Saint May 11 : St. Francis of Girolamo, a Priest who Walked the Streets with a Bell Inviting People to Communion
St. Francis of Girolamo
17 December 1642 at Grottaglie, Apulia, near Taranto, Italy
11 May 1716 at Naples, Italy
26 May 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI
In that part of the kingdom of Naples which is commonly called Terra d'Otranto, a small village near Taranto gave birth to St. Francis di Girolamo. This event, which was destined to exercise so important an influence over the world in these latter times, took place upon the 17th of December, 1642. His parents, John Leonard di Girolamo and Gentilesca Gravina, were distinguished less by the honorable station which they occupied in society, than by their virtues and the excellent education they gave to their children—eleven in number, of whom Francis was the eldest.
But not only was virtue thus the inheritance of our saint, and as it were the natural growth of his soul, but it sprung up therein with an energy that early developed the rich qualities of the soil it occupied. A judgment beyond his years, a sweet submission and obedience to his parents, a virginal modesty, and an ardent love of prayer and retirement, marked the childhood of the saint, and betokened his future greatness and sanctity. At a proper age the holy youth was admitted to the sacraments of Penance and the Eucharist; from which moment his hunger and thirst for this sacred banquet constantly increased, drew him to its participation as often as possible, and nourished in him that love for our Lord, which kept him ever in communion with the Spouse of souls. His pious parents were careful to cultivate the extraordinary talents with which God had blessed him, by procuring him early instruction. He was taught the rudiments of the Latin tongue, which he acquired with surprising facility; and so quickly did he learn, and so correctly retain, the truths of religion, that already, in his tender years, he commenced his apostolic career, by teaching the children of his own age their catechism. When he was sixteen years of age, his parents, ever watchful over his interests, sent him to Taranto, that he might study philosophy and theology in the schools of the Society of Jesus. Here his exemplary conduct won for him the esteem and affection of his venerable archbishop, who, more and more persuaded of his worthiness, advanced him successively to the minor orders, subdeaconship and deaconship. With the consent of his parents he went to Naples, in order to acquire the canon and civil law, at the same time that he prosecuted the study of theology. But what Francis had most at heart-to complete the dedication of himself to God-occupied his first thoughts on arriving at Naples. Wherefore, procuring dimissorial letters from his archbishop, and a dispensation from the pope, on account of his age, he received priest's orders from the hands of Don Sanchez de Herrera, bishop of Possuoli. Deeply penetrated with a sense of the awful responsibility he had assumed, and the exalted dignity with which he was invested, Francis, although pure and holy and studious before, became now more watchful, fervent, and assiduous, and dreaded lest the shadow of imperfection should obscure for a moment the virginal purity of his soul. And though he lived in the world as one not belonging to the world, still he was now anxious to quit it entirely, and to betake himself to some solitude far removed from its dissipations and the breath of its polluted atmosphere, where he might have full leisure to attend to his advancement in learning and sanctity. Heaven granted the wish of its favored servant. A prefect's post became vacant in the College of Nobles of the Society of Jesus. Francis applied for, and obtained it. The youths who were submitted to his care, were not slow to discover that a saint had been set over them. His countenance and demeanor, his amiable manners and sweet and pious conversation, the austerities and mortifications which all his efforts did not entirely conceal, soon manifested the exalted degree of perfection which he had attained.
After five years' residence there, in the situation of prefect, our saint, in his twenty-eighth year, felt a sudden and strong inclination to enter the Society. Indeed, he had all the qualifications requisite to become a member, and though the idea presented itself to him for the first time, his mind was prepared to receive it with avidity, from the sentiments which he had long cherished, and which his education among the Jesuits, and his long connection since with the order, had considerably strengthened. But now an obstacle arose, which it cost the saint no little pains to overcome. This was his father's opposition to the step. He wrote Francis a long and vehement letter, full of pathetic remonstrances, which the saint so affectionately and eloquently answered, as at least to subdue his reluctance, and induce him to acquiesce in the will of God. Thus all difficulties being removed, on the eve of the Visitation of Our Lady, in the year 1670, being then in his twenty-eighth year, he repaired to the house of probation to perform his novitiate.
