St. Cajetan, Founder of the Theatine Order
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
by Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
St. Cajetan, founder of the holy order, whose members are called Theatines, was born in 1487, at Vicenza, in Lombardy, of noble and pious parents. Immediately after his baptism, his mother consecrated him to the Blessed Virgin, humbly begging her to guard him and take his spiritual welfare under her motherly protection. His entire after life proved how effectual his mother's prayers had been. He was never, even in his most tender years, like other children; his greatest pleasure consisted in praying, building small altars, giving alms to the poor, and being most perfect in his obedience to his parents. His whole conduct was such, that even in childhood, he was called a saint. He afterwards went to the University, and always made it his greatest care to preserve his innocence unspotted among so many temptations. Having received, at Padua, the degree of civil and canon laws, he repaired to Rome, where he was ordained priest, and preferred by Pope Julius II. to a high ecclesiastical position.
After the death of the Pope, he resigned his dignity and returned to his home, desiring to work more effectually for the salvation of souls. He served the sick in and out of the hospitals, with untiring charity, in the time of pestilence. His labors were at first, confined to his native town; later, however, he went to Venice. His principal aim was to save souls. The sick, he persuaded by kind and gentle exhortations; and others he moved to virtue by his earnest sermons. The popular saying was, that Cajetan looked like a seraph when standing before the altar, and like an Apostle when in the pulpit. His devotion when he said mass, was equalled by his fervor and zeal while preaching. Whenever he had the opportunity, he tried to win a soul for the Almighty. After some time, he went again to Rome, where, inspired by God, and with the co-operation of three other pious and learned men, he founded an Order for such priests as desired to live an apostolic life, to reform the negligence of the clergy, and the corrupt morals of the people of the world; to observe carefully the sacred ceremonies of the church; restore the observance of pious conduct in the temples dedicated to the worship of the Most High; to labor in opposition to the heretics; assist the sick and dying, and in a word, to promote the welfare of men to the best of their ability.
He imposed a special obligation on the members in regard to the vow of poverty; they were not only forbidden to have annual revenues, but even to ask alms. They had to leave the whole care of their subsistence to God, and wait patiently for what Providence would send them. Hard as this seemed to be, still many were found willing to bear such abject poverty. The first house of the order was at Rome; but it was abandoned after the first year, on account of an inroad of imperial soldiers, who also treated Cajetan with great cruelty. Among these soldiers there was one who had formerly been acquainted with the Saint at Vicenza, and knew that, at that time, he was very rich. Believing that he still possessed great treasures, he tried to force them from him, by maltreating him most brutally, and several times casting him into prison.
From Rome, the holy founder went to Venice, where he again nursed those stricken down with pestilence. He was then ordered by the Pope to Naples, to found a new house for his Order. This city had to thank the vigilance of this Saint, under God, for its preservation from heresy; for, several disciples of Luther, who at that time disseminated his poisonous doctrines in Germany, had come to Naples and begun privately, as well as publicly, to maintain, under the name of "Evangelical liberty," the teachings of Luther. They had also brought with them several books which contained the Lutheran doctrines, designing to give them to the people, and thus contaminate the city with the doctrines they contained. When St. Cajetan was informed of this, and had, moreover, seen the Evil One standing in the pulpit beside Bernardin Ochino, one of Luther's disciples, whispering into his ear every word that he preached, he notified the ecclesiastical authorities of these facts, and preached so zealously against the new heresy, that the heretical books were all given up and burnt, and the inhabitants of the city were preserved in the true faith. The Saint rendered the same service to several other cities in Italy.
The holy man was exceedingly severe towards himself. He never divested himself of his rough hair-shirt. Almost daily he scourged himself most mercilessly. In partaking of nourishment he was so temperate, that his life might justly be called a continual fast. He spent most of his nights in devout exercises, taking but a short rest upon straw. He never spoke except to honor God or benefit man. He was indefatigable in his exertions for the salvation of souls, and hence it is not surprising that God bestowed many graces upon him. One Christmas Eve, when he was passing the night in the Church of St. Mary Major, the Holy Child appeared to him, and the Blessed Virgin, who carried Him, laid Him into the Saint's arms, filling his soul with heavenly consolation. The holy man had many other visions during his life, and was often seen in a state of ecstasy during his prayers. He also possessed the gift of prophecy, and miraculously cured a great many sick. There was a priest of his Order, whose foot was to be amputated. The evening before the operation was to be performed, the Saint examined the foot, which was extremely swollen and affected with gangrene; he kissed it, made the holy sign of the cross over it, bandaged it anew, exhorting the sufferer to put his trust in God and to ask the intercession of St. Francis. After this he turned to God in prayer. When on the following day, the surgeon came to perform the painful and dangerous amputation, they found, to their amazement, that the foot was healed.
When St. Cajetan sailed from Venice to Naples, a terrible storm arose, and all on board expected the boat to sink every moment. Cajetan took his Agnus Dei and threw it into the sea, which immediately became calm. His life is filled with similar events; we, however, having no space for more of them, will only relate how happily and with what heroic charity he ended his earthly career.
The authorities at Naples, civil as well as ecclesiastical, had resolved to institute the Inquisition in the city, to guard the faithful more thoroughly against heresy. The people were, however, opposed to it to such an extent, that a revolt was feared, and neither the exhortations and persuasions of St. Cajetan nor of other men were of any avail. The holy man was deeply distressed at the danger of so great a city and still more of so many souls. Hence he offered his life as a sacrifice to appease the wrath of the Almighty, praying that God would accept of it, restore peace, and spare the city and its inhabitants. The following event will show how pleased the Almighty was with this sacrifice. Soon after the Saint had offered himself to Heaven, he became dangerously sick, and repeating his offer, died a most peaceful and holy death, having had the privilege of seeing Christ and the Blessed Virgin. The Saviour assured him of his salvation, the Divine Mother of her protection until his death. And yet he would not die in any other manner than as a penitent; for when the physician said he needed a more comfortable bed, he protested most emphatically against it, saying that he would not, in his last hour, allow his body any comfort, but that he would be laid in his penitential robes upon ashes on the ground, adding: "There is no road leading to Heaven but that of innocence or repentance. He who has departed from the first, must take the second; else he is eternally lost."
He received the last Sacraments with great devotion, turned his eyes towards Heaven, and rendered up his soul tranquilly to God, in the year of our Lord 1547. The strife in the city soon after ceased and peace was restored, as if God had wished to show that He had accepted the life of St. Cajetan as a peace offering for the salvation of innumerable souls. Many miracles were wrought by the Almighty to recompense the great faith which St. Cajetan manifested in the Divine Providence, when he instituted such complete poverty in his new order. After his death also, God honored him by working many miracles through his intercession.