Spirituality of San Gaetano
Spirituality of San Gaetano
Gaetano's spirituality could be best seen by watching his example and how he talked. His biographers have handed down to us a clear picture about this and they wrote about his humility and especially his silent example. But his inner spirituality and what was on his mind can now be seen better from the letters he wrote.

It is now easier to decipher the meaning of these since they were translated into modern Italian and published by scholars as recently as 1989. These open up to us the best way of knowing what he thought about himself and his position and scope of life especially spiritual. There are other letters written by contemporaries of his, which also help shed light on how he was seen close up.

It is interesting to know that his close friend Bishop Carafa, when he was superior of the order, wrote to Bartolomeo of Pisa from Venice on the 17th September 1532: "We thought of sending you Gaetano, our dearest friend. When you see him you are going to see and hear not only him but all our brethren and all your spiritual children who are here with me: one for all".

A letter in Gaetano's handwriting

His first work was among lay people and with these he exercised his humility more than his intelligence and cultural background.

He wished that the involved lay person, man or woman, commoner or of noble birth, did not look for human respect or vanity. For Gaetano these things dishonour a Christian, blemish genuine faith and paralyse that human and spiritual action that should be inspired by the gospel and the teachings of the Church. With these sentiments in his heart, he expressed his suffering in a letter to Sister Laura Mignani on the 31st July 1517. He was talking about the total decadence in Rome when he wrote her: ".. this city that was once a Holy city, became a Babylon".

He started by reforming himself without opposing anybody: ".. bound in humility with the Church". "No one is like Jesus Christ especially myself, neither inside nor out". He did not want to blame the Church itself for the rampant shortcomings of his time. He did not do like Martin Luther who when he did not agree, left the church. Gaetano stayed in the church working from inside and exhorting his brethren: "I pray you to keep yourselves bound in humility to the Holy Church of Christ which in itself is blameless even though she is living as a prostitute in its ministers". These words he wrote to Bartolomeo Sciani in a letter of 1529.

Not only Humility but courtesy and gentleness speak out in his letters. To Suor Maria Carafa he wrote on the 5th April 1541: ".. that my hand is so feeble that I do not know if it's right to use it in writing to someone; at the same time I cannot but answer those who wrote, with this same feeble hand", and he would sign "Don Gaetano, as best as I could". The letters sent to him were promptly answered even in the midst of his hectic life of intense service in the hospitals, at church and among the members of his order. To Bartolomeo Sciani he once wrote: "Your dear brother, In great haste". Showing the urgency he felt to answer people who wrote, this manner was at the same time part of the charitable way he used.

He gave two motives for humility: one based on the all knowing truth that is conscious of the gravity and goodness of human acts; the other based on love that sees all, understands all and forgives all. One day, a situation was presented to him which he could not approve, so he answered the sisters of Hope in the Naples monastery by writing back in a simple, delicate but loving manner in the plain truth only charity knows: "This thing, if it is like that, it is wrong". He was very considerate writing "if it is like that" making way for the possibility that it was not actually as the nuns were saying.

His expressions about himself are a deprecatory litany. Spiritual progress he thought, is measured more by fact than words. Gaetano was not flattered or deluded by words and his spirituality led him to continually put himself down and exalt others. This is how he usually ended his letters: "Priest without deserving it"; or "Unworthy servant of God"; or "Useless servant of Christ"; or "Ark of ignorance"; or "I am so feeble that an ant can trip me"; but at the same time people around him knew he was a giant of holiness; a fountain of spiritual life for others.

Humility in Don Gaetano was deep, and the fruit of continuous and rigorous control, but at the same time he could show authority and dignity with the result of others respecting him and submitting to him. In one of his letters he wrote: "I want to turn the world upside down but at the same time hide my hand". In his humility he wanted to do the will of God: "I want Jesus to cleanse my heart as soon as possible so I will not be rebellious to His will any more, so that I will not desire anything except being where He desires me to be. In this submission and in dying for myself, lies the glory of my Creator". These intimate spiritual expressions he wrote on the 8th June 1520 to Suor Laura Mignani. In another letter to her two years before, he had written: "I do not desire anything more than the will of the Father being always done in me, this I pray, this I desire".

