St. Francis Borgia and the Face of Death

While Death should not be fearfully ignored or fearfully exalted, we must encounter the reality of death if we are to live forever.

Detail from "San Francisco de Borja" (Saint Francis Borgia; 1624) by Alonzo Cano. (WikiArt.org)

October comes with burnished sights and smells that bespeak the glory of death and, in contrast, with the hideous Halloween ornaments that bespeak the fear of death. This popularly eerie time of year is our culture’s broken remnant of acknowledging, to some extent, the reality of death, but the garish ghoulishness of it all is not very encouraging, to say the least. In fact, it is downright discouraging and disturbing. The current Halloween focus on the mere physical aspect of our nature and its destruction or mutilation is devoid of that mystical mystery that ultimately makes a jest of our “muddy vesture of decay,” as Shakespeare coined it.

October 10th marks the feast day for a saint who had an experience that is curiously connected to the death-steeped paraphernalia of Halloween. It’s a story that shows what the believer’s reaction to death’s horrors should be, for, when St. Francis Borgia (1510-1572) recoilingly cracked open the coffin of a queen, he heard, like twin blasts from the gates of heaven and hell, the call to immortal life and heeded them.

The story of St. Francis Borgia

The seventeen-year-old son of the Duke of Gandia was traveling to join the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, where a brilliant future awaited him. As the young noble passed through Alcalá de Henares, he saw Inquisition guards conducting a prisoner whose eyes flashed like swords. Francis Borgia did not know Ignatius of Loyola, and never suspected how linked he would become in later years with that man in doing the work of Jesus Christ. But, in the meantime, Francis was warmly received by Charles V and his charm, gallantry, and skill in music won him many graces and a Portuguese noblewoman as his wife.

When the Empress Isabella died, Francis was charged with the grim task of escorting her remains to Granada for interment. Arriving where the queen had died and where her remains awaited him to take possession, Francis demanded to view the royal corpse. But when he looked upon the body of Isabella, he quailed at the face of death. He could not recognize the once-beautiful face now disfigured by decomposition, leaving Francis shaken to the core. On his grave journey, the vanities of life impressed themselves upon Francis’s mind, affixing his thoughts on the afterlife.

Francis’s earthly ambitions were underway, however, and he soon became the Viceroy of Catalonia, and carried out his duties with justice and diligence. Upon becoming Duke of Gandia, Francis was tasked by the Emperor to manage the affairs of his son and heir, Philip of Spain, who was betrothed to the princess of Portugal. Though this guaranteed a position for Francis in Philip’s reign, heaven intervened, even as the face of the dead queen lingered in his memory. Portugal rejected the match and Francis was held responsible and in disgrace by the court.

When his wife passed away, Francis was increasingly drawn towards the work of the Jesuits. At last, he relinquished his title and estates and made his solemn vows of Holy Orders before Ignatius of Loyola. Then, he who had been a consort of kings, a man of importance, power, and dignity, assumed his place with the Jesuits in the kitchen. Fr. Francis swept, cut wood, cooked, and knelt before his brother priests to beg forgiveness for his clumsiness.

But he was anything but clumsy in the pulpit. Francis’s sermons and teachings spread far and wide and were praised as reviving the faith of the country. People flocked to the hermitage where he prayed and preached. When an emissary came from Pope Julius III inviting him to be a papal counsellor, Francis sought Ignatius’s assistance in excusing himself from such an elevation and was spared of the honor he feared, which was reluctantly respected by both Pius IV and Pius V in later years.

But even Ignatius could not keep Francis from a position of importance, making him commissary-general in Spain and giving him charge over all the Society’s missions. After Ignatius died and could no longer protect his friend from honor, Francis Borgia became the third Father General of the Jesuits. As the order grew beneath his careful administration, Francis founded a university, counseled kings and bishops, deployed missionaries, and was regarded as a saint during his life. But even with this veneration, Francis Borgia remained humble to the end, when he received his ultimate and eternal honor for ushering in a renaissance of Catholicism—a victory that began when he looked death in the face.

