Servant of God: Charles Odescalchi, SJ
Born: March 5, 17 86
Died: August 17, 1841
Fr Charles Odescalchi was a cardinal of the Roman Church for fifteen years before he resigned from his rank and exchanged his robes for the Jesuits’ simple cassock. He was born in Rome in the family palace, as his father was a prince of the Roman Empire and duke of Sirmium. Charles received his education at home but showed no inclination toward politics or world affairs. He chose to become a priest and was ordained on December 31, 1808 at the age of twenty-two.
Fr Odescalchi’s first encounter with the Jesuits was in 1809, when he became acquainted with Fr Joseph Pignatelli and his small group of Jesuits who came to Rome following their expulsion from the Kingdom of Naples and he thought of joining the Society. When the Society was restored by Pope Pius VII on August 7, 1814, Fr Odescalchi was among the first to apply and was scheduled to enter the Roman novitiate of Sant Andrea on November 12, 1814, only to have it postponed in obedience to Pope Pius’ wishes. The latter had sought the postponement on behalf of Fr Odescalchi’s younger sister Vittoria who insisted that she could not go on in life without having his brother near her. Fr Odescalchi only reapplied for admission to the Jesuits three years later when Vittoria was married and her future was assured. Again, this time his application was postponed by Pope Pius himself as he did not want to lose Fr Odescalchi’s services. And to ensure that he was always around when needed, the Pope named him as the Sacred Rota. The Jesuit provincial in Rome who was disappointed that Fr Odescalchi could not enter the Society, nevertheless sent him a letter notifying him of his acceptance by the Society in the event that he overcame “certain difficulties.” This letter brought consolation to Fr Odescalchi and gave him hope that his desire would be fulfilled someday. However, little did he know that these “certain difficulties” would increase and it would be twenty years before he was able to call himself a Jesuit.
In 1819 Pope Pius sent Fr Odescalchi to Vienna as papal legate and later on his return he became the Pope’s adviser in naming bishops to vacant sees throughout the world. The Pope was so appreciative of Fr Odescalchi and his administrative abilities that four years later on March 10, 1823, he named him a cardinal when he was only thirty-seven. Thus on 25 th of the month, he was consecrated archbishop of Ferrara. Fr Odescalchi remained in Rome to attend to the Pope whose health was failing. The latter died four months later. Fr Odescalchi only left for Ferrara in September when the next Pope, Leo XII was elected. But within three years he was asked by the new Pope to return to Rome as prefect of the Congregation of Bishops and Regulars, a job he continued to hold under Pope Pius XIII and Gregory XVI until 1834 when the latter appointed him his vicar for the diocese of Rome. Cardinal Odescalchi was now forty-seven and his innermost desire was still to be a Jesuit. However, as the Pope felt that the Church had first claim on the cardinal’s outstanding talents, the latter stayed on in Rome.
In the spring of 1838, after the Cardinal had heroically led the city in organizing medical services for its citizens and set up orphanages to house children who had lost their parents to the plague which ravaged the city a year earlier, he again approached the Pope and asked to resign his office. This time, the Pope left the decision to a committee of four cardinals. However, after weighing Cardinal Odescalchi’s request against his success as the pope’s vicar, his prudence and wisdom as papal adviser, and the great love that the Roman clergy and the faithful had for him, they rejected his request for the good of the Church.
In the summer of 1838, the Pope advised the cardinal to leave Rome for a much-needed rest as the latter had become unwell. But before he left, the cardinal again wrote to the Pope asking for his resignation to be accepted. As the Pope could no longer go against the divine motions in his friend’s soul, he accepted the resignation on October 31 1838. On November 3, Fr Odescalchi wrote to Fr John Roothaan, the Jesuit general in Rome and informed him of the Pope’s acceptance of his resignation and to affirm that he was prepared to enter the Society.
Fr Odescalchi entered the Jesuit novitiate in Verona on December 6, 1838 and pronounced his three vows on February 2, 1840. During his years as a Jesuit he chose not to exercise his episcopal powers and preferred to be called “Father.” He spent the remaining eighteen months of his life as spiritual father to young Jesuits at the seminary in Modena. During this time he was in great demand for parish missions and retreats to clergy and seminarians. Fr Odescalchi waited patiently for twenty-four years to be counted among the sons of St Ignatius, but when he finally made it, God gave him only three years to live the life he had so dearly desired. He died at fifty-five in Modena on August 17, 1841.
Fr Odescalchi was loved and revered in life and after his death. His cause was initiated because many graces had been attributed to his intercession before God.