Saint of the Day – 31 January – Saint Francis Xavier Bianchi CRSP (1743-1815) “Apostle of Naples” – Priest of the Barnabite Order (The Clerics Regular of St Paul), Apostle of the poor, Eucharistic Adorer, Marian devotee, Ascetic and Mystic, Spiritual Director and Confessor, Professor – born as Francesco Saverio Maria Bianchi on 2 December 1743 in Arpino, Frosinone, Italy and died on 31 January 1815 in Naples, Italy of natural causes. Patronage – Naples. St Francis gained a reputation for sanctity during his lifetime from his commitment to his students, his guidance of all who sort his spiritual direction and to the poor of Naples.
Francis was born in 1743 in Arpino in the Lazio region, then part of the Papal States, into a loving and pious family. His mother taught him to care for the poor around them, giving him example by setting up a small clinic in the family home where she would nurse up to 16 needy people. He was, nevertheless, far from a standard pious child. He would later confess to how he would occasionally pilfer money from his parents.
He made his first studies in the Collegio dei Santi Carlo e Filippo in Arpino, run by the Regular Clerics of San Paolo, also called Barnabiti, founded in 1530 in Milan by Father Antonio Maria Zaccaria (Canonised in 1897). What changed Bianchi’s life was a slow and steady resolve to conquer his own will. As he grew older, he felt called to religious life. He initially thought of entering the Society of Jesus but then he chose the Order to which his teachers belonged. The parents, on the other hand, would have preferred to see him as a diocesan priest. As a result, at the age of 15 he was enrolled in a minor seminary in Nola, while at the same time, he began the study of law at the University of Naples Federico II. During this period, he came under the spiritual guidance of St Alphonsus Maria de Ligouri, the founder of the Redemptorists.
In 1757, Francis was admitted by the Barnabite Order into their novitiate in Zagarolo that same year, professing religious vows as a member of the Order the following year. He was then sent to pursue his study of philosophy and theology, first at Macerata, followed by Rome and Naples, where he was ordained a priest in 1767. Prior to his ordination he had taught at the Barnabite college in his hometown. He was immediately appointed the Superior of the College of Santa Maria in Cosmedin in Portanova, which office he filled for 12 years.
His superiors then assigned him to the Barnabite monastery attached to the Church of Santa Maria di Caravaggio, Naples, where he was to spend the rest of his life. In 1778 he was appointed a professor at Regia University (now the University of Palermo), as well as a member of the Royal Academy of Science and Letters of the Pontifical Ecclesiastical Academy. Despite his academic honours and pride of place in the Order, his fellow Barnabites also saw another side to him, as he became known among them for the deeply ascetic way of life he followed, with a deeply contemplative prayer life and for his constant concern for the poor of the cities where he lived.
He became part of a circle of notable religious figures living in Naples in that era. He became the Spiritual director and Confessor of Mary Frances of the Five Wounds, a Franciscan tertiary, who lived in one of the most crime-ridden neighbourhoods of the city and is now also honoured as a saint. In turn, he became friends and under the guidance of such figures as Placido Baccher, the Blessed Mariano Arciero, his fellow Barnabite and student, the Venerable Francesco Maria Castelli, Giovanni Battista Jossa, the Servant of God Agnello Coppola. He was in frequent communication with the Blessed Vincent Romano as well as with King Charles Emmanuel IV of Sardinia and his niece, Princess Maria Clotilde of Savoy, then in exile in Naples.
Fr Francis’ life changed in 1800, when he fell into a state of religious ecstasy while praying before the exposed Blessed Sacrament on Pentecost of that year. Shortly after this, he developed an illness which left his legs twisted and with open sores for the rest of his life. During the last three years of his life, he continued to preside daily at Mass, despite the agony of having to stand. Mostly bedridden, he used this time to deepen his spiritual life even further as well as guiding others spiritually and hearing Confessions.
Fr Francis also begun to tremble and experiences palpitations of his heart whenever he prayed, in a manner similar to that which had been experienced by St Philip Neri two centuries earlier. The tertiary Mary Frances commented that we have two Philip’s, one white and one black, which was a pun on the meanings of their family names in Italian.
He was still living in the Barnabite monastery of Naples when it was closed in 1809, as part of the suppression of all monasteries and religious houses under the Napoleonic Kingdom of Naples. He was able to remain in the city, where he died in 1815.
Fr Francis was Beatified on 22 January 1893 by Pope Leo XIII, who also declared him to be the “Apostle of Naples.” He was Canonised on 21 October 1951, by Pope Pius XII. His remains are enshrined in the Church of Santa Maria di Caravaggio in Naples. His feast day is celebrated on 30 January by the Barnabites (moved to avoid being in conflict with St John Bosco’s feast) but the Catholic Church in Naples celebrates today, the feast of their beloved Saint with great honour and festivities each year.
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