And check out what happened when the Holy Spirit inspired him to go preach to an empty street.
The trouble with dreaming big is that life never works out quite as we plan. We spend years working toward a goal when suddenly we discover that our dream of motherhood or medicine or a family farm or good health has become impossible. And we have to figure out who we are in the absence of that dream.
St. Francis di Girolamo wanted to be a missionary. Born in 1642, he was raised with stories of Francis Xavier and the martyrs of Asia and he was desperate to join them, to preach the Gospel to the unchurched people of Japan and India. When his Jesuit superiors told him no, he might have grumbled and resigned himself to an ordinary, unfulfilled life. But Francis knew that God was calling him to preach the Gospel to wayward souls and there were just as many of those in Italy as in Asia. Rather than mope over a lifelong dream dashed, Francis saw how God was satisfying his longings in a different way.
Francis di Girolamo was ordained a priest by special dispensation at only 23. Four years later, he became a Jesuit in Naples, eager to walk in the footsteps of Xavier and Kibe and Miki, a missionary and, God willing, a martyr. He wrote again and again to his superiors, begging to be sent to Asia, but they had other plans. Francis was to stay in Naples.
His zeal for souls undampened by such a prosaic assignment, Francis refused the approach of an ordinary priest, content to preach to the souls who happen to wander into his church. Out into the streets he went, preaching in brothels, prisons, hospitals, and galleys. For 40 years, Fr. Francis was to be found wherever the most undesirable sinners were. He converted 20 Muslim slaves on a Spanish galley ship and baptized them in a lavish ceremony designed to impress even the most cynical souls. He walked boldly into neighborhoods so dangerous that he was physically attacked. One night, at the prompting of the Holy Spirit, he walked out into a deserted street and preached to nobody. The next morning, a prostitute entered his confessional and told him that she had been listening at her window the night before and had been transfixed by the power with which he preached the life of Christ.
She wasn’t alone. It’s said that Francis di Girolamo converted 400 hardened sinners a year. One woman had murdered her father before dressing up as a man to fight in the Spanish army; after meeting Francis, she repented and in later years was known for her great holiness. In fact, so many women were drawn back to the embrace of Christ by the preaching of this saint that he founded a home for reformed prostitutes and another for the children of prostitutes.
Knowing that the people he was sent to might not have the longest attention spans, Fr. Francis became the master of the micro-sermon, often preaching as many as 40 sermons a day throughout the city. “He is a lamb when he speaks,” his people would say, “but a lion when he preaches.” He preached missions in parishes and on street corners and became well known throughout the kingdom of Naples. But his power as a preacher came entirely from a recollected spirit. In fact, Fr. Francis was a man of such deep prayer that he often fell into ecstasy while walking through the streets of Naples. He was so distracted by prayer that he often didn’t notice people greeting him and so didn’t lift his cap to them. His solution to this breach of etiquette was simple: he stopped wearing a hat.
It sounds marvelous in the retelling, but it’s no great surprise that people of di Girolamo’s time were scandalized by the company he kept. They complained to the archbishop, who forbade him to preach in the streets for a time. That prohibition lifted, Francis returned to his seemingly endless ministry, only to be told by his superior that his work for souls was hampering his participation in community life. Again, Francis was told to stop, and again he obeyed—for a time. Eventually, he was given free rein to serve as the Lord called him.
And serve he did, for 40 years, reaching thousands of souls. It’s likely that his work had far greater impact and saved far more souls than it would have had he been permitted to go to Asia; indeed, it’s hard to imagine that he could have been more productive. Through accepting his lot in life, Francis became the great missionary he always longed to be. On May 11, the feast of St. Francis di Girolamo, let’s pray for all those struggling to accept the way their lives have turned out, that they, like Francis, would become great saints as God wills, not as they will. St. Francis di Girolamo, pray for us!