Gaetano went through a very particular incident at Loreto. Historians tell us, in fact, that while he was passing through the city at the time of his mother's illness, a curious and moving episode happened to him. The pious priest, preparing himself in the sacristy for Mass in the sanctuary, while walking to the altar, was taken by a very profound sense of humility that he did not feel deign to celebrate in such a Holy place. All of a sudden he stopped, in fact he wanted to return to the sacristy but had to move on because of the helping cleric. Once before the altar, feeling unworthy to stay in the room where the Son of God became flesh, was filled with such horror that he broke down in tears. He could not start the celebration because of his sobbing and his tears so he had to return to the sacristy full of emotion and confusion.

Why Gaetano should feel all this emotion and why he thought he was in the place where Christ was born is contained in the legend about Mary's house which The Encyclopedia Britannica explains thus: According to this narrative the house at Nazareth in which Mary had been born and brought up had received the annunciation, and had lived during the childhood of Jesus and after His ascension, was converted into a church by the apostles. In 336 the empress Helena made a pilgrimage to Nazareth and caused a basilica to be erected over it, in which worship continued until the fall of the kingdom of Jerusalem. Threatened with destruction by the Turks, it was carried by angels through the air and deposited (1291) in the first instance on a hill at Tersatto in Dalmatia, where an appearance of the Virgin and numerous miraculous cures attested its sanctity, which was confirmed by investigations made at Nazareth by messengers from the governor of Dalmatia. In 1294 the angels carried it across the Adriatic to a wood near Recanati; from this wood (lauretum), or from the name of its proprietress (Laureta), the chapel derived the name which it still retains ("sacellum gloriosae Virginis in Laureto"). From this spot it was afterwards (1295) removed to the present hill, one other slight adjustment being required to fix it in its actual site.

The Holy Eucharist.

It was the Sacrament of the Eucharist in Holy Mass that gave energy to the spiritual life of Gaetano's priests. The Eucharist was also his focal point in Rome when he first became a priest. The impact of the secular city moved him closer to Christ, and this comes out in a letter that his friend Bartolomeo Stella wrote to Suor Laura Mignani on the 2nd March of 1517: ".. he has already been ten years in Rome, a holy person, celebrating daily Mass in his room". He had transformed his humble lodgings into a house of God.

"Always first for the Holy Office during the night; then after the Holy Matins you could see him in the choir kneeling at his place with the beads in his hands until it's time for Mass, and he used to celebrate Mass more likely on the main altar". - This was written about him in 1600 after his death, by Don Erasmo Danese, canon of the Gaeta Cathedral. He had become one of Gaetano's disciples in the church of San Paolo Maggiore in Naples during the latter part of our Saint's life.

In silence and by force of example, Gaetano was giving the other priests a clear picture of how they should have been carrying out their main duties, his main lesson to them in trying to activate reforms from within the church. In fact, the Eucharist was the Light that led him throughout his life. To his niece Elizabeth Porto he wrote on the 10th July of 1522: "I am a sinner and for myself I do not have any esteem but appeal to the Saints, servants of God, to pray for you to the Blessed Christ and His Mother. Remember that all the Saints cannot place you in God's favour as much as you can yourself. You must play your part if you want God to love and help you; love Him yourself and will yourself to please Him always; and never doubt that if even all the Saints and all the creatures of God abandon you, He will help you always in your needs. Keep in mind that we are on this earth only as pilgrims and travelers: Our Homeland is Heaven. Those who are proud lose their way and run towards death. While we are living down here we have to work to acquire Eternal Life, and by ourselves we cannot do it because we have lost it through our sinning, but Jesus Christ has recovered it for us. For this we have to thank Him every moment, love and obey Him and do everything in our capacity to remain always with Him. He has given Himself to us as food. Unhappy is the person who ignores so great a gift. It is given to us to possess Christ, Son of the Virgin Mary. Do we refuse Him? Woe to the person who does not care to receive Him. My daughter, the good I wish for myself, I ask ardently for you, but to accomplish this there is no other way except to pray frequently to the Virgin Mary so that She might come and visit you with Her Glorious Son. In fact, dare to ask Her to give you Her Son as the real food for the soul in the Holy Sacrament of the altar. She will give Him to you willingly and more willingly will He come to strengthen you and fill you with security in this dark forest full of hidden dangers and enemies. But if we entrust ourselves to the Virgin's help, we will not come to any harm."

It was one of Gaetanos greatest wishes to see Christian life being led by the Eucharist thus becoming a fountain of love, of giving and of works of charity. These thoughts led him to write these words to P. Giustiniani in 1523: "I will not be satisfied until I see Christians going to the priest to appease their hunger with the Eucharist, this being done with joy and without shyness".

He had always wanted the Theatine priests to celebrate Mass daily, a custom very unusual with many priests of the time. He had the real conviction that the renewed Sacrifice of Christ on the Altar would give abundant spiritual fruit both to the celebrant and to those participating. Educated in this way, the Theatines celebrated daily with the proper preceding meditation and preparation.

It was this energy that made him leave Naples for Rome to recommend to Cardinal Carafa, his friend and co founder of the order, not to slacken regarding the celebration of Holy Mass. One day Gaetano heard that Cardinal Carafa, caught up in the commitments of his office, did not prepare himself well for Mass, in fact he sometimes missed celebrating It completely. Don Gaetano became so sad that he decided to set off for Rome to correct this. There he reminded the Cardinal of his duties to celebrate Mass daily with the proper preparation. We must remember that it was a common priest admonishing a Cardinal and the only connection that Carafa had at this time with the order was one of love only. The Cardinal who even in his old age had kept his proud demeanour, bowed his head in front of Don Gaetano and promised he would correct these shortcomings of his at all cost. They embraced and parted with Don Gaetano happy at the thought of success with his friend and never worrying about the hard time traveling from Naples to Rome and back just for that.

In one journey from Venice to Naples Don Gaetano boarded a ship, sailing out in excellent weather, but soon after, the sea started to swell until it became very rough eventually developing into a full blown tempest. After a while, with the brave crew on the verge of giving up, the unknown priest was besieged with requests for confession from the passengers. Don Gaetano, in his calm way, told them that it was the will of God that everyone would survive to serve God and support their families because the Immaculate Lamb would save them. At this instant he took out a wax medallion (commonly carried in those days), on which were imprinted the words Agnus Dei (Lamb of God), and holding it high up told everyone to throw away all their sins because "the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world". Saying this he threw the medallion overboard with the sincere thoughts of repentance of all those on board. Unbelievably the huge waves calmed down in minutes and so did the strong gale force winds. Now Don Gaetano was in danger of being suffocated by the embraces of thankful passengers and crew... but he promptly spoke up that they should thank God not him a common sinner.

Imitating Christ.

In the beginning of the short booklet about spiritual life that he wrote, he says that man's happiness is found in his desire to imitate Christ's life ever so closely. He was already contemplating about the needed reforms in the Church especially amongst the clergy when he wrote to Paolo Giustiniani on the 1st January 1523: "Pray for me" he wrote him, "so that I will deserve to lie at the Holy Feet of that Mystical Body that does not seem so, yet it is at one with God and without it and without this union with Him I am nothing". In the same letter he writes about Venice and reiterates: ".. that city with all its beauty, there is much reason to cry over it, there is no one looking for Christ crucified. I have not met one single noble person who has given up one's glory for the love of Christ .. one, only one! Oh my"! and he continues with a lament which in future he would repeat over and over again: "Christ waits and no one moves"!

The words he wrote to Bartolomeo Sciani: "No one resembles Our Lord Christ especially myself, neither from inside nor outside", showed how hard he yearned to imitate Jesus and then try to recommend others to do the same. He always took care to teach others but primarily through silent example, first as a cleric then as a priest. He always looked for personal renewal without condemning other people's behaviour. In 1520 he wrote to Sister Laura: "The purification of ones soul can be done through effective fervour not affective fervour". To the same nun he had written two years previously: ".. faithful administrator and humble worker, servant of a humble Lord...". And these words about himself clearly show us what exact position he wanted himself to be in amidst the turbulence of the reform around him.