Looking death in the face today

The trajectory of St. Francis Borgia’s life was drawn by his encounter with death, a trajectory that arced to eternal life. Sometimes it takes a touch of death to get in touch with life, for after all, death is when life truly begins.

But death is not really a part of life anymore—not as it should be. We have lost the idea of death somewhere between death-care industries and death-metal goths. Death is either an unmentionable in need of euphemisms and platitudes; or else it is a tyrant of screaming, secular horror. As such, death is held in one of two cultural attitudes: denial or domination. Both extremes have something in common, though: fear. While Death should not be fearfully ignored or fearfully exalted, we must encounter the reality of death if we are to live forever.

As St. Francis’ reaction over the queen’s casket can attest for the ages, it is good to know what death is so that we might think on it with John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud,” or Robert Louis Stevenson’s epitaph, or G. K. Chesterton’s poem “the Skeleton” where the skeleton laughs that “Death was but the good King’s jest.” Death is stripped of his sting and therefore all souls are called to die a good death and to prepare for it—even look forward to it, as the exuberant, colorful traditions of Mexico’s el Dia de los Muertos proclaim.

To a godless people, however, death is devastating in and of itself and an unbearable condemnation of the façades of irreligious society. This devastation, however, fails to extend to the recognition of the reality of death—only to the soul’s struggle for some impossible, imagined compromise, some warm and fuzzy “in-a-better-place” hope that is more like a fear.

As they stand, though, death observances can be something like denials of the final fact. Everyone knows that they will die, but many would rather not face it. The sometimes-bizarre American funeral industry oftentimes seemingly attempts to negate or soften the reality of death with embalmed corpses, luxury coffins, and off-point sentimentality. But increased contact and tactile truth are far more efficacious assuagers and healers, even if they be hard teachers.

Despite its prevalent mitigation, death is, at the same time, widely hailed and paradoxically “hallowed” in a way that makes it terrible instead of tranquil. Death imagery prevails in movies, video games, tattoos, and edgy street fashion. Of course, it runs deeper than pop imagery: abortion, euthanasia, suicide, drug overdose, mass shootings. This has been called the “culture of death” for profound reason, and in these death-swamped times, a growing trend promotes a perverse and eerie “celebration” of death as an object of dark and even oppressive fixation.

Without the Church, people are reverting back to the shadows of pre-Christian eras, giving death renewed sway. As the masses crawl further from Christ, the One Source of life, so they become more out of tune with truth and more permeated with the powers that Christ overthrew—namely, death. Halloween, as it is currently observed, is one of the harbingers of this corruption, offering an exaltation of death rather than a derision of it. This is a reason for its alarming concentration on slashers, the undead, torture, and mutilation: the visceral fascinations of fallen nature.

Somewhere in the middle of death-denial and death-domination lies St. Francis Borgia’s example of the acknowledgement of what death must be and what it must bring. And it is this median experience that the extremes miss by a mile. If that middle ground is ever recovered, folks would inter their dead with spades again instead of leaving the task to impersonal backhoes. Do we truly bury the dead, as the corporal work of mercy commands? It is a good question, and one that is worth asking in a society segregated from the rites and realities of death, even as they struggle with the wages of sin, as though in mute denial or raging submission of some unthinkable, untouchable fact.

No matter how self-destructive the world is, people still want to live forever as the ancients did, and as Francis Borgia did. That desire is the basis of all philosophy and theology, and death must, when all is said and done, play the right part in that desire for eternal life if it is to be fulfilled.


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About Sean Fitzpatrick 11 Articles
Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and serves on the faculty of Gregory the Great Academy in Elmhurst, Pennsylvania. He teaches Literature, Mythology, and Humanities. Mr. Fitzpatrick’s writings on education, literature, and culture have appeared in a number of journals including Crisis Magazine, Catholic Exchange, the Cardinal Newman Society’s Journal for Educators, and the Imaginative Conservative. He lives in Scranton with his wife, Sophie, and their seven children.

4 Comments

  1. To understand the culture of death in the present day we look to the ‘Sign of the Times’ that is reflected in the Halloween festival which today represents the body of Frankenstein.

