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Classical Jesuit Music

Above: St. Francis bids farewell to his children to enter the Society of Jesus.

Four hundred and fifty years ago, on September 30, 1572, a “prince among the saints, because he was a saint among the princes” died in Rome: Saint Francis Borgia.[1]


The fourth duke of Gandía was born in this city in eastern Spain on October 28, 1510, a descendant of the famous Borgia family, who in just over a century produced two popes, Calixtus III (†1458) and his nephew Alexander VI (†1503), and our saint, the latter’s great-grandson.

Married in 1529 to Leonor de Castro of Portugal, he had eight children. Viceroy of Catalonia for the Emperor Charles V between 1539 and 1543, he was widowed in 1546. Nourished by a rich spiritual life, before giving everything to his firstborn in 1551, in 1548 he entered the young Society of Jesus.

Several times he declined the cardinalate, but of the Jesuits he was in 1554 Commissary General in Spain and Portugal and in 1565 third Superior General. In the Eternal City he founded the Roman College (embryo of the Pontifical Gregorian University), the novitiate of Sant’Andrea al Quirinale, the churches of the Annunziata (in the place of which the Church of Sant’Ignazio di Loyola will rise) and that of Gesù. He promoted the first missions of Spanish Latin America, so much so that he was exalted “the Xavier of the West”: “Now living at the same time these two great Francises, while Xavier, fulfilling the parts of his apostolate, went from country to country planting the faith in the East, Borgia rooted it more in this West of ours.”[2] He was beatified by Urban VIII on November 23, 1624, and canonized by Clement X on April 12, 1671.

Classical Jesuit Music

Francis’ very special passion was music. Indeed,

polyphony, in which he worked so hard that he not only sang with singular skill among selected musicians, but composed many works, like an excellent maestro. Everything he composed was for divine worship, and for ecclesiastical services; he never consented to cloud his wits and the talent that God gave him with vain works and profane poems; he did not even allow all this music to be sung in his presence: he already had the taste place in God and so all his study was directed to the divine.[3]

We don’t know when he began to compose, but “what he composed excelled to such an extent that many churches in Spain used the Missa, the Magnificat and other devout works which they called by the Duke of Gandía.”[4] The Magnificat has been lost, but a copy of the Missa, for four voices, is kept in the Royal Seminary School of Corpus Christi in Valencia, eastern Spain, edited by Ludwig Bonvin (†1939), a Swiss-American Jesuit and musician.

A great scholar of St. Francis Borgia, the Jesuit Pierre Suau (†1916), recalls that “a mass for four voices and eight anonymous motets, by the same hand” almost certainly by Francis Borgia had been found in the archives of the Collegiate of Gandía by the Benedictine Joan Baptista Guzmán i Martínez (†1909), choirmaster from 1899 to his death in the Monastery of Santa María de Montserrat, near Barcelona in Spain.[5]

Also as Superior General of the Society of Jesus, St. Francis Borgia found the time to set to music the longest prayer of the Psalter: “in the convalescence he had in Rome, he composed and excellently annotated Psalm 118 [119], Beati immacolati in via, qui ambulant in lege Domini [Blessed those whose way is blameless, who walk by the law of the Lord].”[6]

Liturgical Drama

His work is a liturgical drama, a form of religious theater that flourished in the Middle Ages, which stages the visit of the pious women to the empty tomb of Christ, featuring two Angels, Mary of Magdala, Mary the mother of James, Salome, John the Evangelist and a processional choir: the Visitatio Sepulchri de Gandía.

The holy Duke of Gandía instituted it in 1550, before leaving for Rome, leaving a large sum of money to the local Collegiate to represent it every year at Easter. Suspended in 1862, it resumed in 1998 thanks to the reconstruction made by the musicologist Josep Maria Vives, and takes place every year on the afternoon of Holy Saturday. At the end of the procession, Quem quæritis in sepulchro, christicolæ? The angels ask: “Whom do you seek in the sepulcher, oh followers of Christ?” Iesum Nazarenum, o cœlicolæ, the choir answers: “Jesus of Nazareth, oh heavenly ones”. Non est hic: surrexit, the angels announce: “He is not here; he is risen”.

Venite et videte, the angels sing: “Come and see”. Quis revolvet nobis lapidem? The pious women say to each other, before entering the tomb: “Who shall roll us back the stone from the door of the sepulchre?” Surrexit Christus, the angels then sing: “Christ is risen,” followed by an Alleluia for 7 voices.

It all ends with the Gregorian chant of the Easter sequence, Victimæ paschali (Christians, to the Paschal Victim offer sacrifice and praise), interspersed with the polyphony of the verse: Dic nobis, Maria (Tell us, Mary, what did you see on the way?).

The Lament of Pius XII over the Jesuits

Faced with St. Francis Borgia and those excellent Jesuits who for almost five centuries have made “the greater glory of God” their motto and their ideal, the words that Pius XII addressed to his Jesuit confessor in 1954, while he showed him the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola, come to mind:

In here We find the Society of Jesus as We love it. The spirit of discipline of the Society has faded, it is no longer like in the days when We studied at the Gregorian University. With discipline it saved faith, faith, faith. You know its history. This is how the Society of Jesus must remain, not otherwise, not otherwise. We are very concerned with the Jesuits of today. Sentire cum ecclesia, esteem scholasticism and sound doctrine, preserve the depositum fidei. We feel responsible, and We reproach Ourselves for this, for not having intervened in a more energetic way.[7]


[1] G. Lubrani, Il solstizio della gloria divina (Naples 1692), 226, our translation.

[2] D. Bartoli, Della vita di S. Francesco Borgia (Rome 1681),  211, our translation.

[3] J. E. Nieremberg, Vida del santo padre, y gran siervo de Dios el B. Francisco de Borja, tercero general de la compañía de Iesus, y antes duque quarto de Gandía […], (Madrid, 1644), 23-24, our translation.

[4] Ibid.

[5] P. Suau, Histoire de S. François de Borgia (Paris, 1910), 34.

[6] Nieremberg, op. cit., 24.

[7] A. Spinosa, Pio XII. Lultimo Papa (Mondadori, Milan 1992), 385, our translation.

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