The Gospel doesn’t win acceptance unless it is preached directly to people. St. Francis DiGirolamo carried it right down to the sinners in the alleys of a big city.
Francis was born in the very south of Italy, the oldest of a family of eleven children. A group of priests who came to know him when he was twelve years old saw at once that spiritually he was a most promising child. Ordained a priest when only 23, he taught in a Jesuit college in Naples for the next five years. The “holy priest” was the name his pupils applied to him.
Father Francesco had always wanted to become a Jesuit. The order accepted him when he was 28. Initially, his superiors gave him a hard time in order to test his mettle. He passed the test, and was assigned as a preacher in a Jesuit church in Naples. His own model had always been the great Jesuit missionary St. Francis Xavier. Now he begged that he be sent, as Xavier had been, to India and Japan. But his superiors said no, the Kingdom of Naples had more need of him than the non-Christians of the Far East. He accepted that decision, and it proved to be a providential one.
DiGirolamo soon became noted for his missionary efforts in southern Italy, both urban and rural. Indeed, his skill was so evident that he was assigned to train other home missionaries for their work.
“Tireless” is the only adjective that can be appropriately applied to these missionary efforts.
He often spoke in churches; but he became most noted for his open-air sermons. He would pick out the city streets where vice was known to be rampant. People said of him, “He is a lamb when he talks, but a lion when he preaches.” Knowing the temperament of those whom he addressed, he spoke briefly, but did not hesitate to use dramatic techniques to capture their attention. Crowds hung on his words; and it was estimated that he won back at least 400 hardened sinners each year. Sometimes he spoke as often as 40 times a day. In his “free time” he moved into the surrounding villages or the prisons, hospitals and galleys. The result was often as many as 13,000 confessions and communions each Sunday where he had been. The people could not hear him often enough. Social works followed. He set up a home for converted prostitutes and an orphanage for their children. Not only did he win over lapsed Catholics; he also converted Muslim prisoners. Aiding him mightily was an “Oratory of the Mission,” made up of lay helpers. Its members went out and brought back to St. Francis many of the street-people most in need. For the benefit of those associated with the Oratory he established a credit union.
Many stories are told of this charismatic apostolate. Once, for instance, the saint felt the urge to preach at night in what appeared to be an empty street. The next day a prostitute presented herself to him for reconciliation. She had happened to hear his sermon through her open window. Most striking of his converts, in all probability, was the French woman Marie Alvira Cassier. Marie had killed her father, and then run off and joined the Spanish army, disguised as a man. Eventually she fell under the influence of St. Francis, and he led her not only to repentance but to a high degree of holiness.
St. Francis DiGirolamo died at 74. By that time he was held in such high regard as a conqueror of hearts and miracle-worker that at his huge funeral they had to protect his remains from being pillaged for relics.
Since his death, St. Francis has been venerated as the apostle of Naples in a special sense. His dream may have been to preach to the pagans of India and China, but God had known better. The neo-pagans of our teeming cities must also be reminded of the word of God.
–Father Robert F. McNamara