Saint Cajetan: Protector of the Sick and the Poor

Gaetano del Conti di Tiene, better known as St. Cajetan, was born in 1480 in Vicenza, in the Republic of Venice in Italy. His parents were members of the local nobility and Cajetan received an excellent education, culminating in a doctorate in civil and canon law from the University of Padua. He served as a senator in Vicenza and then as a court official in Rome under Pope Julius II in 1506. He remained in papal service until 1523, when Pope Julius died. While in Rome, he was ordained as a priest in 1516.

When his service to the papacy ended, Cajetan returned to Vicenza, and entered the Confraternity of St. Jerome, an association which consisted mainly of men from what church historian Father Alban Butler called “the lowest stations of life.” He focused his efforts on service to the sick and the poor, personally caring for incurables to the disapproval of his more upscale family and friends. Using his personal fortune, Cajetan supported and financed a hospital in his home town devoted to the care of the sick, both physically and spiritually. He continued his work with the sick in Venice, serving in a hospital which he again supported financially.

Cajetan’s philosophy was well summarized in his statement that “I see Christ poor and myself rich. He is mocked, and I am a guest of honor. He is suffering, and I am delighting. I am dying to take to take a step towards meeting him.”

Returning to Rome, he became one of the founders of the Theatine Order in 1524. The members of the Order took a vow of strict poverty and lived in monastic community. The Order’s mission was to serve the sick and the poor, to educate and reform the clergy, to preach and give pastoral care to the laity, and to oppose Protestant heresies, particularly Lutheranism. When the forces of Emperor Charles V sacked Rome with the help of Lutheran troops, Cajetan relocated to Venice where he ministered to the sick in a plague, and to the entire community in an ensuing famine.

Cajetan then went to Naples where he started the equivalent of pawnshops, which later became the Bank of Naples. His objective in this effort was to provide the poor with an alternative to loan sharks. Through personal preaching and example, he also persuaded members of both the clergy and laity in Naples to reform.

Cajetan served as head of the Theatine Order twice, and worked tirelessly in Venice and Naples to implement the objectives of the Order. He preached the virtues of frequent communion, stating that he “shall never be content till I see Christians flocking like little children to feed on the Bread of Life, and with eagerness and delight, not with fear and false shame.”

Cajetan died in 1547, and was proclaimed a saint in 1671. Because of his work with the poor, he is considered the patron saint of the unemployed and job seekers. Cajetan today has a particularly strong following in Hispanic countries.

The life of Cajetan mirrors that of other great saints. Like St. Katharine Drexel, he chose to devote his personal wealth to the poor, choosing to live in poverty himself. Like his contemporary, St. Thomas More, he employed his legal training in the service of the poor, and did not permit the glitter of public service as a senator and a papal court official to distract him from an intense prayer life. And, echoing St. Francis, he said that “in our hospital we may say that we actually find him [Christ].”

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