The start of a new year is inevitably a moment of transition.
And transitions can be challenging. Excitement for the new collides with nostalgia for what’s already gone. Possibility and potential meet with regret and missed opportunity. A sense of what was good in the past seems all but impossible to rediscover and reclaim in the present. We stand at a threshold, grasping in both directions, trying to cling to past glory and reach for new success.
That’s why I think we could do with a saint to look to for guidance, inspiration, and intercession.
I have long found the Jesuit priest Joseph Pignatelli a compelling figure. He lived at a particularly difficult moment in the history of the Jesuits—a time of transition, to say the least.
Born in 1737, Pignatelli was of both Italian and Spanish noble descent. He spent many formative years in his family’s palace in Saragossa, Spain. But he left all of that behind when he became a Jesuit. He entered the Society at age 15 and was ordained in 1762. He served as a teacher and as the chaplain to a local prison.
But a seismic event was upon the global Society of Jesus. In 1767—just five years after Pignatelli’s ordination—King Charles III of Spain expelled the Jesuits from his kingdom. Instead of falling back upon his noble claims, Pignatelli accompanied his brother Jesuits—many of them sick and elderly—and left Spain.
Not only did Fr. Pignatelli find himself exiled, he also found himself in charge of 600 Jesuits, as the provincial and the local rector delegated their power to him. After a long, arduous journey, the Jesuits found safety in the Papal States. But Pope Clement XIV, succumbing to the pressure of European monarchs like Charles and other enemies of the Jesuits, issued the 1773 brief Dominus ac Redemptor, which effectively suppressed the Jesuits worldwide.
Joseph Pignatelli, like some 23,000 of his brothers, was still a priest but no longer a Jesuit.
The rest of Pignatelli’s life would be spent trying to hold together the disparate elements of the Society of Jesus. He hoped ardently for a day when the Jesuits would be restored and was cautiously optimistic by the actions of subsequent popes. He kept in close communication with the Jesuit provincial of what is now Belarus, where, because Catherine the Great had refused to enact the papal order, the Jesuits remained in ministry. It was the superior there that named Fr. Pignatelli the provincial of Italy in 1803.
Pignatelli embraced the signs of his time. He worked to see the full restoration of the Society of Jesus, all the while never wavering from his commitment to serve those in need and to respond to the people of God and the needs of the Church.
Though he died three years before Pope Pius VII restored the Society of Jesus globally in 1814, Joseph Pignatelli never lost hope for the future of the Jesuits or lost sight of the need to live the Gospel in his daily life.
In 2011, to mark the bicentenary of the death of Joseph Pignatelli, then-Superior General of the Society of Jesus, Adolfo Nicolás, wrote:
In the midst of many activities and numerous relationships with people of social and economic power, he never neglected those in need. Joseph Pignatelli searched out the poor and helped them with generous alms. He also visited those in prisons and hospitals to the point of becoming known as the “father of the poor.” Without doubt, the life of Joseph Pignatelli was an example of love received and of love given. (Letter of November 15, 2011)
Why turn to St. Joseph Pignatelli as we begin a new year? Fr. Pignatelli’s life was lived at a moment of transition. The continuity of the Society of Jesus in many ways rested on his ability to hold on to the past while also looking boldly at the present and unfolding future. He stayed close to his community while continuing to chart new relationships with potential friends.
Most importantly, he stayed close to Christ present in the most vulnerable. Again and again, Fr. Pignatelli refused the trappings of comfort. He instead inserted himself into the real needs of real people, following the example of Christ. And he did so day after day.
I’m inspired by his legacy. Joseph Pignatelli was able to advance a global cause by staying present to the intimate reality of the people around him. He was the bridge between the old and the new.
Let us turn to him as we endeavor to connect our old ways of 2023 with our new hopes for 2024.
St. Joseph Pignatelli, pray for us.
Biographical information from sources including Jesuit Saints and Blesseds: Spiritual Profiles, edited by Jacques Fédry, SJ, and Marc Lindeijer, SJ.
Image via Grentidez, public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.