No sooner did Francis find himself admitted among the novices, and bearing the sacred habit, than his soul burst into lively effusions of gratitude; and with such zeal did he apply himself to the duties now imposed upon him, that the master of the novices soon perceived what an acquisition the Society had made. A more fervent, mortified, and obedient novice than Francis, never was found. He scrupulously complied with the minutes" and most irksome ordinances. Being of a meek and affable disposition, he won the hearts of others by his amiable conduct; and, being appointed to preside over the lay-novices, his exalted virtues and profound spirituality speedily wrought a beneficial change in their dispositions. Armed at all points, and strengthened against every assailant, he issued from the first year of his novitiate, exulting like a giant, to run the career of apostolic virtue. He was sent to Leece, together with the celebrated Father Agnello Bruno, and during three years, these holy missionaries traversed every city and village in the two provinces of Terra d'Otranto, and in that of Apulia, preaching, and converting, wherever they went, an infinite number of sinners. It used to be said of them, "Father Bruno and Father Girolamo seem not mere mortals, but angels sent expressly to save souls." In 1674, our saint was recalled to Naples, in order to finish his course of scholastic theology, previous to his being solemnly professed. When his studies were completed, he was, in 1675, by a special disposition of Providence, appointed to the church called the Gesu Nuovo, where he commenced the labors of that apostolic career, which he continued for forty years, without intermission, unto the close of his earthly pilgrimage. For the first three years, indeed, his only fixed duty was to give the invitation to communion, as is the custom in that church, on the third Sunday of every month; which task, however, is arduous enough to discourage any but a most zealous laborer. Yet, oven this and the other incessant works of charity in which he spent these three years, could not satisfy the cravings of our saint's zeal. Wherefore, on the news reaching him that the mission of Japan was once more to be opened, he importuned the superiors, by letters dispatched to Rome, to let him have a part in this glorious enterprise, so that he might slake, in some degree, the burning thirst which devoured him. For his desire had ever been to die for the faith, yet was he content to linger out a painful life, amidst the thorns of martyrdom, even though it should be denied him to pluck the rose he so much coveted. The answer came, precise and peremptory. He was to consider Naples as his <India>, and to perfect the sacrifice he had made of himself to God, by the surrender of his inclinations. Thenceforward he looked upon Naples as that province in the vineyard of our Lord, which the divine husbandman wished him to exclusively cultivate. Such was the sovereign will of God, manifested in the command of his superiors, and in which our humble saint acquiesced without hesitation; nor was that Providence, which rules events, slow in carrying its purpose into effect.
The superiors, in 1678, confided the whole mission to Francis. Here it may be proper to describe the duties such a charge imposed. First, to watch over and maintain the fervor of a pious congregation, who assisted at all the processions, and were the right arm of the missionary: secondly, to preach every Sunday and festival-day during the year, in the squares or other frequented parts of the city; and this not only in Naples, but also in other towns and provinces of the kingdom. And thirdly, to give the monthly invitations to communion. Our saint undertook the first of these obligations with an ardor only surpassed by the success which attended his efforts. He reformed all abuses, and excluded every imperfection that could retard the spiritual advancement of his scholars. He introduced, or established among them, the custom of frequenting the sacraments every Sunday, and on all the festivals of our Lady, and the practice of mental as well as vocal prayer, and of public penance and humiliation. The law of the Gospel he was careful to instil into them by frequent exhortations, and he gave efficacy to his precepts by his example. But as the members of this confraternity were destined to be his partners and coadjutors in the apostolic ministry, he was, above all, assiduous in kindling and keeping alive the flames of zeal in their breasts; so that they became his zealous and indefatigable assistants. Besides this, he chose seventy-two of the most efficient and capable, with whom he held counsel twice a month, and sent them into the heart of the city, to spy out the evil that existed, and learn what souls stood most in need of ghostly and bodily succor. The vigilance he exercised over all, extended to each in particular. With marvellous dexterity he practiced what St. Basil calls the insinuating arts of grace. His charity also and forbearance were unbounded: in sickness he never abandoned them a moment, but continued his affectionate attentions to the last. Another practice, to which he had recourse, to promote piety, was the visit to the seven churches, in commemoration of our Redeemer's seven journeys. This was performed in the following manner: a procession, carrying the crucifix, chanted the litanies as they went, and at every church where they stopped, Francis delivered an impressive exhortation. The devotion terminated with a renewal of the oblation each one made of himself, to our Lord Jesus and our Lady, with vows of perpetual fidelity.
The second duty, of preaching in public, embraced a much more extensive range, and required a proportionately greater degree of toil. When the Sunday came, he first spent two hours in mental prayer, then said Mass, and afterwards recited the Canonical Hours, bareheaded and kneeling, either in his room, or in the church before the blessed Sacrament. His private devotions being satisfied, he spent the rest of the morning in the Confessional, or with his congregation. At the appointed hour the saint and his companions went into the streets in procession, and then, distributing themselves in divers parts, began to preach to the people. Francis usually mounted a stage, near or opposite to the dancers or mountebanks, who either slunk away at his approach, or vainly strove, through rage and spite, to distract the attention of the audience, who were fascinated by his eloquence. After the discourse, he would kneel at the foot of the cross, and scourge his shoulders with the discipline: then once more he betook himself to the Confessional, where he remained till the doors of the church were closed. Still his ardor longed for more extensive occupation; and, with the approbation of the superiors, and the concurrence of his companions, he repeated the missionary labors on holidays, during the week as well as Sundays.
The third duty annexed to his charge was the invitation to communion. For nine days preceding the third Sunday of every month he went about the principal streets, along with a few companions; by ringing a little bell, he gave notice of the approaching day of communion; and, to excite the attention of his hearers, recited, in a loud voice, some short, but sententious maxim or admonition from Holy Writ. Thus he continued all the morning until dinner-hour, and after noon resumed his task with never-wearying zeal till nightfall.
In the suburbs, also, of Naples, he performed this laborious duty; nor is it easy to conceive the pains and privations it cost him; how, under the scorching sun, or pouring rain, he journeyed through marshes, over rocks, oft times to the peril of life and limb, and always on foot, until, in his latter days, he was constrained to ride. When the day arrived, and from fifteen to twenty thousand communicants appeared, Francis used his strenuous efforts to keep order among them. The troops of men and women who came from the adjoining towns and villages, he received at the door, and placed in their respective posts. The children, crowned with cowers, were welcomed by him with tears of joy; but it was in imparting to them the life-giving food, that his soul overflowed with tenderness, and the love of Jesus beamed from his countenance, and thrilled in the fervid expressions with which he excited their devotion. Such were the labors of our saint's mission, and such the manner he discharged them. On the feast of the Immaculate Conception of our Lady, in the year 1682, Francis made his solemn profession; on which occasion he manifested that humility which distinguished him, by falling on his knees in public, and kissing the feet of the superior, thanking him aloud for admitting so unworthy a member into the society.
Before we enter further into the detail of his apostolic career, it may not be improper to give some notions of that quality whereby he wrought so many wonders,—his extraordinary eloquence. His voice was loud and sonorous, and was heard distinctly at a great distance; and the style of his preaching was copious, simple, and impressive. No one ever knew the human passions better, or swayed them with more tact and delicacy. Sometimes he stole upon his hearers with an insinuating grace, that charmed them almost unconsciously into persuasion, at other times, he would pour out such a volley of arguments, sustained by suitable quotations from Scripture, or the fathers, and illustrated by all the images of a lively fancy, so as to overpower all opposition, and force conviction on the most stubborn. His descriptions were forcible and graphic; his pathetic appeals were sure to draw tears, and his energy astounded and terrified. Indeed, he was accustomed to speak with so much vehemence, as occasionally to bring blood to his lips: he often talked himself hoarse, and till his palate was parched; and once, in the midst of an animated invective against sins, he dropped down suddenly and swooned away. The method he ordinarily pursued in his discourses, was first to paint the enormous malice of sin and the terrors of the Divine judgments, in colors so striking as to raise self-indignation and alarm in sinners. Then, changing his tone with a master-skill, he dwelt upon the sweetness and mildness of Jesus Christ, so as to make despair give way to hope, and the most hardened melt into compunction. This moment he seized, to make an appeal so tender and so overpowering as to cause his hearers to bend their knees before the image of their crucified Lord, and implore, in tears, and sobs, and broken accents, forgiveness and reconciliation. It was usual for him to subjoin, at the conclusion, some striking example of God's chastisements or favors, whereby his audience might carry away a deeper and more lively impression of the truths he had just been inculcating. His eloquence, however, was less the result of any natural talent, than of his ardent love of God and zeal for his service. When he was to preach, he used to note down in few words his arguments, authorities, and examples; and at the foot of the crucifix, he prepared himself to treat on his affairs with men, by communing with God. Thence, like another Moses, he descended—all on fire from his colloquy with the Deity; and it seemed as if God himself often inspired him with expressions of supernatural efficacy.
