November 15th: St. Joseph Pignatelli , SJ

Saint Joseph Pignatelli , SJ

Born: December 27, 1737
Died: November 15, 1811
Beatified: May 21, 1933
Canonized: June 12, 1954

St Joseph Pignatelli was born in Saragossa, Spain, of noble descent. His mother died when he was six, and his father moved with the younger children to Naples but within four years his father also died.

At twelve, Joseph returned with his younger brother, Nicholas, to Saragossa, where they studied at the Jesuit school. By special privilege, they resided in the Jesuit community. Living among the Jesuits convinced Joseph of his vocation, and in 1753, he entered the novitiate at Tarragona, and took his religious vows two years later. Joseph spent the following year at Manresa, doing classical studies, the next three years studying philosophy at Calatayud, and the subsequent four years back at Saragossa, for his theology.

After Joseph was ordained in 1762, he taught grammar to young boys at his old school and assisted in its parish. He taught for four and a half years, visited the local prisons and ministered to condemned convicts about to be executed. This apostolate ended abruptly when in 1767, King Charles III expelled the Jesuits from his kingdom and confiscated their property, making five thousand Jesuits homeless with one royal stroke of the pen.

Fr Pignatelli was made the acting provincial over some 600 exiled Jesuits on board thirteen ships during their three months at sea before arriving at Bonifacio, on the southern tip of Corsica. Later they were taken away to Genoa. After travelling three hundred miles on foot, they arrived at Ferrara, in the Papal States, tired and exhausted, but were welcomed by Fr Pignatelli’s cousin and future cardinal, Msgr Francis Pignatelli.

The princes of Europe were pressuring the Pope to suppress the Society. Although Clement XIII heroically withstood the pressure, his successor, Clement XIV crumbled beneath it and decreed the dissolution of the Society of Jesus. This meant that Fr Pignatelli and 23,000 others were no longer Jesuits and were no longer bound by their vows.

Saddened by this decree, Fr Pignatelli moved to Bologna where he and his brother, Nicholas, also a Jesuit, continued to live the life of a Jesuit, and for the next twenty four years (1773-1797) he kept in contact with his dispersed brethren. Meantime in White Russia (today’s Belarus) the Jesuits survived, because the Russian Czarina, Catherine II did not carry out the suppression. When Fr Pignatelli heard about this, he obtained permission from Pope Pius XI to affiliate with the Russian Jesuit province. Meantime Ferdinand, Duke of Parma also entered into negotiations with White Russia, and in 1793, three Jesuits came to his Duchy to open a house for the Society. Fr Pignatelli associated himself with this group and in 1797, at sixty, he also promised God poverty, chastity and obedience, just as he did in Spain in 1755.

Fr Pignatelli was made Master of novices in 1799 and in 1803, he was appointed provincial of Italy. When the Society was restored in the kingdom of the Two Sicilies, many former Jesuits came to them to be re-admitted, and the Jesuit apostolate became active again.

Fr Pignatelli and the other Jesuits were expelled from Naples when Napoleon’s brother Joseph Bonaparte overran the country. They headed for Rome and were welcomed by Pope Pius VII. Within months of their arrival in Rome, the Jesuits set up a novitiate at Orvieto and were teaching in six diocesan seminaries. Fr Pignatelli was already seventy and had been in exile for forty years when he came to Rome. He still cherished the hope that the Society would be restored throughout the world during his lifetime. His health was weakening and during his last two years, he suffered from frequent hemorrhages due to tuberculosis and was soon confined to bed.

Fr Pignatelli died peacefully on November 15, 1811 without seeing the end of the 41-year suppression. However, his dearest hope of seeing the entire Society restored was realized when Pope Pius VII decreed it on August 7, 1814, three years after his death. Society of Jesus” died peacefully and serenely.