Venerable Francis Gonzaga

Venerable Francis Gonzaga

(Venerable Francisco Gonzaga)

Confessor, First Order

Venerable Francis Gonzaga, a scion of the illustrious house of Gonzaga, was born in the year 1546 at Gazzolo near Mantua, and was given the name Hannibal in holy baptism. Indications of his high calling were in evidence early in life; his companions were accustomed to call him the “little friar,” because of his modesty, his piety, and his special attraction for religious. When his elementary studies had been completed, he was sent to the Spanish court to be educated with the son of King Philip II; but here also he lived not for the world but for God and for his studies.

Venerable Francis Gonzaga had listened to a sermon on the vanities of the world delivered by a renowned Franciscan preacher, and this, together with the reading of the history of the order, caused him to resolve to don the Franciscan habit. Despite all obstacles and contrary to the will of the king, Philip II, who had great plans in mind for this talented young man, he entered the convent at Alcala on May 17, 1562, and received in religion the name of Francis.

When his studies were completed, Venerable Francis Gonzaga was sent back to Italy. There he taught theology in the convent at Mantua; and in the year 1578 he was elected provincial of the province of St Anthony in the duchy of Mantua. The general chapter which convened in Paris in 1579, elected him minister general of the entire order.

For eight years he administered this responsible office with superior wisdom, great zeal for religious discipline, and such deep humility that he joined his brethren in the performance of the lowliest duties, and was not ashamed to beg from door to door for food for the brethren. Filled with zeal for the welfare of his order, he undertook the visitation of the provinces of Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Germany, always making his journeys on foot.

At the Spanish court he put the vocation of his holy nephew, Aloysius Gonzaga, to the test, because the youth’s father had requested it of him. Having recognized his calling to the Society of Jesus as coming from on high, Francis took him along on his return journey to Italy and zealously strove to remove the obstacles that were preventing his admission.

Francis also wrote a famous history of the Seraphic Order which enjoys great distinction even to this day. It is dedicated to Pope Sixtus V, who himself belonged to the Franciscan Order. Several times Francis was nominated by the popes for the highest ecclesiastical honors; but the humble servant of God was able to induce them to refrain from the nomination. However, in the year 1587, by order of Pope Sixtus V, he was obliged to accept the bishopric of Cefalu in Sicily, and from there he was transferred to the bishopric of Mantua. But even as a prince of the Church he wore the coarse habit of St Francis under the Episcopal robes, and despite the great strain of his labors, he practiced the same rigorous penance as formerly in his convent.

When King Phillip II of Spain and Henry IV of France waged a bitter war against each other, Pope Clement VIII sent Francis as his legate to the princes to negotiate terms of peace. His great prudence effected the desired result.

After a successful administration of the diocese of Mantua, which extended over twenty-seven years, Venerable Francis Gonzaga died in the odor of sanctity on March 11, 1620, in the seventy-fourth year of his life.

When Pope Paul V learned of his death, he cried out:

“He was a great servant of God, a mirror and example to all prelates of Holy Church.”

Many miracles have occurred at this grave, and the Holy See has introduced the process of his beatification. His body, still garbed in the Franciscan habit beneath the Episcopal robes, reposes before the high altar in the cathedral at Mantua, and was found intact as late as the year 1866.

*from The Franciscan Book of Saints, Marion Habig, OFM

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