It was matter of surprise to all who knew him, how he could possibly go through so many labors, which were more than sufficient to occupy five missionaries, and far beyond the natural strength of his weak constitution and emaciated frame; so that it was not unreasonably thought, that to prolong such exertions for the space of forty years, he must have been supported by a miracle. He was in constant attendance on the hospitals, prisons, and galleys, besides visiting the sick in their houses, and ministering to the spiritual necessities of monasteries, asylums, confraternities, and schools. The consequence of these labors was the amendment of numberless sinners; the conversion of several Turkish infidels to the faith of Jesus Christ; and the introduction of a surprising regularity of manner in those habitual abodes of wretchedness and vice—the galleys and the prisons. His zeal also reclaimed the soldiery from a state of the greatest disorder to the most edifying piety. Still, however, his ardor, which knew no bounds, thirsted for more fruit; accordingly he used to go and preach, during the night, in the very hotbeds and receptacles of vice, that sinners might be awed into repentance by the novelty and solemnity of this warning, at the hour when they least apprehended interruption. Once our saint, being in prayer in his chamber, felt a sudden inspiration to go out and preach, which, by the advice of his superiors, he obeyed. For some time, he wandered in the dark—he knew not whither, till he came to the corner of a street, where he began to preach on the necessity of immediate correspondence with the divine grace; and having finished, returned home, satisfied with having complied with his duty, though ignorant to what purpose, or with what fruit. The next morning, however, a young woman came to him to confession; and, with signs of the bitterest compunction, told him that when in company, the evening before with her paramour, her attention was suddenly arrested by his voice in the street, denouncing God's vengeance against unrepenting and procrastinating sinners, which so terrified her that she began to exhort her partner in guilt to break off their unlawful intercourse. To this, however, he would by no means consent, and even laughed at and derided the holy man's threats: when, to her horror, she beheld their awful fulfilment. For the man suddenly ceasing to speak, she found him a breathless corpse; his soul having taken its flight to God's tribunal, while the words of blasphemy were yet upon his lips. Plunged into the greatest alarm by this catastrophe, she implored pardon of God, with sighs and tears, and now came to effect her reconciliation, and to expiate her past scandals by a life of penance.
Francis had to experience many mortifying contradictions. Yielding to certain representations, the cardinal archbishop forbade him to preach any more. The humble saint uttered no complaint or remonstrance, but consoled his zeal by a perpetual attendance in the confessional. Soon after, moved by the conduct of the saint, as well as by the entreaties of wiser and more virtuous advisers, who assured him that he was depriving Naples of its apostle, the cardinal gave Francis back his faculties. For the purpose of proving his virtue, the superior forbade him to quit the house without obtaining express permission—a command with which Francis for several months scrupulously complied; till she father, edified by his humility, and convinced of his virtue, removed the restraint. Even the lay-brother who was assigned him, being a man of morose temper, was a great cause of trouble to him. Where his zeal thought to effect most good, it often met with the harshest construction and reproof. He was abused as a meddling busybody-a disturber of the public quiet. He was often overwhelmed with outrages, and more than once turned out of doors. A certain cavalier had such an aversion for him, that he could not bear his presence. A large sum was entrusted to Francis for this person, with whom he more than once sought an interview, without being able to attain it. "Well!" said the cavalier, who admitted him at last, "what brings you here? the usual story! charity, I suppose—I've nothing for you." My lord duke," replied the saint, "I certainly have a small favor to ask, which is, that you would exercise your benevolence so far as to furnish a poor person with money to purchase a bed to sleep upon. And this cannot inconvenience you, for in the purse I here present, you will find two hundred ducats, which I have been the means of restoring to you." The cavalier exclaimed, in a rage: "That's not all." "Nay," replied the saint, "I know nothing, but that such a sum was given to me." "And by whom?" "I cannot inform you." Whereupon he snatched the purse out of his hands, and turning his back upon him, left him to depart. But not long after he had occasion to recall him: for falling dangerously ill, he was anxious to conciliate the man he had so grossly insulted; and though he was then forty miles distant from Naples, he sent for him. The saint assisted him at the hour of his death, to his great spiritual advantage and consolation.
His charity, indeed, towards those who injured him, was remarkable. Attempting one day to quell a strife among some soldiers, he received from one of them a blow upon the head that drew blood copiously: and when the captain, hearing of it, would have punished the man severely for the sacrilege, our saint did not desist from his entreaties until he obtained his pardon. Even in the tribunal of confession he was not secure from insults. Two poor women had come from a great distance to confession, and were anxious to get home early, as there was no one to take care of their houses in their absence. Whereupon the saint requested a man, who was also waiting, to allow them precedence. This he did, but with a very bad grace. He even threw out a slanderous insinuation against the saint, who, after he had dismissed the women, heard the confession of this very man, and treated him with so much sweetness and charity, that he sent him away with an altered temper and feelings of esteem and admiration.
One of the most frequent and effectual instruments which our saint employed for the sanctification of souls, were the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius. It is impossible to conceive with what energy and fruit he delivered the meditations which compose this course of Christian philosophy. Often he was obliged to interrupt his discourses, that the sighs, tears, and, sobs which they occasioned, might subside. Private individuals, as well as communities-ignorant and learned-the aged and the young of both sexes, alike profited by his exhortations, and to such a pitch of enthusiasm did he excite tile compunction of sinners, that they openly declared their offences and inflicted severe chastisements upon themselves, so that sometimes it was necessary to restrain their ardor. Nor was this a transient effect, but a durable benefit; hence followed many conversions of sinners, who for ten, twenty, or thirty, or even fifty years, had thrown off the yoke of religion. Indeed, Francis possessed a wonderful tact in bringing back sinners to duty, as the following examples will show.