    The Frankenstein’s Wedding Event, Kirkstall Abbey, Leeds – 19th March 2011.
    This Live drama event produced by the BBC was the most amazing setting, especially lit up the way that it was and with the ‘larger-than-life’ full moon overhead.
    Kirkstall Abbey is a ruined Cistercian monastery It was founded in c.1152. It was disestablished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.

    As Christians we speak of ourselves as the Body of Christ but make no mistake there is another body (Frankenstein / Religion) and its body is made up of foul and diabolical parts (as reflected In the Halloween festival). Which is in direct opposition to the body of Christ. While His body the Church is been torn apart from without and ‘within’ as the flock in the West is been decimated. (Assimilated)

    This body is held together by a ..V.. which I believe signifies one of the five points of the Pentagram that transforms itself into a Circle of Worldly Power. All circles of worldly power rely on secrecy; this gives an advantage based on deception and serves the Evil One. He cannot be beaten at his own game, the early Christians used signs and gestures, but these can be duplicated, then we have duplicity and confusion at play; for those on the outside, like me, friend or foe you no longer know.

    It was put to me many years ago, “it’s a bit like the game of tag, you pass the lurgy (British slang) to someone else” Conclusion you then become part of Groupthink (The Body). While also been told jovially “the new holder of the lurgy always has the option to get rid of his load (Worldly troubles) by passing it on”

    While the V (Two finger sign often used covertly) is used widely within society which often promotes advantage or the expectation of advantage in commerce, education, healthcare, publishing, media, etc, and all organized community activities including those within the religious sphere which enables corruption to flourish.

    I personally have witnessed the use of this V by some of the laity within the church often in collusion with the hierarchy and this creates a hidden (occult) church within church one which enables all types of injustice to flourish while mirroring the reality of the corruption in society at large in effect the present leadership of the church is entangled with the evil Prince of this world and those who will not speak out about this evil situation collude with it. Self-protection is what the Church leadership sort dereliction is what they bought.

    The laity (Body of Christ) have been lulled/led by those who collude with evil ..V.. (For some possibly thinking they are doing good (avoidance of scandal, etc) into passivity by a Hierarchical church within a church rather than actively encourage the laity to be involved in critical thinking about the faith and their responsibility to serve the Truth in all situations.

    So, ‘The sign of the times’ asks us to reflect deeply on the events unfolding before our eyes and to respond to them “Don’t think that I have come to bring peace to the world. I have come to bring a sword.” the spiritual weapon of Truth.
    ‘One of the apocalyptic signs mentioned in the Gospel is the “dismay of nations.” This is certainly evident today, and unlike many times in the past, we are all personally affected by it’.

    Jesus directs us: “When these signs begin to happen, stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand.”

    While many who bore witness to the Truth in the past and now hopefully many again will raise their heads above the safety of the Parapet, so to say, are reflected in
    Revelation 7:14 And I said to him, “Sir, you are the one who knows.” Then he said to me, “These are the ones who died in the great tribulation. They have washed their robes in the blood of the Lamb and made them white”

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  2. Five years old, this is death I am told
    School day dreadful way
    Our Front Room, her hour is soon
    Say goodbye, to day she may die
    Ash grey face, white pillowcase
    Cold sweat, gaunt stare matted hair
    White sheet folded neat
    Aunt Edna, my mother adjusting cover
    Steel bucket spew more than a few
    Eye met eye I now felt shy
    Struggling head raised from bed
    Smile of sorrow, no tomorrow
    Dropped jaw, no teeth, drawn cheek
    The sight of death, you cannot forget
    Nod of head, goodbye I said
    Home from school, locked Front Room
    Sob and groan she was not alone
    Polished coffin, brass cross, sense of loss
    Lid shut tight, Grammar out of sight
    No despair we offer a pray
    Full Street stood quite discreet
    Granddads agonising cry, last goodbye
    We will meet again at heaven’s gate
    But now we must wait
    Many prays down the years, but never tears
    Jelly and Sunday tea this I still see

    kevin your brother
    In Christ

  3. For kids Halloween is a costume play with candy treats, but I never understood continuing the ghoulish celebration of fright by some adults.
    Most Americans still believe in God , grow up and forsake the Hollywood drama and live real lives, not fakery.

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