St. Francis Caracciolo

(1563 – 1608)

Some saints have been adopted as patrons of groups for marginal reasons. One such surprise is St. Francis Caracciolo, patron saint of Italian cooks, although he is best known for not indulging himself in food!

Francis (born Ascanio) belonged to one of the most powerful aristocratic families in Italy. He was born in the family castle at Villa Santa Maria in the Abruzzi province. Although raised a true Christian, notably kind to the poor, he did enjoy as a youth the sports of the well-to-do, especially hunting. He often entertained hunting parties, and for them the palace cooks prepared sumptuous dinners. So expert were these cooks that when Francis’ family went to Naples to spend the winter season, they took the kitchen staff with them to learn Neapolitan cuisine as well as the Abruzzese.

For young Ascanio, however, this was a passing phase. When he was 22, he was stricken with a skin disease considered to be leprous. Praying for a cure, he promised that if he recovered he would devote his life to God. Healed almost instantly, he fulfilled his vow and went to Naples to begin studies for the priesthood. After his ordination he joined a confraternity devoted to caring for those in jail, particularly on death row.

In 1588, through an odd coincidence that Caracciolo considered providential, he made the acquaintance of another priest-nobleman named John Adorno, a Genoese, who wanted to found a religious order of priests. The two agreed to be co-founders of what they named the Clerks Regular Minor. Ascanio took the name Francis. This congregation aimed at preaching missions and performing a diversity of works of charity. To the three usual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, their rule added a fourth vow: not to aspire to any church dignities. A particular practice of their devotional life was perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Very strict were their prescribed practices of self-denial, fasting in particular. The community, approved by Pope Sixtus V, flourished rapidly and soon spread into Spain.

When John Adorno, the first superior, died aged only 40, Francis was elected to succeed him. He long refused, saying that acceptance would be against his fourth vow. When he finally consented, he made up for implications of “power” by taking his turn at even the most menial household duties. In his apostolic work he begged ever more diligently for the poor, and shared with them as often as possible from his own scanty food. He was much relieved, however, when after seven years, the pope permitted him to resign the generalship. Now he could again devote full time to his work as a missioner. Effective as a preacher and confessor, he was likewise revered for his ability to cure ailments by blessing the sick with the sign of the cross.

Because of increasing illness, he was relieved in 1607 of all administrative duties. Now Francis chose for himself as his cell a most unprincely “cupboard” under the staircase of their Naples monastery. He died in 1608, aged 46, forewarned of his end by an apparition of Brother John Adorno. Pope Pius VII canonized this self-denying, self-effacing nobleman in 1807.

The Minor Clerks Regular, at one time a sizable community, have only a small membership today. Nevertheless, their co-founder’s name hit the Italian headlines once more in 1996. It seems that the Association of Italian Cooks asked Pope John Paul II to name St. Francis Caracciolo their official patron. Not that they had no patron thus far. The Roman martyr St. Lawrence had held that post for many years. But the only connection between the martyr and cookery is that he was burned to death on a red-hot gridiron. This was hardly flattering to the guild of chefs. Caracciolo’s connection with cooking was a little more positive. Were not the banquets he staged as a young man “blue ribbon?” Could not his cooking staff be called the first school of Italian cuisine? And is not the Instituto Giovanni Marchitelli, a well-known school of hotel management and cucina italiana, located even now in Villa Santa Maria, the Saint’s home town?

The Italian Cooks thought so. The Vatican agreed.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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