A certain man had not been to the sacraments for five-and-twenty years; at length, admonished more than once in a dream to have recourse to our saint, he obeyed, to his own great happiness and the glory of Our Lady, to whose mercy he was indebted for the admonition. Another, commencing his confession, was asked by the saint, how long it was since he had last made it; whereat he burst into tears, and besought the holy mall not to dismiss him, for that he was a great sinner; but he, bidding him not be discouraged, asked him if it was ten, twenty, or fifty years? "Fifty," said he, "exactly, father, have I kept aloof from God." "Kept aloof from God?" repeated Francis, "why should you avoid so tender a parent-a Saviour, who has poured out the last drop of his blood for you? Nay, rather turn and meet Him who has been running after you so long." And the man confessed with sincerity and compunction all the crimes he had committed, and thenceforward led a virtuous life. An inveterate sinner was once dying, without giving any sign of hope, or manifesting a wish to repent. After Francis had urged him long in vain to confide in the mercies of God, suddenly changing his tone, he thus addressed him: "Do you think that God incurs any obligation, if you accept his offer of Paradise; or that he must needs mourn if you prefer hell? how many princes and nobles are lost, whom God suffers to perish; and do you suppose God cares more for you? If <you> will be damned, be so;" and he turned away from him. This sudden and impressive address wrought a wonderful change in the dying man, who in agony of grief and alarm, besought the saint not to abandon him. He then confessed his sins, with every demonstration of sincere contrition, and expired full of hope. Indeed, no heart, however hardened, could withstand the exhortations of the holy man. A young man once threw himself at the feet of the saint, exclaiming: "Father, behold here, not a human being, but a very demon: a soul abandoned to despair. Many years ago, a confessor denied me absolution; I have never since confessed, never heard mass, never entered a church, or even as much as recited a Hail Mary, or made the sign of the cross. Alas, I have even gone so far in wickedness as to league myself with Satan, and to have recourse to his aid, through those who are skilled in the black art. Can I, after such a life, presume to hope; dare I ask for mercy?" "Why not, my son?" replied Francis: "it is true thy crimes are great, yet cloth the mercy of God surpass their magnitude: was it not for sinners that Jesus Christ died? There is yet pardon for thee, if thou wilt seek it earnestly, and fervently, and set about reforming instantly thy life." These consoling words revived the sinner, long dead in iniquity, and gave to God a persevering penitent.
Still more remarkable is the following occurrence, which the saint was accustomed to relate in his public sermons. One day a young man presented himself before him, with a grave and devout air: "Father," said he, "I am come to declare to you the wonders of God's mercy in my regard, and to beseech you both to return him thanks for his signal favors, and to counsel me how I may best profit by them. Many years have elapsed since I was addicted to a certain vice, which struck such deep root into my soul, that God permitted my reason to be clouded, and my heart to be changed, so that I fancied myself a beast. In this persuasion I stripped myself of clothing, and wandered through the fields, and crawled along the ground exposed to the sun and rain, the frost and the snow, in company with the irrational animals, partaking their food, and imitating their cries. After a year of this life it pleased God to take compassion on me, and to restore me to my reason. Words cannot describe the confusion and shame I felt. I clearly perceived that it had been a punishment of my sins. I made the best confession I was able, as soon as I could, and have lived ever since, by God's grace, up to his divine laws. What think you-hath he not used unparalleled mercy towards me?" Our saint, embracing him, said: "In very deed cloth the sinner become like the brute beast, that hath no understanding." He approved his present conduct, confirmed his sentiments, and comforted him by the assurance that God would never withdraw his grace from him, so long as he was faithful to his resolutions.
