Saint Francis de Geronimo, also called Frances di Girolamo or - Hieronymo, or Francis Jerome (17 December 1642 in Grottaglie, Apulia, Italy; † 11 May 1716 in Naples) was a Jesuit priest and missionary who was canonized by Gregory XVI in 1839. He wrote the hymn "Diu vi Salvi Regina", which later was adopted as the national anthem of a briefly independent Corsica in 1735.
Francis was born in Terra d'Otranto, a small village near Taranto, December 17, 1642, the eldest of eleven children of John Leonard and Gentilesca Gravina di Girolamo. By the age of twelve he held the position of sacristan and carechist at a house of the Theatines near his home.
At the age of sixteen he entered the college of Taranto, which was under the care of the Society of Jesus. He studied humanities and philosophy there, and was so successful that his bishop sent him to Naples to attend lectures in theology and canon law at the college of Gesu Vecchio.
He was ordained in Naples, 18 March 1666. After spending four years in charge of the pupils of the college of nobles in Naples, where the students surnamed him il santo prefetto (the holy prefect), he entered the novitiate of the Society of Jesus on 1 July 1670. At the end of his first year's probation he was sent with an experienced missioner to get his first lessons in the art of preaching in the neighborhood of Otranto. After four years spent labouring in towns and villages at missionary work his superiors, after allowing him to complete his theological studies, sent him to reside at Gesu Nuovo, the residence of the professed fathers at Naples. Francis would have preferred to serve in the missions of the Far East, but his superiors, told him to abandon the idea, and to concentrate energy on the city and Kingdom of Naples. Francis understood this to be the will of God, and Naples thus became for forty years, from 1676 until his death, the centre of his labours.
He first devoted himself to stirring up the religious enthusiasm of a congregation of workmen, called the "Oratio della Missione", established at the professed house in Naples. The main object of this association was to provide the missionary fathers with helpers. In the Oratory he succeeded in establishing a mont de piete; the capital was increased by the gifts of the associates. He was an indefatigable preacher, visiting the environs of Naples; he preached in the streets, the public squares and the churches.
But his work par excellence was giving missions in the open air and in the low quarters of the city of Naples. Francis usually mounted a stage, near or opposite to the dancers or mountebanks, who either slunk away at his approach, or strove to distract the attention of the audience, who were fascinated by his eloquence. His tall figure, ample brow, large dark eyes, aquiline nose, sunken cheeks, pallid countenance and looks that spoke of his ascetic austerities made an impression. His voice was loud and sonorous, and was heard distinctly at a great distance; the style of his preaching was simple, and impressive.
In the Asylum of the Holy Ghost he sheltered for a while 190 children. He had the consolation of seeing twenty-two of them embrace the religious life. So also he changed the royal convict ships, which were sinks of iniquity, into refuges of Christian peace and resignation; and he tells us further that he brought many Turkish and Moorish slaves to the true faith, and made use of the pompous ceremonials at their baptisms to strike the heart and imaginations of the spectators (Brevi notizie, 121-6).
Whatever time was unoccupied by his town missions he devoted to giving country or village missions of four, eight or ten days, but never more; here and there he gave a retreat to a religious community, but in order to save his time he would not hear their confessions [cf. Recueil de lettres per le Nozze Malvezzi Hercolani (1876), p. 28]. To consolidate the great he work tried to establish everywhere an association of St. Francis Xavier, his patron and model; or else a congregation of the Blessed Virgin. For twenty-two years he preached her praises every Tuesday in the Neapolitan Church known as St. Mary of Constantinople.
Although he engaged in such active exterior work, St. Francis had a mystical soul. He was often seen walking through the streets of Naples with a look of ecstasy on his face and tears streaming from his eyes; his companion had constantly to call his attention to the people who saluted him, so that Francis finally decided to walk bear-headed in public.
He had the reputation at Naples of being a great miracle-worker, and his biographers, as those who testified during the process of his canonization, did not hesitate to attribute to him a host of wonders and cures of all kinds.
He died on 11 May 1716.
His obsequies were, for the Neapolitans, the occasion of a triumphant procession; and had it not been for the intervention of the Swiss Guard, the zeal of his followers might have exposed the remains to the risk of desecration. In all the streets and squares of Naples, in every part of the suburbs, in the smallest neighboring hamlets, everyone spoke of the holiness, zeal, eloquence and inexhaustible charity of the deceased missionary. The ecclesiastical authorities soon recognized that the cause of his beatification should be begun.
On 2 May 1758, Pope Benedict XIV declared that Francis de Geronimo had practiced the theological and cardinal virtues in a heroic degree. He would have been beatified soon afterwards only for the storm that assailed the Society of Jesus about this time and ended in its suppression. Pius VII could not proceed with the beatification until 2 May 1806; and Gregory XVI canonized the saint solemnly on 26 May 1839.
His feast day is May 11.
There is the chapel of St. Francis De Geronimo in the Jesuit Gesu Nuovo Church in Naples. The statue of the saint, apostle of Naples during the second half of the 17th century, was sculptured by Francesco Jerace in 1934.
St. Francis de Geronimo wrote little. Some of his letters have been collected by his biographers and inserted into their works.
The account he wrote to his superiors of the fifteen most laborious years of his ministry, which has furnished the materials for the most striking details of this sketch dates from October 1693. The saint modestly calls it Brevi notizie della cose di gloria di Dio accadute negli exercizi delle sacri missioni di Napoli da quindici anni in qua, quanto si potuto richiamare in memoria. Giuseppe Boero published it in S. Francesco di Girolamo, e le sue missioni dentro e fuori di Napoli, p. 67-181 (Florence, 1882).
The archives of the Society of Jesus contain a voluminous collection of his sermons, or rather developed plans of his sermons. It is well to recall this proof of the care he took in preparing himself for the ministry of the pulpit, for his biographers are wont to dwell on the fact that his eloquent discourses were extemporaneous.