St. Francis Caracciolo, Confessor
The good things brought into this world by the Holy Spirit continue to be revealed in the liturgy. Francis Caracciolo is given to us this day as another type of the sublime fecundity produced on earth by Christianity. Faith is the principle of this supernatural fecundity in the saints, just as it was in Abraham, the father of all believers; it brings forth unto the Church isolated members or entire nations alike; from it proceed the multitudinous families of religious Orders, who, in their fidelity in following the divers paths traced out for them by their founders, are the chief portion of the royal and varied adornment of the bride at the right hand of her divine Spouse. This is the thought expressed by the Sovereign Pontiff, Pius VII, on the day of the canonization of our saint, wishing, as he said, to right the judgement of such as may, perhaps, have appreciated the religious life at a low rate, according to the vain deceits of a worldly point of view, and not according to the just measure of the knowledge of Jesus Christ.
That century of universal ruin, in which the voice of Christ’s Vicar was raised addressing the whole world on this solemn occasion, resembled, but in still darker hue, the calamitous age of the pretended Reform, in which Francis, like so many others, had proved by his works and by his life the indefectibility of the Church’s holiness. Let us listen once more to the words of the same Pontiff: The bride of Christ, the Church, has now become accustomed to pursue her pilgrim career amidst persecutions from men and consolations from God. Through the saints raised up, in all ages, by his almighty hand, God fulfils his promise; making her a city seated on a mountain, a beacon, the clear light of which must needs reach the eyes of all who do not, through prejudice, voluntarily shut their eyes. While her enemies band together, vainly plotting her destruction, saying: “When will she die, when will her name perish?” crowned with ever increasing splendour by the new warriors she sends as victors to heaven, the Church remains ever glorious, ever declaring to all coming generations the might of the Lord’s strong arm.
The sixteenth century heard at its birth the most terrible blasphemy ever uttered against the bride of the Son of God; that whereby she was named the harlot of Babylon. But she, brought face to face with her enemy, unable itself to produce anything good, proved herself to be the Bride of Christ by means of the number of new Orders which came into existence in a few short years ready to meet the exigencies of the novel situation created by Luther’s revolt. The return of ancient Orders to their primitive fervour, the establishment of the Society of Jesus, of the Theatines, of the Brothers of St. John of God, of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri, of the Clerks Regular of St. Jerome Emilian, and those of St. Camillus de Lellis, did not satisfy the divine Spirit. As though on purpose to mark the superabundant fruitfulness of the bride, he raised up, at the close of the same century, another religious family, the special characteristic of which was to be the organization of mortification and continual prayer amongst its members, by the incessant use of Christian penance and by the perpetual adoration of the most holy Sacrament. Sixtus V. received with joy these new recruits for the great campaign. To distinguish them from all other Orders of regular clerks, and as a proof of his special paternal affection, the illustrious Pontiff, himself a Friar Minor, embodied a title so dear to his own heart in that which he assigned to these newcomers, calling them the Minor Clerks Regular. With a like view of approximation to the Seraphic Order, our saint of to-day, the first General of this Institute, changed his name Ascanius for that of Francis.
It seemed as though heaven too would associate together the patriarch of Assisi and Francis Caracciolo, by giving to each the same span of life, namely, forty-four years. The founder of the Minor Clerks Regular, like his glorious predecessor and patron, was one of those men of whom Holy Scripture says, that having lived a short space they fulfilled a long time! Numerous prodigies revealed, during his lifetime, the virtues which his humility would fain have concealed. Scarce had his soul left this earth, and his body been interred, than crowds flocked to the tomb, where numerous miracles bore constant witness to the high favour he enjoyed with God.
But it is reserved to the sovereign authority constituted by Jesus Christ in the Church to pronounce authoritatively upon the sanctity of any, even the most illustrious, of her dead. As long as the judgement of the Supreme Pontiff has formulated nothing, private devotion is quite free to testify gratitude or confidence, in regard to the departed. But all such demonstrations as more or less resemble public cultus are prohibited by a rigorous and wise law of the Church. Unfortunately, certain imprudences contrary to this law formulated in the celebrated decrees of Urban VIII, drew down, twenty years after the death of our saint, all the severity of the Inquisition upon some of his spiritual children, and retarded for a century the introduction of his cause to the tribunal of the sacred Congregation of Rites. It was necessary that the witnesses of the abuses which had incurred the law should first disappear from the scene; but, consequently, the witnesses of the holy life of Francis had likewise disappeared. Being, therefore, obliged to recur to mere auricular testimony, before pronouncing judgement on the heroic virtues practised by him, Rome now exacted from ocular witnesses the proof of four, instead of the usual two, miracles required in a process of beatification.
It would be out of place here for us to show how these precautions and delays, which demonstrate the prudence of holy Church in these matters, at last ended in making the sanctity of Francis shine forth all the more strikingly. Let us now turn to the narrative of his life.