An assassin, who had been hired to murder some persons, passing a crowd to whom the saint was preaching, stopped on his road, saying within himself, "Perhaps he whom I seek is among this multitude." Whereupon he stood to observe, and could not help hearing the discourse of the preacher, and hearing, was, as it were, spell-bound to the spot. When suddenly these words caught his ear—"thousands bewail past sins, and cost thou, wretched sinner, meditate new crimes? Unhappy creature whom neither the arm of God outstretched to launch his thunderbolts, nor hell opening beneath Thy feet to swallow thee, can deter from thy wickedness!" His guilty conscience smote him, his heart turned away from evil, he confessed his enormities, and from a murderer became a saint. A youth of disordered life was so moved by another sermon of Francis, that overcoming every human respect, he cast himself in public at the foot of the crucifix, and exclaimed—" Father, I am lost: for nearly twenty years I have not been to a confessor," and so saving, wept bitterly, and lashed himself with the discipline. Then, accompanying the confraternity to the Gesu Nuovo, he sought Francis, who embraced him like a tender father, and exhorted him to have confidence in God, with whom he was instrumental in reconciling him. The young man not only forsook his former vicious habits, but exhibited a model of repentance, and persevered in an exemplary life. But if, on the one hand, the happiest results were experienced by all who attended to his counsels, on the other, grievous chastisements often befell those who neglected or despised his warnings. A youth of depraved conduct had the effrontery to laugh at and deride his remonstrances, and even dared to heap abuse upon him. Francis bore all meekly, in imitation of our Blessed Saviour, "who when he was reviled, did not revile;" but God would not suffer such a crime to go unpunished, for shortly after the young man perished miserably in a riot. But it is now time to take a rapid view of his labors out of Naples.
The fame of his great achievements in this city occasioned earnest solicitations to be made, that the fields of his exertions might be extended to the provinces. But Naples was by no means willing to surrender its apostle, even for a short time; and the intervention of several distinguished persons was requisite to effect the desired object. In upwards of a hundred missions which Francis undertook in consequence, he traversed all the provinces of the kingdom, with the exception of the Calabrias. Incredible were the hardships and privations he encountered,—the difficulties and obstacles he surmounted in the execution of this work of charity. Wherever he went, the clergy and most respectable inhabitants came out to meet him, and gave him an honorable reception. Without however losing a moment, the indefatigable servant of God commenced his career by an introductory discourse and an invocation of the tutelar saint and guardian angels of the place. At daybreak he celebrated mass, and spent the remainder of the morning in a manner somewhat similar to that already described, in speaking of his mist signs in Naples. It was an edifying and affecting sight, to witness the communion of the children, and the procession of penitents through the streets. But when at length he came to give the concluding discourse, and to repeat his farewell admonitions, then was it that the fruit of his exertions was perceptible. The seed of grace, which had struck deep root, gave signs of vigorous growth and duration; for when he exhorted the people to perseverance, with one voice they promised to preserve inviolably their engagements; and when he imparted his last blessing, with his customary "adieu, to meet again in Paradise," no words can describe, no imagination is able to conceive, the emotions of the multitude.
Not always, however, did Francis meet with such consoling encouragement to his zeal. The devil, raging to behold so many souls redeemed from his snares by the active charity of the holy man, spared no pains to molest and baffle him, by raising against him hosts of enemies, who threw discredit, upon his conduct, fomented suspicions and jealousies, and waged war against him by every possible art that bad passions or his own malignant spirit could suggest. Hence it not infrequently happened that he experienced insults instead of welcome, on his arrival at places where calumnies had beforehand been industriously spread. Sometimes he found no attention paid to his exhortations; yet, finally, his invincible forbearance and persevering charity, his saintly demeanor-itself a confutation of his calumniators-triumphed over all opposition. Few details respecting these memorable missions have been recorded, but some, preserved by the testimony of eye-witnesses, have been rescued from the oblivion of time.
When the holy man was on his way to Capua, the carriage stuck in a deep ditch, and resisted all the efforts of the driver to extricate it. Whereupon, after the manner of this class of persons, he began to curse and swear. "O my son," cried the saint, "blaspheme not, for God's sake." "Why, father," said the man, would not a saint swear in such an infernal hobble, with nobody near, nor a chance of any one's coming to assist us?" "Have patience," rejoined the holy man; and as he was yet speaking, two robust young men, turning the corner of the road, volunteered their services and relieved the travellers from their difficulty; after which, without waiting to be thanked, they disappeared. Wherever he went he reconciled enemies, converted sinners, besides performing many prodigies.
He had to contend against obstacles of another description. He applied to Monsignor Capece, bishop of Cheti, a capital town of the Abruzzi, for leave to preach there. "Certainly," replied the bishop; "but, Father Francis, you must be forewarned ours is a sensible and cultivated city, accustomed and able to weigh well the force of reason; and therefore you will at once perceive that certain addresses to the senses, such as the exposition of the crucifix, or images of the Virgin and other saints,—things admirable in themselves, would here be quite out of place, and calculated to do more harm than good." "Your lordship's wishes shall assuredly be attended to," said the humble saint, "till such time at least as you yourself shall deem it proper to recall them."
