On July 15th, it was reported that Pope Francis has plans to canonize Blessed Peter Faber (Pierre Favre), the first companion of St. Ignatius of Loyola (Vatican Diary). When in 1622, Ignatius and Francis Xavier were canonized atthe same ceremony, Peter was not included. Instead, he was beatified in 1872,and his feast day, Aug. 2, is celebrated this week. Today the Church celebratesthe feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola; who is Peter Faber?
High in the Savoy Alps lays thehamlet of Villaret, where Peter Faber was born in 1506. He might have workedall his life as a famer in this obscure village except for his love of learning.This convinced his parents to send him to school. At age nineteen, Peterattended the College of Sainte-Barbe, one of many separate colleges at theUniversity of Paris. After earning Bachelor of Arts and Licentiate degrees, hebegan theological studies. As for thedirection of his life, he could not decide.
At Saint-Barbe, Peter shared a room withFrancis Xavier, a Basque bon-vivant, Juan de la Pe?a, a young teacherthere, and Ignatius, a former soldier almost twice their age. While Petertutored Ignatius in philosophy, Ignatius helped Peter understand his soul. Theyoung man had a calm, gentle exterior, but his inner life was filled withturmoil. Mood swings brought elation one day and depression the next. Gradually,through daily prayer and other spiritual exercises, Peter acquired aself-knowledge that helped him cope with his melancholic temperament. Spiritualbalance – this is what he needed.
As for Ignatius, his own conversionat Manresa in 1522-23 evoked a desire to help souls. Peter was the first ofseveral young men to join him in a mission, as yet unspecified. In1540, PopePaul III officially established the Company of Jesus to engage in a mobileapostolate.
In the sixteenth-century, Europe wasin the throes of political and religious upheaval. The Catholic Church needed renewal and reform.In the 1520’s, the loudest and most decisive protests against the Church’sworldliness sounded from Martin Luther and others in Germany. In 1521, years before breaking with theChurch, Henry VIII denounced Luther’s teaching on the sacraments with his book,Defence of the Seven Sacraments. For this, Leo X declared the monarch“Defender of the Faith.” Famous laymen like Erasmus and Thomas More also wrotein opposition to Luther’s war with the Church and urged renewal of the clergy. Butseparation from Rome came, especially in Germany, and it proved a severe blow.When Paul III called on the young Company of Jesus to retrieve lands rapidlybeing lost to Protestant teachings, Peter was one of the first chosen for thismission by Ignatius.
In 1541, Peter set out on anitinerant ministry that sent him crisscrossing Europe. For the next five years,he ministered in Spain, Portugal, and Belgium, but much of this time was spentin Germany where the need was greatest. Cardinal Morone, the country’s Papal Legate would use him as atheological adviser.
Soon after his arrival in Speyer in1542, Peter sized up the situation as bleak. Catholics were fast converting toLutheranism. The scheduled debates between the Reformers and the Catholicsrevealed the strength of the Lutheran side. They had what Catholic theologians lacked: a united front, betterorganization, and simplicity of message. To make matters worse, politiciansfrom both sides had stakes in the outcome of the debates. Peter had walked ontothe stage of a tragedy already in progress, and its denouement did not bodewell for the Church. At the point of despairing, he wanted to abandon his postin the Rhineland. Who could blame him?
The talks were doomed from the start,Peter feared. He was convinced that mere learning, intellectualarguments, and heated debates would fail to convert anyone. Before all else, personal holinesswas what the Church needed. It preceded the retrieval of orthodoxy. Holiness of life – this would persuade moresurely than words.
Anticipating the Irenic Spirit ofVatican II
Peter went to the heart of thematter. He prayed for himself and for those whom he would serve. He prayed as he traveled from one city toanother that his ministry would bear fruit. The debates in which heparticipated with Melancthon and Bucer came to naught, but instead ofcondemning the Reformers, he “wrapped them in a mantle of prayer,” as he writesin his spiritual journal, the Memoriale (Mary Purcell, The Quiet Companion, 176).
