CNS photo/Maria Grazia Picciarella, pool

Following the path of remarkable Francis’ of the past

By  Lorraine O’Donnell Williams, Catholic Register Special
  • March 24, 2013

The world was both surprised by, and speculated on, the new Pope’s choice of the name Francis. The initial reaction was that it signified his devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, renowned for his practice of the virtue of poverty and a life of simplicity. (That turned out to be correct.) But others suggested that it reflected the Pope’s formation as a Jesuit, well aware of the evangelizing efforts of that great Jesuit co-founder, St. Francis Xavier who died in 1552.

However, in Pope Francis’ priestly formation, he undoubtedly established a familiarity with many saints by the name of Francis, some more influential with him than others.

Most of us don’t realize there are more than 75 canonized saints bearing that name, including female saints who usually spelled their name as Frances or Francesca. One such saint was St. Frances of Rome who lived from 1384 to 1446. Like many pious women of the Church, she wished to become a nun.

However, her family pledged her at age 13 to marry Lorenzo, a wealthy noble always referred to as “a good man.” She vigourously fought against this plan, until she was confronted by her confessor who asked, “Do you want to do God’s will, or do you want God to do your will?” Upon reflection she realized it was the latter, and married Lorenzo. They had a happy marriage, and it was only after he died that she went on to found several houses of nuns, known for their good works with the poor.

Many saints and blesseds, both clerical and lay, were martyred during the French Revolution. Also martyred were priests of Spanish and French origin who went as missionaries to China and Japan from the early 1600s on. St. Francisco Fernandez de Capillas was the first Catholic martyr in China in 1648.

Another of these was the Spanish priest, St. Francis Galvez, who suffered persecution in Japan. He dyed his skin in order to appear Japanese and fled to Macao. When he later returned to Japan, he was caught while preaching and burned alive in 1628.

St. Francis Borgia, born in 1510, was also from Italy. He gave up his dukedom after his wife died and became a Jesuit. His superiors subjected him to great humiliation but eventually his sanctity was recognized and he went on to become Superior General of his order and established Jesuit communities in Spain, Portugal and other parts of the world. Decades later, the Spanish sent many Jesuits to evangelize North and South America.

Italy’s St. Francis Caracciola, a member of a noble Neapolitan family, suffered from a rare skin disease, related to leprosy. It disappeared when he was ordained a priest. This saintly man, who died in 1608, went on to become not only the patron of Naples, but the patron of Italian cooks.

Another Neapolitan, St. Francis Jerome,who died in 1716, was famous for his eloquence as a preacher. Even today in the Jesuit archives are to be found an extensive collection of his sermons.

Many priests and lay people were martyred in East Asia — Vietnam, Korea, China and Japan. Many of them were Dominican and Jesuit priests. The estimated number ranges between 150,000 to 300,000. A highly significant amount chose Francis as their first name. In 1988 Pope John Paul II canonized 117 of those, representing the thousands who gave up their life for the faith. Many of their names are unknown. Most had been killed in the 1800s having suffered deaths by torture, described as the most horrific in the history of Christian martyrdom. St. Francis Isidore Gagelin, St. Francis Jaccard (both from France) are but two of the many murdered in Vietnam in the 1830s.

Even St. Therese of Liseux was inspired by the missionaries in Vietnam. She actually requested permission of her Carmelite order to be allowed to go to their convent in Hanoi, after corresponding with Theophane Venard, a missionary there. However, because she had contracted tuberculosis by then, permission was refused.

These Francis’ are but a few of the many in the Calendar of Saints, but they serve to show that our new Pope has several remarkable role models to choose from.

(O’Donnell Williams is a freelance writer in Markham, Ont.)

Pope Francis - A New Era

A Catholic Register Special Feature - Pope Francis

Please support The Catholic Register

Unlike many media companies, The Catholic Register has never charged readers for access to the news and information on our website. We want to keep our award-winning journalism as widely available as possible. But we need your help.

For more than 125 years, The Register has been a trusted source of faith-based journalism. By making even a small donation you help ensure our future as an important voice in the Catholic Church. If you support the mission of Catholic journalism, please donate today. Thank you.