Francis Borgia was born in his family's palace in Valencia on October 28, 1510. The eldest son of the seven children of the third duke of Gandia, his paternal grandfather was Pope Alexander VI, and his maternal grandfather was King Ferdinand the Catholic. Francis was only ten years old when his mother Juana of Aragon died; he was sent to live with his uncle the Archbishop of Saragossa. Two years later he was appointed page to his cousin, Catherine, the sister of Emperor Charles V. After three years of philosophy study, he was invited to the Spanish court by Emperor Charles, and it was there, in 1529, that he married Leonor de Castro of Portugal, first lady in waiting to Empress Isabella. One year later, Francis was made Marquis of Llombai and put in charge of the Spanish royal household.
By 1539, the family of Francis and Leonora included eight children; the couple was "beloved" of the king and queen, and received many honors at court. The unexpected death of Queen Isabella in May 1539 brought about a religious conversion in Francis, an understanding of the transitory nature of human life that was evidenced in weekly reception of Holy Communion and donations to the poor. Later that same year, in spite of Francis' youth, he was appointed viceroy of Catalonia, and his family moved to Barcelona. Four years later, a second death, that of his father, made Francis the fourth Duke of Gandia and Marquis of Lombay.
In 1545, Francis met Peter Faber and founded a Jesuit college in Gandia. Favre became his consoler when Leonora died the following year, and after making a retreat under Father Andrew de Oviedo, SJ, Francis vowed to become a Jesuit. Ignatius replied to his application with three directives: Francis was not to tell anyone of his decision, he was to make preparations for his eight children, and he was to begin the study of theology. Ignatius undertook the spiritual education of Francis by letter, instructing the Duke to modify his mortifications, his prolonged prayer and his solitary life-style.
On February 1, 1548, Francis made, in secret, his profession of vows as a Jesuit. Two years later, he earned a doctorate in theology from the college he had founded, renounced his possessions, provided for his children, and left Gandia for Rome, arriving at the Jesuit house on October 23, 1550. Five months later he returned to Spain where he resigned his title in favor of his son Carlos, and, on May 23, 1551, Francis was ordained a priest. He celebrated his first Mass in August of that year, in the chapel of the Loyola castle, and then went to Onate in northern Spain where he served as a parish priest. In 1553 Ignatius named him "Commissary General," a role that placed him over the Jesuit provincials of Spain and Portugal. During this period Francis founded over twenty colleges and established the first Jesuit novitiate in Spain.
The General who succeeded Ignatius, Jaime Lainez, called Francis to Rome in 1561 to act as Vicar General of the Society of Jesus while Lainez was at the Council of Trent. In 1564 Borgia was named Assistant to the General for Spain and Portugal. When Lainez died in July 1565, Francis Borgia was elected General of the Society of Jesus.
The pace of Borgia's activities during his term as General was notable: he revised the rules of the Society of Jesus, began construction of the Church of the Gesu and the novitiate of Sant'Andrea – both in Rome. At the request of Pius V, Borgia accompanied Cardinal Bonelli to Spain to ask for Spain's help against the Turks.
The Jesuit scholar and historian, Joseph de Guibert provides some insight into the spirituality of Francis. The Second General Congregation of the Society of Jesus, held in 1565, gave General Borgia the power to increase the time given daily to prayer; he prescribed one hour of prayer daily, in addition to two periods for the examination of conscience. The rational for these prescriptions was "the danger presented by the increasing number of external apostolic activities." The General also composed a collection of meditations on the Gospel reading for each day, an original practice at this time (deGuibert, p. 197; 556).
The spiritual diary of Francis Borgia, dating from the late 1560's, portrays a person "given to compunction... constant sorrow for his sins, and fear that is incapacity will obstruct God's work." His correspondence frequently ends with the signature "Francis, sinner." There are indications in the diary of the gift of infused contemplation as well as a struggle against self and reparation for the sins of his family. (deGuibert, 198). As with Pierre Favre, Borgia indicates a special devotion to the wounds in the side of Christ.
Pope Pius V considered Borgia his chief assistant in promoting the Catholic Counter Reformation. In December 1571, this Pope asked Borgia to go to France, but hearing that the Pope was ill, Borgia turned toward Rome. The Father General was so ill that he had to be carried on a litter, and he developed a serious fever. While Borgia rested with his relatives, the d'Este family of Ferrara, he learned that the Pope had died on May 1, 1572. Borgia reached Rome on September 28, 1572, and died shortly after midnight on September 30th
Some of the statistics from Borgia's administration indicate the vigor of his missionary spirit. Thirty-one colleges were opened in Western Europe: eleven in Spain, eight in France, five in Poland, four in Belgium, and three in Germany. Jesuit missions were established in Mexico, Peru, Florida and Crete. Sixty-six Jesuits were martyred during his administration, and thirty six died serving plague victims in Europe. Pope Pius V (a Dominican) acted on Francis' suggestion to establish a congregation of cardinals to promote the work of missionaries, and considered Francis his "chief assistant" in promoting the Catholic Counter-Reformation (Corley, p. 36).
Francis Borgia was beatified by Pope Urban VIII in 1624, and canonized by Pope Clement X on April 12, 1671.