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  • Writer's pictureLucy Vinten

St Francis Borgia SJ

Francis Borgia was the 4th Duke of Gandiá, a great-grandson of Pope Alexander VI, Viceroy of Catalonia, a diplomat, musician and composer, husband, and father of eight children. Yet at the age of 40, after his wife died, this grandee of Spain put aside worldly things, renounced his titles and joined the Society of Jesus.

The Jesuits were still a fledging organisation when he joined in 1550, started by St Ignatius Loyola a mere decade earlier. The Society had attracted recruits quickly and grown rapidly both in numbers and in geographical spread. It needed men of diplomatic and administrative skill to manage this expansion. Borgia’s organisational talents were soon recognised by the Catholic church – Pope Julius II wanted to make him a cardinal, a fate Borgia avoided by quietly leaving Rome and spending some time in Catalonia. However, his talents were also appreciated by the Jesuits, who put them to good use. Borgia was first made the Jesuit Commissary-General of Spain, then in 1565 was elected Father General – Leader – of the Society of Jesus.

St Francis Borgia reorganised Jesuit training, separating the novices out from the professed Jesuits and establishing regulated novitiates and flourishing houses of study so that the spiritual and intellectual welfare of young Jesuits could be fostered. He promoted Jesuit education for laypeople, starting many schools across all Jesuit provinces. He founded the College in Rome, now known as the Gregorian University. This was the first of the very many universities founded and run by the Jesuits worldwide.

St Francis Borgia wrote a new set of Rules for the Society and its worldwide missions, and closely supervised all aspects of the ever-enlarging order. So great was his influence on the Jesuit organisation that he became known as the second founder of the Society, after St Ignatius Loyola. St Francis Borgia died in 1572, was beatified in 1624 by Pope Urban VIII and canonized by Clement X in 1670.

In the British Jesuit Archive, Borgia’s importance to the Jesuits can be judged from the large number of copies of books about him in our Rare Books collection. Not long after Borgia died his biography was written by the Jesuit writer and historian Pedro de Ribadeneira, who had also written the life of St Ignatius Loyola. This appeared in Spanish and was soon translated by Andrew Scott into Latin. Our collection has two copies of the first Latin edition, which was printed in 1596 in Rome and a copy of an edition of 1603, printed in Mainz.

The two copies of the 1596 edition have stamps in them indicating they belonged to British and Irish Jesuit training houses in the last 150 or so years. The 1603 edition has an inscription indicating that it was in the library of the English College in Liege, which existed between 1773 and 1794, and is the predecessor of Stonyhurst College.

1. Schott, De Vita Francisci Borgiae, 1596 - title page

2. Schott, De Vita Francisci Borgiae, 1596 - frontispiece

3. Ribadeneira, Vita Francisco Borgia, 1603 - title page

4. Ribadeneira, Vita Francisco Borgia, 1603 - frontispiece

5. Compendium Vitae... B. Francisci Borgiae, 1671 - title page

6. Verjus, Vie de St Francois Borgia, 1672 - title page

7. Cien-Fuegos, A Heroica Vida, Virtudes e Milagres do grande S. Francisco de Borja, 1757 - title page

St Francis Borgia’s canonisation in 1670 led to a flurry of new books about his life, as well as new editions of older ones. Two of the books about him in our collection were published immediately after his canonisation, one in 1671 in Mainz and the other, in French, in Paris in 1672. His continued importance to the Society throughout the eighteenth century is shown by the publication of a biography in Portugal in 1757. New biographies of St Francis Borgia were written in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and the older ones continued to be reprinted – for example, Ribadeneira’s Life of the Borgia was reprinted in 1945, and we have a copy of this in our library.

The Jesuit Rare Book collection reflects the interests of the Jesuits throughout the centuries. The years immediately after the death of St Francis Borgia and immediately after his canonisation both saw a number of books printed about him which the British Jesuits felt worth keeping, and their ongoing interest in him is shown by the constant trickle of new publications from different regions and in different languages which they retained and cared for in their collection. Book collecting policies are an insight into the interests of an organisation, and these examples from our collection highlights the continuing interest in and importance of St Francis Borgia.

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