When the noble Francesco Capello asked the Theatines of Venice to receive amongst them the famous Marcantonio Flaminio and concede to him a relaxation of the rules because of his ill health, Gaetano answered in the name of his brethren: "If he wants to live with us he does not have to think about his room or about anything else except about giving up everything for His Will. Between us and him should be no difference except that we are nailed to the Holy Cross, while he is free to go whenever he wishes or we wish". This was written on the 17th February 1533 and he was echoing Paul's letter to the Galatians 2:19 where he says: "I was nailed to the cross with Christ".

In time of civil or ecclesiastical unrest, Gaetano had one thought in mind; to follow Christ and to bring Christ to others to imitate and follow: "You have Christ, hear Him and follow Him", he wrote to Bartolomeo Sciani in March of 1529.

The Cross.

Near Albuquerque in New Mexico U.S.A. there is a sanctuary in the small town of Chimayo believed to be built on sacred earth with miraculous healing powers. The legendary shrine 'El Santuario de Chimayo', is dedicated to the crucified Christ and is probably the most visited church in New Mexico. The crucifix which began the devotion in the original shrine still resides on the chapel altar, but inside there is also a fresco painting of San Cayetano as our Saint is known to Spanish speaking peoples. This picture shows him, like Christ, on a cross, but his wrists are bound with rope to the wood. The anonymous painter of the nineteenth century, in this primitive depiction, succeeded in making us visualize Gaetano's own words when he said: "When I embraced Holy Orders, I bound myself to the Cross". This was the exact program for which Gaetano totally dedicated his life from the very beginning. To show everyone how important this union is with Christ, he consecrated his order to the holy cross and chose as the emblem a bare cross on three hills.

For Gaetano there were two aspects of priestly life, Active and Contemplative. It is a little bit difficult and awkward to attend to both aspects at the same time with the same dedication given to each. Gaetano suggests the solution of offering everything together with Christ's all embracing Cross for the salvation of souls. If all this is done when one is poor and busy helping others, one is giving all with Christ in one's hateful world without letting one's selfishness win: "You should be sad when people praise you" says Jesus. Again Gaetano used to say: "To know Christ, to become like Him and become at one with Him to do His will".


It was his vision of Christ's poverty that inspired Gaetano to let go of everything worldly: "I will only be happy when I see myself so poor that I would not even have a single penny towards my own funeral". He was so proud of this concept that he once wrote: "Poverty is the only means for the clergy to keep their dignity and that of the Church".

On the 22nd August 1542 he wrote these words to his cousin Ferdinand: "In His infinite Goodness, God has been inviting me in the last few years, to choose His Kingdom and every day showing me that we cannot serve two masters: the world and Christ. I see the poverty of Christ and my riches, I see Him offended and myself honoured, I see Him suffering and me enjoying myself; I only hope that before I die I can move closer to Him; for now I wish to tell you that I have decided to give up some things so I will be less rich. I hope that Christ in His goodness, instead of these material things, gives me ones that are eternal and spiritual". And from Rome on the 28th January 1518 he wrote these words to Sister Laura Mignani so that she would pray for him: ".. so that I can serve my Lord Jesus Christ without any useless thoughts for my Country and kin folk". And again to her a couple of years later on the 22 November: "If Christ is with us, this is the real joy".

Charity and Love.

Gaetano wanted to imitate Christ in His submission and show his priests that they should follow the words and actions of Christ: "Love one another as I have loved you". He considered himself a servant of the Lord and did his utmost to deliver his love through this service to his fellow people. He once said: "In serving and loving God, in giving up yourself and sacrificing yourself for others, this is the secret of a Christian priestly life". That is how he lived even from before he took Holy Orders, within the different 'Divino Amore' groups and close to those who had contagious diseases. When his work forbade him to help his friends physically, he sent letters of spiritual support mentioning that they were doing a holy service amongst themselves and with the sick: "I pray for you, for the sake of Christs love and that of Blessed Mary, persevere together in unity and charity in these your holy commitments". Venice 17th June 1541.