In the face of futility, Peterdedicated himself to three aspects of apostolic work: the ministry of the word,the ministry of interiority, and the ministry of charity (Brian O’Leary, S.J., Pierre Favre and Discernment, 49; Memoriale, 329). He preached and lectured, gave the IgnatianExercises and heard confessions late into the night. In the works of charity, Peter’s affabilitycame alive. He easily established rapport with others, one person at a time,which often began with a chance meeting. Soon they had familial conversationsabout God, and people were drawn to him. If an individual had left the Churchor if a person needed encouragement to persevere in the faith, Peter listenedrespectfully and responded pastorally. Perhaps this meeting would returnthis person to the Church. In answer to a query from a fellow Jesuit,Diego Laynez about dealing with heretics, Peter’s reply anticipates the irenicspirit of Vatican II. He writes “of regarding them with love and of winningtheir good will so that they will love us and readily confide in us ... and “ofavoiding points of discussion that may give rise to argument.” (Purcell, 163) At a time when religioustolerance was nonexistent, his view is all the more remarkable.
All Is Prayer; Prayer is All
Peter was engaged in a round ofactivities, but we know few details about his interior life. His extrememodesty would not permit entries in the Memoriale beyond a brief mentionof them. Yet they reveal a life of deep prayer. His life with God is not separatedfrom life with others in “small deeds:” “The more one is united with [God], themore abundant blessing will God give to lowly works which come from him and aredone according to his will. Do not admire, therefore, the quality or size of awork which is visible, but rather the quality and size of the power from whichit proceeds. Prefer to be full of grace and to perform small deeds greatly,rather than to fail to grow spiritually and to perform great deeds weakly. Thesmallest deeds done with a great blessing of grace last longer and bear morefruit than the greatest deeds performed with only a little grace.” ( O’Leary,49-50; 423)
Peter takes delight in daily praisingand thanking God for favors received from pious thoughts and from his ministry.He records intense moments in prayer, a fact emerging from his keen awarenessof the Trinity present and at work in his life. Daily, he asks for God’sSpirit. In fact, he paraphrases John 14:26: ‘Father, give me your Spiritthrough Jesus your Son.’ There are times when he receives the gift of tears.
Brooding about a Bleak Situation
Peter’s natural tendency to moodswings never left him. In fact, they intensified because of thehopeless situation in Germany. Worse, he brooded over his brooding, and depression immobilized him.Helpless to do anything at these times, prayer was his only refuge where hebegged for guidance, for light to see what God wanted of him. His entries inthe Memoriale read like prayer because they were written duringprayer. He brings all to prayer and brings prayer to all. To the very end, heremained faithful.
On August 1, 1546, exhausted and wornout, Peter died in Rome en route to the Council of Trent where he was to serveas a theological adviser with three of his companions, Claude Le Jay, DiegoLaynez, and Alfonso Salmerón. He was forty years of age.
In 1607, the Bishop of Geneva,Francis de Sales in The Introduction to the Devout Life praises thesaintly Pierre Favre. Today he is honored in Villaret as a local saint, and asmall chapel stands on the Favre homestead, which I visited some years ago. Thewoman of the household, Madame Favre knew a pilgrim when she saw one. Sheoffered me a smooth, savory liqueur, had me sign my name in the visitors’ book,and handed me the keys to the chapel established on the homestead in his honor.It was a few steps from the humble cottage. An unforgettable experience!
On April 22, 2006, Pope Benedict XVIaddressed the Society of Jesus and their colleagues on the occasion of theIgnatian Year. He too spoke fondly of Peter as “a modest man, sensible, ofprofound interior life and given to strong rapport of friendship with all kindsof people, attracting in his time many young people to the Company . . .” (“A PreciousLegacy Not to be Lost”)
”The Elder Brother of Us All”
The life of Peter Faber puts a human face onone approach to God, the Ignatian. Despite the span of different time and differentcircumstance, Peter remains close to our human condition. We can feel with him coping with adversity. Heis not afraid to admit his doubts and struggles, his vulnerability anddepression. We admire his quiet gift of affecting one person at a time. Laynezspoke well when he described Peter as “the eldest brother of us all.” (BrianO’Leary, S.J., “Pierre Favre ‘The Eldest Brother of Us All’”)
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.