Francis, formerly called Ascanius, was of the noble family of Caracciolo. He was born in the town, of Santa Maria della Villa in the Abruzzi. From his earliest years, he showed great marks of piety. When he was a young man, he had a severe illness, and on his recovery determined to serve God and to give himself up to the service of his neighbour. He betook himself to Naples, where he was ordained priest, enrolled himself in a devout confraternity, and gave himself up to contemplation and the gaining of souls to God, in which work he showed himself an unwearied comforter to such persons as were condemned to death. It came to pass that those two great servants of God, John Augustine Adorno and Fabricius Caracciolo, wrote a letter to a certain person, wherein they exhorted him to share in the foundation of a new religious Institute. This letter came, by mistake, to be delivered to Francis Caracciolo. The newness of the idea, and the strange ways of God’s Providence, took possession of his mind, and he joyfully added himself to their company. They withdrew themselves to the solitude of the Camaldolese, and there drew up the rules of the new Order. Thence they went to Rome, and obtained the confirmation of their work from Sixtus V, who wished that they should be called Minor Clerks Regular. They added to the three accustomed vows, a fourth binding themselves not to seek preferment in the Church.
Having made his solemn profession, Ascanius Caracciolo, moved by the special love and devotion he had to the holy Francis of Assisi, took the name of Francis. After two years, John Adorno departed this life, and FranclS, against his own will, was made head of the Order: in which office he gave a brilliant example of all virtues. Devoted to the prosperity of the Institute, he earnestly sought the blessing of God upon it, by assiduous prayer, tears, and constant maceration of his body. In this work he thrice travelled to Spain in the guise of a pilgrim, begging his bread from door to door. In these journeys he suffered very great hardships, and was wonderfully helped by the Almighty, especially in this instance: the ship in which he was being in great danger, he saved it by his prayers. He had to toil hard in these countries to attain his wishes; but through the noble generosity of the most Catholic kings Philip II and Philip III he overcame by his fortitude of soul the opposition of all that withstood him, and founded several houses of his Order, which he eventually did in Italy likewise.
He so excelled in humility that, when he came to Rome, he betook himself to an almshouse, and there chose to be associated to a leper: moreover he firmly refused all the ecclesiastical dignities offered to him by Paul V. He preserved his virginity unspotted, and when certain shameless women set themselves to attack his chastity, he took the occasion to gain over their souls to Christ. Towards the most divine mystery of the Eucharist he was drawn with burning tenderness of love, and would pass almost whole nights without sleep, in adoration. This holy custom he established in his Order, to be kept up for ever, as its peculiar mark. He was a zealous propagator of the cultus of the Virgin Mother of God. He was all aflame with the love of his neighbours. He was gifted with prophecy and the discerning of spirits. In the forty-fourth year of his age, whilst he was continuing long at prayer in the holy house of Loreto, it was made known to him that the end of his earthly life was at hand. He straightway took his road to the Abruzzi and was there seized with a mortal fever, at the house of the disciples of St Philip Keri, in the town of Agnone. He received with great devotion the Sacraments of the Church, and upon the day preceding the Nones of June, in the year sixteen hundred and eight, it being the eve of the feast of Corpus Christi, he most calmly fell asleep in the Lord His sacred body was carried to Naples, and there honourably buried in the church of St Mary Major, where he had laid the first foundations of his Order. As he became distinguished for miracles, Pope Clement XIV enrolled his name, with solemn pomp, amongst those of the blessed, and Pope Pius VII, in the year eighteen hundred and seven, finding his mighty prodigies continue, added it to the list of saints.
Well was thy love for the divine Sacrament of the altar rewarded, O Francis; thou hadst the glory of being called to the banquet of our eternal home, at the very hour when the Church on earth was chanting the praises of the sacred Victim, at the first Vespers of the great festival that year by year hails this mystery of mysteries. Thine own feast day occurring, as it ever does, close to this solemnity of Corpus Christi, continues still to invite men, as thou wast wont to do in life, to come and look in adoration into the depths of this mystery of love. The mysterious harmony of the cycle is all disposed by divine Wisdom, seeing that his sweet Providence fixes the season at which each saint is summoned to receive the crown of bliss; thus the post of honour earned by thee is in the sanctuary itself close to the divine Host upon our altars.
The zeal of thy house hath eaten me up: this was thy heart’s cry upon earth. These words, less those of David than of the Man-God himself, did indeed fill thine heart to overflowing, so that after thy death they· were found graven on thy heart, showing the one principle which had governed all thy desires. Hence resulted thy need of continual prayer, and thy corresponding ardour for penance, which thou madest the twofold characteristic of thy religious family, and wouldst fain have seen in the hearts of all. Prayer and penance: these two alone fix man in his right position before God. Vouchsafe to preserve this precious deposit amongst thy spiritual sons, O Francis, so that by their zeal in propagating the spirit of their father, they may make it become the treasure also of the entire world.