He was a champion of the poor and a preacher who — four centuries later — could have been a televangelist.
St. Francis di Girolamo, eldest of 11 children, was born in the mid-17th century in Italy. After his first Communion at age 12 he became sacristan for a group of secular priests in exchange for room and board. He soon was teaching catechism and, at 16, became a seminarian at the Jesuit school in Taranto.
He studied civil and canon law at the Jesuit college in Naples and, at 23, received special permission to be ordained a diocesan priest. For the next four years, he taught in the Jesuit’s Collegio dei Nobili in Naples. Students dubbed him “the holy prefect.”
At 28, Francis entered the Jesuit novitiate and, a year later, began assisting Fr. Agnello Bruno a missionary in the Diocese of Lecce.
Francis wrote often to his superiors asking to be assigned to foreign missions, but, in 1676, after his final vows, they made him a preacher of Gesù Nuovo and missionary in the Kingdom of Naples.
Francis was tireless, conducting at least 100 missions, and giving up to 40 sermons a day in churches, streets and public squares. He enjoyed going where he knew of a secret scandal. Huge crowds flocked to hear him, and he was called “a lamb when he talked and a lion when he preached.” Crowds of 11,000-13,000 would be at Sunday Mass and 15,000 participated in a general Communion on the third Sunday of each month.
Once Francis used a skull to make a point and another time he bared his shoulder to whip himself with a chain until he bled, leading many young men to loudly confess their sins. He started two refuges for women in prostitution and their children, several later entered religious life. Once he converted Turkish and Moorish slaves on a Spanish galley.
Francis also started a men’s association to assist the Jesuits. His success led to jealousy among some diocesan and Jesuit priests, who temporarily limited his hearing of confessions, where he drew throngs of penitents.
The poor flocked to his funeral.
Sources: katolsk.no; saintpatrickdc.org; saints.sqpn.com; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; “The New Catholic Dictionary.”
Staley is a retired editor of The Compass.