Not long after this the prelate felt an acute pain, for which he could not account; but as his conscience troubled him, he sent word to the saint, that in regard to the subject of their conversation he might use his discretion. The bishop had himself more than one occasion of witnessing the fruit which the practices he was disposed to condemn invariably produced; and Francis knew so well how to employ them, that the mission of Cheti succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectations. With the like fruit did Francis perform the missions in various other towns, working conversions and prodigies too numerous to he here mentioned.
It would be superfluous to enlarge upon the particular virtues of our saint; his public life being rather the subject of this history. Yet are we unwilling to pass over unnoticed, his great and fervent love of Jesus Christ. Especially he honored and worshipped him in his divine infancy, his sacred passion, and his adorable sacrament. When he meditated upon these mysteries, he was always absorbed and penetrated with love; and when he approached the sacrament of the altar, his countenance glowed, as though he stood before a fire. Nothing provoked his indignation, or drew down his severe rebuke, so much as disrespect towards the blessed Eucharist. He removed many abuses: he would not suffer any levity in the church; and once reproved a lady of quality who had remained seated during the consecration. In like manner he was tenderly devoted to our blessed Lady. For twenty-two years he preached a sermon in her praise and honor every week. To youth especially, it was his custom to recommend this devotion as the surest preservation of innocence, and the best remedy after sin: saying that one could hardly be saved who felt no devotion towards the Mother of God.
Mary was his counsellor in doubt, his comfort in toil, his strength in all his enterprises, his refuge in danger and distress. He experienced an inexpressible delight whenever he recited the rosary of our tender Mother. He was likewise particularly devoted to his angel guardian, to St. Francis Xavier, and St. Januarius. His charity, humility, purity, and obedience, were never surpassed; nor did God withhold from him those gifts with which he is pleased at times to favor his chosen servants.
Our saint was favored with the foreknowledge of his dissolution. On the death of his brother he observed, "A year hence we shall meet;" and while he was still in health, taking leave of the nuns of St. Mary del Divino Amore—" My dear daughters," said he, "this is the last time I shall ever address you. Do not forget me in your prayers; adieu till we meet in Paradise." When he was sick, the festival of St. Cyr drawing near, "I shall not live to see it," he exclaimed. And finally, when the physician that attended him paid him his last visit, he thanked him for his attentions, and said:—"We shall never see each other again on this side of the grave, for Monday will be the last day of my life."
During the month of March, 1715, at the beginning of Lent, he was, for the third time, giving the retreat to the students of the noble college, when suddenly he felt a racking fever assail his limbs, insomuch that he was obliged to be carried home. In a few days, however, it was somewhat subdued; and, though weak, he resumed his usual labors. Still his health declined, and towards December his constitution appeared quite broken down. Anxious to preserve so valuable a life, the superior sent him to take the mineral waters of Puzzuoli. But he experienced not the smallest benefit; and in March, 1716, on his return to Naples, he took up his abode in the infirmary. The agonies he suffered are not to be expressed; and yet a murmur never escaped him. "Blessed be God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who consoles us in all tribulation," was his constant exclamation. When some one approached to sympathize with him, the heroic man crossed his hands on his breast, saying: "Crescant in mille millia." He was told of the great good he had achieved. "Nothing, nothing," he cried, "the fault I have most to apprehend is my slothfulness."
Death now began to hasten on apace; wherefore, on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Cross, making a general confession, he received the viaticum; and six days later was anointed. All night long, he gave vent to the fulness of his heart in such expressions as the following-" Let us bless the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; let us praise and exalt Him forever. Great is the Lord, and exceedingly to be praised, in the city of our God, on his holy mountain." Then kissing the wounds of his crucified Saviour, he cried out, weeping, "Remember, dear Jesus, that this soul has cost the ransom of every drop of thy precious blood." And when the infirmarian entreated him to pray rather with his heart than his lips, by reason of the distress which speaking occasioned him: "Ah, my dear brother," said he, "whatsoever we think, or say of so great a God, his greatness is beyond all thought and expression." Then fixing his eyes upon an image of our Lady: "Ah, Mary," said he, "my dearest mother, thou last ever cherished me like a loving parent, though I have been thy too, too unworthy child. Complete now the measure of thy mercies in my regard, by obtaining for me the love of thy divine Son." Then, as though at the gate of Paradise, he exclaimed, "How great is the house of the Lord! Blessed are they who dwell in Thy house, O Lord; forever and ever shall they sing thy praise. Ye holy angels, why delay ye? Open the gates of Justice. Entering therein, I will praise the Lord."
