I know that this evening we are gathered here at Belen to celebrate the senior ring ceremony mass. This timely tradition is one that seniors eagerly await, not only because they receive a ring after many years of hard work, but also because it is the first official event that begins to issue them out from within these school walls. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not as if they are counting the days to leave this place and experience something other than the discipline and rules of Jesuit education. It’s not as if they are counting the days when they can finally let their hair grow long, dye it any color they want, burn the blue and gold striped ties they wear around their necks and are constantly being asked to fix. It is not as if they are counting the days when they no longer have to run down the stairs to stand in line for food, argue their way-out of penance halls or keep their cellphones in their pockets.
No, hopefully they await this night and celebrate it because they receive a ring that will adorn their fingers and is a reminder of the hard work, the all-nighters, and the mad scramble to make up community service hours.
But tonight, we also celebrate something else. You see, today, October 10th, is the feast day of one of the greatest saints of the Society of Jesus: St. Francis Borgia. He happens to be one of my favorite saints, and not simply because he was the third general of the Society of Jesus and arguably the greatest after St. Ignatius of Loyola himself. Nor is it because he happened to be the superior who in 1566 first sent Jesuit missionaries to South Florida that founded a settlement on the banks of the Miami River close to where the Four Seasons Hotel currently stands. He is my favorite saint because of who he was and then chose to become.
Born in Valencia, Spain in 1510, he was of high nobility, but it was a nobility that was very troubled. His father was Juan Borgia, 3rd Duke of Gandía, son of Giovanni Borgia
, the son of Pope Alexander VI
. That’s right, Francis Borgia, the saint whose feast day we celebrate today, was the great-grandson of a pope. Pretty scandalous, right? It gets worse. His mother was Juana, daughter of Alonso de Aragón
, the Archbishop of Zaragoza
, who, in turn, was the illegitimate son of King Ferdinand II of Aragon
. I know this sounds like the storyline of some B-rated Mexican soap opera, but it’s true. The fact is that this guy had every reason to be a downright scoundrel.
But he wasn’t.
By the grace of God, Francis married a woman he truly loved and had eight children. He inherited the rightful title of Duke of Gandía and served the Spanish crown for many years. He acquired land, money, and power that very few had in the Spanish empire, and in the midst of it all he was a pretty decent guy. But then something happened; something that changed his life forever.
Queen Isabella of Portugal, the mother of King Phillip II of Spain, died and as the Duke of Gandía, Francis Borgia was responsible for overseeing her burial. The funeral procession was to travel from Madrid south to Granada where she was to be buried in the cathedral, along with previous monarchs. Just imagine, the coffin had to travel for months in the hot Spanish sun for hundreds of miles, at a time when there was no refrigeration, no modern methods of embalming, or fast modes of transportation. After a long and arduous trek, Francis Borgia awaited the casket at the doorsteps of the church and before entering, following proper protocol, he ordered the coffin to be opened so he could verify that it was truly the body of the queen that was going to be interred. As they lifted the lid, a violent, putrid stench arose from the coffin and in there lied the decaying body of Queen Isabella. The story says that Francis Borgia, horrified by the scene, covered his nose and mouth and, raising his eyes to heaven, famously declared that never again would he serve a monarch that could die.
This experience changed his life forever. Since his wife had died years before, he made sure that his children were well taken care of, he relinquished his title of Duke, gave away his money, and entered the Society of Jesus, to become a priest. This man, who because of his upbringing and status had every reason to choose the wealth and comfort of his position, gave it all up for a different life.
Understandably, it caused shockwaves throughout the country. People asked: why, on God’s green earth, would anyone surrender everything he has to follow such a path? Why, on God’s green earth, would anyone do such a thing?
There is only one answer… Jesus Christ.
The death of the queen, who at the time was the most powerful, most influential person in the country, shook Francis Borgia to the core and made him realize that the things of this world are finite, just passing fancies. He realized that all the glamour and bling that is attractive to men and women is temporary and, in the grand scheme of things, means very little in light of eternity and what really matters. He didn’t allow his past to dictate his glorious future and made a choice to be a man of God who lived his life for the Church, lived his life for the gospel of Jesus Christ, and lived his life for the good of others.
Tonight, you receive a ring of gold, jewelry that will be worn on your finger and will adorn your person. And just like Queen Isabella or the crown she wore on her head, it too will pass. So, for this ring to mean anything special, it has to be more than just bling. The ring is a symbol. But don’t think about this ring as simply a symbol of the work that you have already done, think about this ring as a symbol of what you are yet to do. Don’t think about this ring as a symbol of what you have acquired over the last seven, six, five or four years. Think about this ring as a symbol of what you are going to surrender, what you are going to give up. I know that sounds completely contrary to the standards of a world that measures success in what someone is able to accomplish or attain throughout his lifetime, but a Belen ring is different. It is about what you are willing to sacrifice and surrender.
Francis Borgia’s greatness, the reason why his feast is celebrated every year, the reason why we commemorate his life today, and the reason why he has been recognized as one of the great men of the Renaissance, is not because of what he had when he was Duke of Gandía. He is great because of what he gave up. Like Francis Borgia you are called to surrender everything to a king who lives and will live forever. You surrender the great power that your extraordinary education affords you for the sake of using your education for the benefit of all mankind and not simply yourself. You surrender the great wealth and influence your potential provides you for the sake of the common good. Gentlemen, your great Belen education has not empowered you to be served, but to serve.
The crown that Borgia was first committed to was a crown that ceased to have any power or influence. After a time, that crown of gold was tarnished with age and rendered useless. But the crown of Jesus Christ, I assure you, will never lose its glow. It will always retain its power and majesty. For two thousand years, men and women of every nation have surrendered their lives for this crown, have sacrificed their very existence for it. The crown of Jesus Christ is a crown that demands we surrender our very selves and by doing this we are to save our souls. These rings that you will soon wear on your fingers will one day fade away. They will be tarnished, become too small to wear, some will be lost or tossed in a drawer for a long period of time only to be brought out at your 10 or 20 or 50-year reunion, but what they represent will last forever.
Gentlemen, if there is a lesson to be learned from today’s feast day, if there is something to take away from the life of Francis Borgia that resonates with your Belen education, it is this: don’t allow the mistakes of the past determine the greatness of your future. Don’t allow the weaknesses of the bad that often times surround you determine the good that you can do. Don’t allow the expectations of a troubled world dictate the kind of man that you are or will become. Rise above that and be your own man. Determine the destiny of your own life and make the choices you know are for the good of all and not simply yourself.
I challenge you my brothers to send shockwaves throughout the world by being men of honor, hard work, and service. I encourage you to scandalize the modern world with your commitment to a greater power that insists that the prominence of a man is not measured by what he has, but by what he does for the good of others. I urge you to be rebellious by your unwillingness to accept the violent, quick-fix, immoral standards that so often plague the world’s politics, businesses, and professions.
And lastly, I beg you to surrender to the gospel of Jesus Christ that tells us today that whoever wishes to be great among you will be your servant; whoever wishes to be the first among you will be the slave of all. Nothing in the world is more shocking, more scandalous, or more rebellious than this. Then and only then will you truly live out your true identity as men of Belen Jesuit.
This was the greatness of St. Francis Borgia, not Duke, not regent, but Christian and it can be your greatness as well. As I hand you your ring in just a few minutes, know that in every handshake, in every congratulatory remark that you hear from me, there comes along with it an expectation of this kind of greatness.