We read his exhortation to Sister Laura of the 22nd November 1520: "Forget yourself completely and look only for the face of Christ in your neighbour". He couldnt be more clear in his advice that one must look for Christ in every person around. This is what real love is. Blessed Giovanni Calabria, a priest of the 19th Century who understood too well and followed Gaetano's spirit of love admits that: "The world does not believe in a rich priest" because Christ Himself had recommended: "They will know you are my disciples because of this: if you love each other". Jn. 1.13:35.

Gaetano's advice to Pietro Foscarini when he was chosen superior of the order for the first time was: "Make yourself loved by those you lead by exhorting them to obey the rule with love and humility". He did not advise him to acquire respect, but made it clear that when one leads with love, respect comes automatically and without fear. This harmony created by loving completely and being 'loved back', forms the basis of communal living especially among the religious, clergy, parish groups and diocesan members. This is made clear by Don Erasmo Danese with these words about Gaetano: "First, not only in the Choir but first in all the house services, washing of clothes, sweeping, and in all the needs that come up in the convent, especially with the sick whom he fed and served with his own hands".

He was not selfish in works of charity. All spiritual and material misery had a place in his priestly heart. When one of his priests hinted he should slow down because of his ill health he answered: "I wont die before I die". He was ready to do anything to imitate Christ in His choice of taking the load of our sins. In a letter to Sister Mignani Gaetano wrote: "He heard Gods angry voice speaking to the Christian and He interceded between God and the people and cried: 'On Me, place the blame on Me' ". What a contrast with the selfish life led by many a Christian!

This same virtue, this force of charity, can be detected in another letter of his to Sister Maria Carafa, superior of the 'Sapienza' monastery in Naples when he wrote to her from Venice on the 30th September 1542: "I send my greetings in Christ to you, the dearest mothers, brethren and children, yours and ours, with the hope you will clothe yourselves, inside and out, with the eternal virtue of Holy Charity that is the mother and the daughter of voluntary holy obedience; this I will repeat to you till I die: keep moving forward and never doubt that charity will lead you to the harbour of salvation". Even on his deathbed he insisted to those around him: "...... love, love, love always and trust always in Divine Providence".

Gaetano wrote a short spiritual direction addressed to someone anonymous. This manuscript still exists in the possession of the Franciscan Conventual Friars of Portici near Naples in their church of St. Anthony. It is actually written in Latin and roughly translates: "The real and priceless joy of man is present in his wish to imitate faithfully the interior and exterior life of Jesus Christ without asking for any particular compensation as St. Paul writes: "I am ready not only to suffer but also to die for Our Lord Jesus Christ. The beginning and meaning of all perfection lies in that one considers one's self unworthy of God's consolations. All the good for which God gives us the grace to put to fact, does not come from within us but comes completely from His infinite Goodness. Our humility must be twofold: one that comes forth from truth and the other from love. Real humility is the one that comes out of love for charity and the desire for perfection. Active life is when one accepts tiredness and poverty and when one does not look for respect from others but chooses to hide. Three are the elements that form contemplative life: interior purity, the control of all our senses and the obedience and submission to interior aspirations".

He always made the point of submission and humility clear. To Paolo Giustiniani he wrote on the 1st January 1523: "I wish to change the world without it knowing". And even with his group he reiterates the same thought: "I wish that after I die, all trace of me disappears".

He gave his life in one charitable gesture like Christ did on the Cross. He had written to Sister Mignani on the 22nd November 1520: "Lord, against me, against me vent your anger". And the lord at last accepted his offer: Gaetano had saved his countrymen from civil war by giving up his life.

Devotion to Our Lady:

How devoted Gaetano was to The Immaculate Conception of Mary can be seen by the tradition of the Theatines which they encouraged wherever they went. This took the form of the Blue Scapular of Our Lady, given to the Theatine Venerable Ursula Benincasa in 1617. She is depicted kneeling in front of Our Lady receiving the scapular from her. San Gaetano is there too, shown on the other side kneeling and wearing the scapular.