Francisco de Borja was born into the most notoriously degenerate family in Europe. His mother was the daughter of an archbishop, who was himself the illegitimate son of a king, who had appointed him an archbishop at the age of nine. His father’s father was murdered by his half-brother. Both were the sons of a pope. The Borgias, as they are more commonly known, are notorious for adultery, incest, simony, theft, bribery, and murder. The lurid tales of their degeneracy continue to inspire movies and TV shows in the 21st century. What is less known about the Borgia family, is that it also contains saints.
Francis Borgia was a rising star in the Spanish empire. He was a trusted assistant of the King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, the most powerful man in the world, who later made him Viceroy of Catalonia and master of the household of the crown prince – destined to become the chief advisor of the next king. Francis was also the equerry of the empress, entrusted by the king with the care of his beloved wife, who also served as regent in the king’s absence. Francis had amassed an incredible amount of worldly influence and wealth all before the age of 30.
All of that changed when the empress died and, as equerry, he was charged with conveying her body to its burial place in Granada. Upon seeing the rapid decomposition of the body of the legendarily beautiful empress, and hearing a stirring funeral oration by St. John of Avila, he became convinced of the vanity of this world and desired to leave behind the worldly life of a courtier. God soon granted his request. Through a series of political missteps and crushing humiliations, Francis fell out of favor with the imperial court and world diplomats and retired to his family estate in Valencia, where he was a duke. Here, he was glad for the chance to devote himself to his family. However, his dearly beloved wife soon fell deathly ill. As he prayed fervently for her recovery, “he was suddenly visited with an extraordinary interior light in his soul, and heard, as it were, a voice saying distinctly within him: ‘If thou wouldst have the life of the duchess prolonged, it shall be granted; but it is not expedient for thee.’”
Shocked by this revelation, but with profound faith in God, Francis replied, “O my Lord and my God, leave not this, which is only in thy power, to my will. … I am bound in all things to conform my will to thine. Thou alone knowest what is best, and what is for my good. As I am not my own, but altogether thine, so neither do I desire that my will be done, but thine. … Do what thou pleasest with the life of my wife, that of my children, and my own, and with all things thou hast given me.”
Following this act of faith and trust in the Lord, the duchess’s condition continued to worsen, and several days later Francis Borgia was a widower. He spent the next four years setting his affairs in order, and once his oldest son was of age, turned over his duchy and the care of the other children to him, and entered the Society of Jesus. Francis spent the rest of his days promoting the missionary activity of this great order, avoiding an appointment as cardinal – having already renounced all worldly honors – and eventually served as the second successor of St. Ignatius as superior general of the Jesuits. With a reputation for great holiness both during and after his life, he was canonized by Pope Clement X (to whom he was not related!) in 1670.
St. Francis Borgia’s life illustrates St. Paul’s teaching and the parables of our Lord in the second reading and Gospel today. One does not expect to find a treasure buried in a field, or to find an ordinary merchant with a great pearl for sale. One does not expect to find a saint in a family like the Borgias, but the Lord hides immense amounts of grace and the potential for heroic sanctity in unlikely places. Like the fish in the net, St. Francis lived alongside those whose fate would not differ from the bad fish who will be thrown away. Indeed, for many of his years, he himself was indistinguishable from those caught up in the worldly allurements of a princely life. But when he found the pearl of great price, he sold everything to obtain it, giving up wealth, power, and influence to place the talents that had previously won him a place in the most powerful government in the world at the service of Christ.
For the person who finds a treasure hidden in a field, the discovery changes his priorities. For the people who heard our Lord’s parable, to buy a piece of property was not something that most people did in their entire lives. The man who buys the field because of discovering the hidden treasure has made serious changes to his life. Maybe he was saving money for an important financial goal, or building a beautiful new home for his family. To the outside observer, his actions seem beyond foolish. He sells everything that he has in order to buy what seems to be only a field.
So likewise the actions of St. Francis Borgia and any Christian seem foolish to those who have not encountered Christ and have not yet had the transformative experience of an encounter with His love and mercy. If we have encountered this buried treasure – a treasure that lies hidden in our midst – then we too must be willing to seem entirely foolish in order to obtain this pearl of great price.
Finding this hidden treasure should prompt us to change our priorities as well. The Lord asks us to consider today what we need to sell and leave behind in order to buy the field of buried treasure. Even if we have already found the treasure that is a friendship with Christ, all of us have something to which we are still clinging in the world that we need to give over to the Lord, something that is keeping us from fully possessing the buried treasure. Maybe it is a sin, a vice, a relationship, a friendship … something that is not bad in and of itself but that has not yet been purified and directed to the love of God above all things.
Maybe, though, you do not feel worthy to possess this treasure. You know that it exists, you know that you could sell everything to obtain it, but you can’t imagine that God would actually want you to have it. Remember that God chooses imperfect instruments, even sinful people like you and me, to bring about incredible things in this world. Solomon, the king of Israel chosen by God to build His Temple, was the son of an adulterer and murderer. St. Francis Borgia was a worldly courtier from the most infamously degenerate family in Europe, and yet, the Lord chose these two men to bring Himself honor and glory and convert souls throughout the world to Christ.
In one sense, the treasure buried in the field or the pearl of great price is God’s kingdom – present here on earth in a life lived as Christ’s disciple in His Church. But in another sense, the treasure is you. You are actually a treasure buried in the field, or the pearl of great, for which God Himself has given everything in the life, passion, and death of His Son, Jesus Christ. Jesus sacrificed His life on the Cross to win for Himself the treasure that you are – to win the forgiveness of your sins and the possibility of eternal life. He can ask you to sell everything to buy the field with the hidden treasure because He has already given everything in order to win your soul.
On the night before His death, Christ prayed to the Father for His Apostles and said, “They are your gift to me.” You too are a gift to Jesus, the treasure He has died and risen to obtain. You have found the treasure buried in the field, the pearl of great price. Now leave everything behind, and buy it.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen
XVII Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXX