B. December 17, 1642; d. May 11, 1716
Francis de Geronimo (GIROLAMO, HIERONYMO), Saint, b. December 17, 1642; d. May 11, 1716. His birthplace was Grottaglie, a small town in Apulia, situated about five or six leagues from Taranto. At the age of sixteen he entered the college of Taranto, which was under the care of the Society of Jesus. He studied humanities and philosophy there; and was so successful that his bishop sent him to Naples to attend lectures in theology and canon law at the celebrated college of Gesu Vecchio, which at that time rivalled the greatest universities in Europe. He was ordained there, March 18, 1666. After spending four years in charge of the pupils at the college of nobles in Naples, where the students surnamed him the holy prefect, it santo pre/etto, he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus, July 1, 1670. At the end of his first year's probation he was sent with an experienced missioner to get his first lessons in the art of preaching in the neighborhood of Otranto. A new term of four years spent laboring in the towns and villages at missionary work revealed so clearly to his superiors his wonderful gift of preaching that, after allowing him to complete his theological studies, they determined to devote him to that work, and sent him to reside at the Gesd Nuovo, the residence of the professed fathers at Naples. Francis would fain have gone and labored, perhaps even laid down his life, as he often said, amidst the barbarous and idolatrous nations of the Far East. He wrote frequently to his superiors, begging them to grant him that great favor. Finally they told him to abandon the idea altogether, and to concentrate all his zeal and energy on the city and Kingdom of Naples. Francis understood this to be the will of God, and insisted no more.
He first devoted himself to stirring up the religious—enthusiasm of a congregation of workmen, called the "Oratorio della Missione", established at the professed house in Naples. The main object of this association was to provide the missionary father with devoted helpers amidst the thousand difficulties that would suddenly arise in the course of his work. Encouraged by the enthusiastic sermons of the good people became zealous cooperators. One remarkable feature of their work was the multitude of sinners they brought to the feet of Francis. In the notes which he sent his superiors concerning his favorite missionary work, the saint takes great pleasure in speaking of the fervor that animated the members of his dear "Oratory". Nor did their devoted director overlook the material needs of those who assisted him in the good work. In the Oratory he succeeded in establishing a mont de piece. The capital was increased by the gifts of the associate. Thanks to this institute, they could have each day, in case of illness, a sum of four canines (about one-third of a dollar); should death visit any of the members a respectable funeral was accorded them, costing the institute eighteen ducats; and they had the further privilege, which was much sought after, of being interred in the church of the Gesu Nuevo (see Brevi notizie, pp. 131-6). He established also in the Gesu one of the most important and beneficial works of the professed house in Naples, the general Communion on the third Sunday of each month (Brevi notizie, 126). He was an indefatigable preacher, and often spoke forty times in one day, choosing those streets which he knew to be the center of some secret scandal. His short, energetic, and eloquent sermons touched the guilty consciences of his hearers and worked miraculous conversions. The rest of the week, not given over to labor in the city, was spent visiting the environs of Naples; on some occasions passing through no less than fifty hamlets in a day, he preached in the streets, the public squares, and the churches. The following Sunday he would have the consolation of seeing at the Sacred Table crowds of 11,000, 12,000 or even 13,000 persons; according to his biographers there were ordinarily 15,000 men present at the monthly general Communion.
