Saint Joseph Pignatelli (1737-1814)

Source: District of Asia

“Sanctity alone makes us what our divine vocation demands, men crucified to the world and to whom he world has been crucified, in the words of St. Paul (II Cor. 6:5ff.); men who seek only heavenly things and strive by every means to lead others to them”. Pope St. Pius X, Haerent Animo, 1908.

(A summary of SAINT JOSPEH PIGNATELLI by Fr. F. Zurbitu, SJ.  Anand Press, Andheri, Bombay 1955. Pp. 125)

Saint Jospeh Pignatelli lived in days which were not unlike our own.  Nowadays the Church is persecuted, openly and ruthlessly within and without.  Towards the middle of the eighteenth century the Church was likewise made the object of a conspiracy of widespread hatred, directly aimed at the Society of Jesus, but indirectly impairing and arresting all ecclesiastical activity in many countries, notably in Portugal, Spain, France and Italy.

Therefore the persecution which the Church suffers in our own days need not astonish us; for this is a case in which history repeats itself.  What is more, past history supplies us in the person of Saint Joseph Pignatelli with a noble example teaching us how to face persecution and to triumph over it.

José María Pignatelli was born at Saragossa on December 27th, 1737.   On his Father’s side he is related to Cortes and on his mother’s side he is related to Sts. Francis Borgia and Aloysius Gonzaga. At fifteen he turned away from wealth and worldly honours and entered the Jesuit novitiate at Tarragona on May 8th, 1753. (p. 21)

His religious and intellectual formation in the Society covered a period of some ten years, and he was ordained priest in December 1762.  During that decade he proved himself a brilliant student.  He had a scholar’s knowledge of Latin and Greek, and was equally proficient in Hebrew.  At a much later period, when he was appointed Master of Novices and afterwards Rector, he gave orders that the Bible should be read in the refectory in Greek and Hebrew.  At Galatayud where he studied philosophy, and at Tarragaona where he made his theology, he did so brilliantly that he was chosen in both towns for a public grand act.  (p. 32 & 36)

His progress in the spiritual life was no less solid.  In the words of Pope Pius XI, “Joseph Pignatelli stood like a rock, unmoved by the tempests of earth and air and water… He stood ever firm and erect in the face of all the perils, persecutions and tempests that assailed him, with eyes and heart raised aloft and always turned to God, like those pilots who keep their direction ever before them, and remain calm, where others are agitated and perturbed”.

Father Joseph Pignatelli’s tribulations began at the Saragossa in 1767.  The mayor of the town received a letter which read: “You will see to it that all the Jesuits be placed under arrest, and immediately taken to Tarragona, there to embark within 24 hours in ships provided for that purpose, … not allowing any Jesuit to take anything away with him, except his prayer book and the clothes absolutely necessary for the voyage.  If after embarkation there should remain in Spain a single Jesuit, he will be punished with death,” Signed: Yo el Rey, “I, the king:”. 

At 5 o’clock in the morning of the fateful April 3rd, 1767, the mayor of Saragossa went to the Jesuit College and arrested all the members of the community.  Father Pignatelli was asked by the Rector of the college to act in his stead.  Giving his family name, he did his utmost to secure fair treatment for his religious brethren, but his pleadings were in vain. (p.43)

By April 28th the Jesuits of the province of Aragon, more than 500 in number, had all been transferred to Tarragona, whence they were taken to the near-by harbour of Salou and put on board 13 cargo ships.  On May 1st the ships set sail for Civita Vecchia in the Papal States. But Pope Clement XIII, to mark his disapproval of the decree of expulsion, gave orders not to let the cargo ships enter the harbour of Civita Vecchia.  From Civita Vecchia they were moved from place to place.  (To Bastia, Algaiola, Celvi and then to Genoa, Parona, Moderna, Bologna and finally to Ferrara).

