St. Joseph Pignatelli (1737-1811)
An excerpt from a letter from Jesuit Superior General Adolfo Nicolás SJ, November 2011
Two hundred years ago, St. Joseph Pignatelli (1737-1811) died in Rome. On the occasion of this Bicentenary of his death, I would like to pay respect to the memory of this faithful Jesuit, who lived in the midst of a disconcerting part of the history of the Society of Jesus during the second half of the eighteenth century. His exemplary life was publically recognized by Pius XI who beatified him in 1933 and by Pius XII who canonized him in 1954.
He was born in Zaragoza, Spain, to a noble Aragonese family of Neapolitan origin. He entered the Society in 1753 when he was only 15 years of age. His heart was set on becoming a missionary, but he was unable to realize this desire due to the weak health that characterized his years in formation.
After he was ordained priest in 1762, his first assignment was as teacher at the secondary school in the same city where he had studied. It was there that he received the stunning news of the expulsion of the Jesuits from Spain on April 3, 1767. The Jesuits had previously been forced to leave Portugal (1759) and France (1762). Demonstrating great trust for him, the Provincial appointed young Pignatelli to manage all the complex matters related to the forced journey to Italy and to organize the care for his exiled brothers.
Let me point out some facets of his richly human and religious personality which continue to be of unquestionable value.
- His whole being and all his actions were centered in God. In every situation he maintained a profound interior life, which he cultivated by means of an intense life of prayer, the source of strength and light amid the tensions and conflicts experienced by anyone who follows the Lord poor and crucified. Everyone noticed the spiritual energy he transmitted to all.
- He was a Jesuit gifted with a great deal of common sense and with a lively intellectual sensitivity. He did everything he could to see to the urgent material needs of his exiled brothers. At the same time, he spared no efforts or financial resources to build up libraries specializing in various branches of spirituality, theology, humanities and the sciences.
- He preserved unbroken his love for the Society and for the Church. He never gave in to family pressures to abandon his vocation because of the difficulties he suffered or because of the greater evil that was first foreshadowed and then realized when the Society was suppressed on July 21, 1773 by the brief Dominus ac redemptor of Clement XIV.
- Trusting in God´s providence, Joseph undertook the mission of keeping the dispersed Society united. When changing political and ecclesial circumstances permitted, he dedicated himself to bringing his brothers together in common life and to undertaking apostolic work enjoined by obedience, thus putting an end to the individualism that many had adopted after a prolonged period of acting in isolation.
- In the midst of many activities and numerous relationships with people of social and economic power, he never neglected those in need. Joseph Pignatelli searched out the poor and helped them with generous alms. He also visited those in prisons and hospitals to the point of becoming known as the “father of the poor.”
Without doubt, the life of Joseph Pignatelli was an example of love received and of love given. He wore himself out in his devotion to the Church and to a Society whose restoration he envisioned in the near future, but which he never saw. He died three years before Pius VII issued, on August 7, 1814, the bull Sollicitudo omnium Ecclesiarum, where the Society of Jesus was restored.
St Joseph Pignatelli was a man of great faith and courage. He suffered from tuberculosis all his adult life and never saw the restoration of his beloved Society. He truly walked by faith and not by sight. His whole world had collapsed yet his faith and prayer kept him going, loving and struggling.