But his work par excellence was to give missions in the open air and in the low quarters of the city of Naples. His tall figure, ample brow, large dark eyes and aquiline nose, sunken cheeks, pallid countenance, and looks that spoke of his ascetic austerities produced a wonderful impression. The people crushed forward to meet him, to see him, to kiss his hand, and to touch his garments. When he exhorted sinners to repentance he seemed to acquire a power that was more than natural, and his feeble voice became resonant and awe-inspiring. "He is a lamb, when he talks", the people said, "but a lion when he preaches". Like the ideal popular preacher he was, when in presence of an audience as fickle and impressionable as the Neapolitans, Francis left nothing undone that could strike their imaginations. At one time he would bring a skull into the pulpit, and showing it to his hearers would drive home the lesson he wished to impart; at another, stopping suddenly in the middle of his discourse, he would uncover his shoulders and scourge himself with an iron chain till he bled. The effect was irresistible; young men of evil lives would rush forward and follow the example of the preacher, confessing their sins aloud; and abandoned women would cast themselves before the crucifix, and cut off their long hair, giving expression to their bitter sorrow and repentance. This apostolic labor in union with the cruel penance and the ardent spirit of prayer of the saint worked wonderful results amidst the slaves of vice and crime. Thus the two refuges in Naples contained in a short time over 250 penitents each; and in the asylum of the Holy Ghost he sheltered for a while 190 children of these unfortunates, preserving them thereby from the danger of afterwards following the shameful trade of their mothers. He had the consolation of seeing twenty-two of them embrace the religious life. So also he changed the royal convict ships, which were sinks of iniquity, into refuges of Christian peace and resignation; and he tells us further that he brought many Turkish and Moorish slaves to the true faith, and made use of the pompous ceremonials at their baptism to strike the hearts and imaginations of the spectators (Brevi notizie, 121-6).
Whatever time was unoccupied by his town missions he devoted to giving country or village missions of four, eight, or ten days, but never more; here and there he gave a retreat to a religious community, but in order to save his time he would not hear their confessions [cf. Recueil de lettres per le Nozze Malvezzi Hercolani (1876), p. 28]. To consolidate the good work, he tried to establish everywhere an association of St. Francis Xavier, his patron and model; or else a congregation of the Blessed Virgin. For twenty-two years he preached her praises every Tuesday in the Neapolitan church, known by the name of St. Mary of Constantinople. Although engaged in such active exterior work, St. Francis had a mystical soul. He was often seen walking through the streets of Naples with a look of ecstasy on his face and tears streaming from his eyes; his companion had constantly to call his attention to the people who saluted him, so that Francis finally decided to walk bare-headed in public. He had the reputation at Naples of being a great miracle worker; and his biographers, as those who testified during the process of his canonization, did not hesitate to attribute to him a host of wonders and cures of all kinds. His obsequies were, for the Neapolitans, the occasion of a triumphant procession; and had it not been for the intervention of the Swiss Guard, the zeal of his followers might have exposed the remains to the risk of desecration. In all the streets and squares of Naples, in every part of the suburbs, in the smallest neighboring hamlets, every one spoke of the holiness, zeal, eloquence, and inexhaustible charity of the deceased missionary. The ecclesiastical authorities soon recognized that his cause of beatification should be begun. On May 2, 1758, Benedict XIV declared that Francis de Geronimo had practiced the theological and cardinal virtues in an heroic degree. He would have been beatified soon afterwards only for the storm that assailed the Society of Jesus about this time and ended in its suppression. Pius VII could not proceed with the beatification till May 2, 1806; and Gregory XVI canonized the saint solemnly on May 26, 1839.
St. Francis de Geronimo wrote little. Some of his letters have been collected by his biographers and inserted in their works; for his writings, cf. Sommervogel, "Bibl. de la Comp. de Jesus", new ed., III, col. 1358. We must mention by itself the account that he wrote to his superiors of the fifteen most laborious years of his ministry, which has furnished the materials for the most striking details of this sketch. The work dates from October, 1693. The saint modestly calls it "Brevi notizie delle cose di gloria di Dio accadute negli exercizi delle- sacre missioni di Napoli da quindici anni in qua, quanto sic potuto richiamare in memoria". Boero published it in "S. Francesco di Girolamo e le sue Missioni dentro e fuori di Napoli", p. 67-181 (Florence, 1882). The archives of the Society of Jesus contain a voluminous collection of his sermons, or rather developed plans of his sermons. It is well to recall this proof of the care he took in preparing himself for the ministry of the pulpit, for his biographers are wont to dwell on the fact that his eloquent discourses were extemporaneous.
FRANCIS VAN ORTROY