St. Joseph Pignatelli

(1737-1811)

When St. Ignatius of Loyola established the Society of Jesus in the 16th century, he placed its members at the disposal of the popes. The Jesuit order thus became one of the chief agencies used by the bishops of Rome in their worldwide governance of the Church. It was therefore ironic that a pope in 1773 suppressed the order! Not until 1814 was the Society completely restored. Then St. Joseph Pignatelli, as Pope Pius XI said, served as “the chief link between the Society that had been and the Society that was to be.”

Joseph Mary Pignatelli belonged to the Spanish branch of a princely Italian family. Born in Saragossa, Spain, he entered the Jesuits at 16. After his ordination he worked in his native city. There he became noted for his care of prisoners condemned to death.

In the late 18th century, the Jesuits entered troublous times. The Bourbon family, which ruled several European nations, was increasingly antagonistic towards the papacy, and saw in the pro-papal Jesuit order an enemy that it was necessary to liquidate. Following an agreed strategy, the several Bourbon rulers disbanded the Jesuit order in one country after another, and then coerced the pope into decreeing its worldwide suppression. Father Pignatelli, though plagued for years with tuberculosis, was a natural leader. The duty fell upon him to take care of the throngs of dispersed and homeless Jesuit priests and brothers.

First Portugal, then France, abolished the local Jesuit order and exiled its members. Abolition of the Spanish Jesuits came next. In 1767 riots broke out in Saragossa. Father Joseph successfully persuaded its citizens to stop their arson and looting, and even won the thanks of the king for so doing. But then the government deceitfully accused Pignatelli of having started the riot, and on that basis exiled, in one day, some 600 Spanish Jesuits and Jesuit students. Joseph took charge of the Spanish exiles, and when their ships could not secure admission to the port of Rome, he took them to Corsica, where he managed somehow to provide for them. However, France soon assumed control of Corsica, so Pignatelli had to move his charges once again to Ferrara, Italy, where they joined other Jesuits from Peru and Mexico. This community was broken up in 1773, when Pope Clement XIV issued his letter suppressing the Jesuits throughout the world. Thus 23,000 men suddenly found themselves ousted from their order and left without provisions.

Father Joseph himself went to Bologna, Italy, where he and his brother, also a Jesuit, lived for the next few years. Forbidden to exercise his priestly office, Joseph Pignatelli spent the months of exile at prayer and study, meanwhile doing his best to secure employment and sustenance for all he could of the many ex-Jesuits.

Naturally the former Jesuits hoped that their order would eventually be rehabilitated, for it had been dissolved without just cause. Now, in White Russia the papal suppression was never carried out because the Russian Czarina Catherine II would not permit it. When Father Joseph learned of this, he got permission from Pope Pius VI to affiliate with the Russian Jesuit province. Recurrent illness prevented him from going to White Russia. However, in 1788 Duke Ferdinand of Parma, Italy, with the approval of the pope and the encouragement of Fr. Pignatelli, allowed a vice-province of the Russian Jesuits to be set up in his duchy. Grave problems continued, and the revival suffered many setbacks. But in 1803 Father Joseph was named provincial for Italy. Able now to return to Rome, he quietly continued the administration of the Society of Jesus in anticipation of its total restoration.

St. Joseph Pignatelli did not live to see the end of the 41-year suppression. In a dying condition in 1811, he had himself carried to the bedside of the aged Father Aloisi Panizzoni, who was also supposed to be in his last hours of life. You will not die, Joseph assured Panizzoni, but succeed me as provincial and participate in the order’s rebirth!

The prophecy came true; Fr. Panizzoni was elected provincial, and on August 7, 1814, when aged over 90, he had the joy of receiving the papal brief of restoration from Pope Pius VII.

Joseph Mary Pignatelli had been a symbol and summary of the acute sufferings of the Jesuit order. His total dedication to his brothers won for him the title “blessed” in 1933 and the rank of sainthood in 1954.

–Father Robert F. McNamara

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