His malady, however, continued for some days longer. Although he had repeatedly expressed a wish to be left alone, it was impossible to keep away numbers, who pressed to see him for the last time, to kiss his hand, and to receive his farewell blessing. With an amiable sweetness, he welcomed them all; and seeing their sorrow, said:-" Weep not; I go to heaven, where I shall remember you, and be better able to assist you." But what sunshine so serene is not occasionally clouded, what sea so calm as never to be ruffled by a storm? It pleased God to enhance our saint's virtue by submitting it to a dreadful trial. The frame of the holy man shook under the severity of the struggle. With a loud cry he called upon the Almighty, the eternal Son, our Lady, and all the saints, to save him. Being asked the cause of this fearful commotion, "I am fighting," he exclaimed, "fighting! pray for God's sake that I may not perish." Then, as if rebuking the evil spirit, he cried-"No, it shall never be. Begone! I have no part with you." His countenance at last brightening, he repeated softly, "'Tis well, 'tis well!" and so saying, chanted the <Magnificat> and <Te Deum>. He was anxious to receive the holy sacrament; but the superior did not judge it advisable, as he had lately been to communion; and the humble saint acquiesced. He now fell into his agony; the recommendation of a departing soul was recited; and, amidst the tears of his brethren, Francis di Girolamo expired, about mid-day, on Monday, the 11th of May, 1716, in the seventy-fourth year of his age, and the forty-sixth of his religious life, having spent forty years in the labors of an apostolic career.
Although, from a motive of prudence, the superior had forbidden the bell to be tolled, to announce his death, there needed no sound to convey the intelligence through the city; it was read in every countenance, and spread so rapidly, that in a short time the Gesu Nuovo was filled with an immense concourse of people of all classes. The infirmarian being desirous of keeping some relic of so holy a man, before he laid him out in the sacerdotal habit, pared off a piece of the hard skin of the sole of his foot. But the pious theft soon became apparent, though he had used every effort to conceal it; for the blood began to flow so freely from the wound, as not merely to stem the knell, but to fill a vial holding three or four ounces: which portion being preserved, retained during three months its ruddiness and liquidity, and wrought many cures.
In the evening the body was carried into the church, that the office might be chanted, and a detachment of Swiss guards was hardly sufficient to protect it from the indiscreet devotion of the crowd. Indeed, three psalms had scarcely been sung, before they broke through all restraint, and pressed towards the body, eager to carry away some relic, especially to dip their handkerchiefs in the blood, which still streamed from the wound already mentioned. At length, the body was removed into a side-chapel, where it was secured against further violence by iron railing, through which, at the same time, it was visible to all. Still it was impossible to refuse the prayer of several devout persons, to be permitted to approach and kiss the hand or the saint, and at night some artists were admitted to take likenesses and effigies of him. A throng of suppliants crowded to the church next morning, and implored the saint to deliver them from their evils and distempers. Nor were they disappointed. Many cures took place on the spot, and the church again and again echoed with the cry of "A miracle, a miracle." Three days the body was left thus exposed, and the fourth was buried in a leaden coffin. On the 3d of July, 1736, leave being obtained, the coffin of our saint was disinterred, and the body was found mouldered into dust, which was carefully collected, deposited in another coffin of wood lined with brass, and translated from the common cemetery to the chapel of Saint Ignatius.
Numerous miracles quickly spread the fame of his holiness throughout Italy. He was scarcely dead, when the most prudent and virtuous individuals gave him the title of saint: and cardinal Orsini, afterwards Benedict XIII., who was singularly devoted to him, preached his panegyric in the cathedral of Benevento. Not long after his decease, the city of Naples, joined by Benevento, Nola, and several others, petitioned the Congregation of Rites to have him beatified; and the juridical process of his virtues and miracles was drawn up, and sent to Rome by Cardinal Pignatelli, in conjunction with other cardinals, nobles, and magistrates of the kingdom. After the requisite preliminaries, a decree declaring his heroic virtues was published by Benedict XIII., on the 2d of May, 1758. His miracles were approved by another, of Pius VII., dated the 9th of February, 1806, and finally the definitive decree of his beatification was issued by the same pontiff, on the feast of St. Joseph in the same year. He was subsequently canonized by Gregory XVI., on Trinity Sunday, 26th May, 1839.
The martyr sheds his blood but once, and is exalted forever; then what I reward will be prepared for the missionary, who, while he burns to die for I the faith, is yet content to live for the greater honor and glory of God, and the profit of his neighbor? He, therefore, who would imbibe the spirit of zeal, and learn the arts of wisdom necessary in directing souls, should study and contemplate the career of that extraordinary man whose virtues and achievements are the subject of the sketch we here present.
SOURCE: LIVES of the Saints - By Alban Butler