successor to carry on with the same success. Ignatius lit a fire, but alas, in 1558, he died. Whither the Jesuits in the wake of their founder’s death? Ignatius’s immediate successor was Diego Laynez, who served from 1558 to 1565. One of the original seven Jesuits, he was a good leader but not in the same league as the great Ignatius.

Enter St. Francis Borgia, of the infamous Borgia family of Spain. Francis led the Jesuits from 1565 to 1572 and was so successful that he is often considered their second founder. But what an irony that he was a Borgia. The House of Borgia was a mostly Spanish power family in the 15th and 16th centuries, rivaling the equally infamous Medici family of Florence. These two families each had the power to place their own family members as popes. These popes were among a line of so-called “Renaissance Popes” of the late 15th and early 16th centuries who were more involved in politics, art patronage, immorality, and fighting wars than pastoral care of the Church.

The Borgias specialized in attainment of wealth and influence, were active in secular and ecclesial politics, and advanced the family’s fortunes by nepotism and inter-marrying. Although historians are not in agreement on just how notorious the Borgias were, it is fair to say they were significantly morally challenged. Adulterous affairs, out-of-wedlock children, dishonesty, and power-grubbing were common. They produced two Renaissance popes, Alphons Borgia, who reigned as Pope Callixtus from 1455 to 1458, and Rodrigo Borgia, first appointed a Cardinal by his uncle, Pope Callixtus (a common practice) who reigned as Pope Alexander VI from 1492 to 1503 (and from whom Francis was descended). Neither distinguished himself as pope. Historians differ on whether Alexander was a flawed, mediocre pope or a morally bankrupt pope who fathered numerous children from concubines during his papacy. This line of Renaissance popes, Alexander included, was instrumental in leading the Church downward and even into corruption, helping to trigger the Protestant Reformation. The Borgias: a charming family indeed.

But, from the Borgias arose Francis. Born into the wealth and position of this family in 1510, son of a Duke and the illegitimate daughter of a King, Francis was highly intelligent, devout, desired to be a monk, and even a skilled composer of sacred music. Before he was twenty, his family placed him as an advisor to Charles V, Holy Roman Emperor and in the ensuing years, he held several other illustrious positions in Spain that his family name and his skills opened up for him. In 1529 he married a Portuguese noblewoman. Francis and his wife Eleanor became parents of eight children, raising them in the faith. But, in 1546, after 17 years of marriage, Eleanor died. Mindful of a possible calling to the religious life that he had harbored throughout his life, Francis decided to join the Jesuits. He was ordained in 1550 and turned over his sizable wealth to a relative and made arrangements for his children. Only four years later, Ignatius appointed this devout and highly skilled administrator as head of the Jesuits in his native Spain, where he vigorously founded monasteries and colleges, expanding the Jesuit presence. He was an extraordinary preacher and drew huge crowds in Spain to hear his sermons.

In 1565, Francis became the third head of the Jesuit order and carried on the extraordinary work that Ignatius had begun into the teeth of the Protestant Reformation and, perhaps more importantly, into the teeth of the flaws and spiritual lethargy so widespread throughout the Catholic Church. He was an advisor to popes, especially to Pope St. Pius V, the pivotal reforming pope, whose reign as pope coincided with Francis’s tenure as head of the Jesuits. Francis expanded the reach of the Jesuits in Europe, fostered and guided the burgeoning overseas missionary endeavors, built churches in Rome, founded what became the Gregorian University, revised the order’s rules, and generally advanced spiritual reform throughout the Catholic world. All the while, he exuded humility and sanctity, prompting others to consider him a living saint. He died in 1572, exhausted after a preaching tour of Spain.

This is his more well-known legacy. However, Francis made one other lesser known but truly vital contribution to the history of the Church. He facilitated the ministry of St. Teresa of Avila. Without Francis, it is possible that Teresa would not have gotten off the ground in her life’s work, and consequently we might not have even known of Teresa. During the crucial time of Teresa’s deep conversion, she experienced supernatural visions. These troubled and confused her. Were they of divine origin, from the devil, or out of her imagination? She confided her concerns with her spiritual advisor as she sought to discern. Her advisor indicated his sense that indeed these visions were from God. That gave her the assurance she needed to accept them as divine and move forward in her spiritual life and ministry. That spiritual advisor: none other than St. Francis Borgia, then a recently ordained Jesuit priest. It is Teresa herself, who credits Francis in her Autobiography, with vital assistance in discerning the divine origin of her visions.

It is hard to underestimate the impact on the Church of this too little-known saint. His legacy is in the shadow of the great St. Ignatius but, when we shine light on that shadow, we see one of the more consequential figures in the history of the Catholic Church.

St. Francis Borgia, pray for us!

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