Those who were spared were unanimous in their praise of Father Pignatelli.  He had wonderfully sustained and strengthened his brethren, had consoled and encouraged them, “Since we glory in the name of Jesus,” he would say to them, “it is but reasonable that we should share in His ignominies, His pains and His Cross”. (p. 41)

He also strove valiantly to keep up the spiritual fervour of his brother-Jesuits.  The customs prevalent in the colleges in Spain were gradually enforced in the land of exile.  Regular hours were set apart for prayer and study.  He encouraged the professors to resume their interrupted tasks; and since there was a great scarcity of books, he advised them to start writing their own philosophical and theological treatises.  He wrote to the General in Rome, pleaded the dire need of the young students, and secured for them a number of books. Inspite of all the crosses, he never thought of transferring to another religious order.  He wrote this to his brother, the Spanish ambassador to France: “I will never leave the Society, rather am I ready to lay down my life a hundred times”.

Two years later a far more crushing blow fell.

At last, faced with the threat of a schismatic rupture with Rome by the Bourbon Princes, the Pope gave in, and on July 21st, 1773, signed the Brief Dominus ac Redemptor, which decreed the suppression of the Society of Jesus.

Father Pignatelli’s reaction was characteristic of the man.  Broken-hearted as he was, and plunged into the depths of sorrow, he had the courage to say to his brother-Jesuits, “God foresaw from all eternity the calamities that have fallen upon us.  In His infinite wisdom and paternal solicitude, He has Himself ordained every one of the sufferings which are ours.  What then can we do or say, but show that we are His children?  There is no nobler act of self-sacrifice than adoringly to submit to the plans of God’s providence, and humbly repeat the prayer, Fiat voluntas tua, ‘Thy will be done’!” (p. 64 & 65)

For the next 24 years (1773 – 1797) Father Pignatelli resided as a secular priest, allowed to say Mass in private, but forbidden to preach or hear confessions, treated as a dangerous man, and branded with disgrace.  But he did not sit down in the idleness of despair.  He spent his many hours of leisure in intensive study, and in a short time built up for himself a library of 3,000 volumes. (p. 69)

Two years later, on August 29th, 1799, Pope Pius VI died, and was succeeded on March 18th, 1800, by Pope Pius VII.  From the outset of his pontificate, the new Pope showed openly that he was ready to restore the Society throughout the world.  One of his first official acts in favour of the Order was to ratify his predecessor’s verbal approval of the preservation of the Society in Russia by a solemn public document, the Brief Catholicae Fidei published in 1801.

Meanwhile a Jesuit novitiate had been opened at Colorno in the Duchy of Parma, and Father Pignatelli was appointed Master of Novices.  This assignment came as a surprise to the nominee, who protested that he was unfit for such a responsible post, after having lived 24 years in world.  His superiors thought otherwise, they held him in such high esteem that, when shortly afterwards a college was opened at Colorno, they appointed Father Pignatelli its first Rector. (p. 77)

Father Pignatelli was by this time an expert in organizing the journeying of migrating Jesuits.  He arranged for his brethren’s settlement in Rome.  He himself spend his closing years in the Eternal City.  His great desire was to live in seclusion and obscurity and he quietly withdrew to the Hospital of St. Pantaleon.  But this last wish to end his life in prayerful retirement was denied him.  The great ones of the earth came to St. Pantaleon to seek light and consolation from the old man.  For example, the King of Sardinia entered the Society as a humble Brother, and Odescalchi exchanged his scarlet cardinal robes for a simple Jesuit cassock. (p. 94)

Father Pignatelli's last days were storm-swept as the greater part of his life had been. The French soldiers occupied Rome, which Pope Pius VII had previously left for the Castle of Savona. Once more the Jesuits were in danger of being sent into exile, and it was mainly due to old Father Pignatelli's endeavours that this calamity was averted. His final exertions on behalf of his brethren sapped the remnant of his enfeebled strength, and he died on November 15th, 1811, at the age of seventy-five.  (p. 106)

He was not granted the supreme consolation of seeing the Society restored throughout the world. This was effected by the Decree Sollicitudo Omnium Ecclesiarum of August 7th, 1814, published a little less than three years after his death.'

Father Pignatelli was beatified by Pope Pius XI, on May 21st, 1923, and was canonized by Pope Pius XII on 12 May, 1954.

SSPX India