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St Francis Borgia
Third General of the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) (entered heaven in 1572)
Beware of success, my talented young nephew. You have been given so many talents and opportunities, and you have been so diligent in taking advantage of them, and you are already beginning to taste their sweet fruit… Nothing wrong with that, mind you – but it will bring temptations in tow. You (and all of us, really) ought to think every once in a while (or more often, perhaps) about the figure of Judas. For years he lived and worked at the very side of Jesus. He was a natural leader, with a privileged education, in charge of the practical affairs of the band of Christ’s Apostles. And yet, he betrayed the Lord. Some say it was because of greed, others because of pride, but whatever the reasons, the fact remains: Judas was chosen to be Christ’s follower, and he betrayed the Lord. You too have been chosen to be Christ’s follower, and there is a potential Judas lurking inside you.
On that note, today’s saint offers a fruitful contemplation. Francis Borgia was a Spanish nobleman of remarkably high rank: grandson of a king (and a Pope – don’t be scandalized; not every Pope was a saint) and cousin to the Emperor Charles V. He married well, had eight children, and bounced around royal society taking various positions (viceroy, duke, protector, etc.) for the first half of his life. When his wife died (their youngest child was eight) it was a heavy blow to him; it sorely tested his faith. But he came through even more determined to continue serving God and neighbor with vigor and intelligence. St Ignatius had recently founded the Jesuits, and Francis was deeply attracted by their zeal and their particular mission of combining the contemplative life and the active life. He made a secret, private vow to enter the order, and St Ignatius himself advised him to set all his affairs in order (especially providing for his children) before making the news public. He did so, and eventually his desire was granted. When he was forty years old, he went to Rome and entered the Society of Jesus. The “duke turned Jesuit,” as he was called, learned humility and prayer through the rigors of religious life, where his superiors made sure that he spent plenty of time washing dishes and cleaning floors, to purify him from any left-over arrogance or pride, but throughout the years preceding his ordination he demonstrated exemplary virtue. Once he was ordained, he began preaching extensively, and was put in charge of all the Jesuits in Portugal in Spain. Soon thereafter he was called back to Rome, where he became the most popular preacher to the Pope and Cardinals, and was named General of the Jesuit Order. He put his vast experience of government and diplomacy (and his many personal connections with European nobility) to work and gave much needed structure and stability to the flourishing order, such that he is often referred to as the “second founder” of the Jesuits. His seven years of brilliant and energetic leadership included starting Jesuit missions to the Americas, establishing the Roman College (now known as the Gregorian University), building churches and seminaries, and numorous other endeavors. By the time he died, he was already acclaimed as a saint from one end of Europe to the other.
What was the secret of this paean of Christian virtue? The more renown and attention he received, the more self-effacing he became. When one of his companions asked him why, he remarked that for six years he had meditated on the life of Christ, and in those meditations he always put himself at the feet of Judas. Why? Because St Francis Borgia recognized the potential Judas in himself, and that kept him humble.
As you continue to climb the ladder of success, may God grant you the same grace.