Saints tend to be men and women who stand out among their peers. When Pope Francis canonized his first saint in 2013, however, he chose a man who didn’t quite fit that profile: Peter Faber (also known as Pierre Favre), one of the founders of the Jesuit order.
Dramatic and inspiring stories are told about most saints. There are few about Faber. He participated in some of the key events of the sixteenth century, but he worked mainly in the background and was overshadowed by companions like Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. An introvert, he disliked the limelight.
But Peter Faber was remarkable, and there is plenty of drama in his story. It’s a drama of the inner life, a story of personal conversion and continuing transformation that can encourage any of us who follow the Lord while still confronting troubling traits and tendencies in ourselves.
Brilliant and Brooding. Peter Faber was born in 1506 in a tiny village in the French Alps. His parents were peasants, and for a time, Peter worked as a shepherd. He apparently had a phenomenal memory, and this caught the attention of someone who arranged for him to get an education. He proved to be a brilliant student, a fact that eventually landed him at the University of Paris, the best school in Europe.
But as promising as his academic career was, Faber had a lot of personal baggage as well. He was a brooding and introspective young man, and his spiritual life was marked by scrupulosity and plaguing temptations. Indecisive and uncertain about his future, he was also prone to depression.
Peter “won the lottery,” though, when it came to college roommates: he moved into a boardinghouse with Ignatius of Loyola and Francis Xavier. Ignatius, an ex-soldier from northern Spain, had learned how to hear God speaking to him in the ebb and flow of his inner life. As he did, Ignatius fell in love with Christ and was seized by a passionate desire to help other people know him too.
Recognizing God’s Voice. Ignatius was literally a godsend to his troubled roommate, who was tormented by fears of God’s wrath and judgment. Through Ignatius’ guidance, Faber discovered a loving God who is constantly pouring out his gifts, a God who is active in the world and who invites us to join in his saving and healing work.
Ignatius explained the dynamics of the spiritual life: the Holy Spirit is at work in us, but so is the evil spirit—what Ignatius called “the enemy of our human nature.” He taught his friend how to recognize the “voices” of the various spirits and how to make decisions that were most consistent with the kind of person God had created him to be. For Faber, this was the path to inner freedom. Ignatius, he wrote, “gave me an understanding of my conscience and of the temptations and scruples I had had for so long.”
There was more. Ignatius took Faber through an early version of the Spiritual Exercises, a structured prayer-retreat experience intended to help a person know Jesus personally and follow him by doing the work he is best suited for. These exercises led Faber to a profound conversion, and he decided to spend his life serving God as a priest. Ultimately, Faber, Ignatius, and five other men made vows to serve God together. This group of companions was the nucleus of what would become the Jesuits, or the Society of Jesus.
Everywhere, Good to Be Done. Peter Faber felt like a new man. The unsure, scrupulous depressive became a cheerful, confident servant of Christ—and a cherished friend. His view of life became expansive and optimistic: “Everywhere there is good to be done,” he wrote. “Everywhere there is something to be planted and harvested.” Though his internal challenges never went away completely, he learned how to minimize their effects. For Faber, the key came with his motto: “Always serve Christ the Lord with gladness. Jesus can never be taken from us.”
Faber became a troubleshooter called on by the pope and his Jesuit superiors to promote reform of the Church. Traveling all over Europe, he worked with university students, gave the Spiritual Exercises to hundreds—possibly thousands—of people, and made friends everywhere he went.
Faber did many notable things, but he was most loved for the way he did them. He was warm and openhearted, a good listener, a conciliator. He described his personal style as “embracing much and pressing little.”
This approach had a way of changing people. Once a group of armed bandits broke into a farmhouse where Faber was spending the night and demanded food and money. When Faber engaged them in conversation, though, their hostility gave way; in the end, the bandits asked him to hear their confession and left peacefully. Faber described a similar incident, in which he and his traveling companions were arrested by soldiers in a remote alpine region: “Our Lord was favorable to us, giving us the grace to converse with those who kept us in detention, with profit for their souls. The captain himself . . . made his confession to me.”
Never Close Your Heart. This grace and kindness were especially evident as Faber dealt with the controversies between Catholics and Protestants that were convulsing Europe. He thought that theological argument rarely changed people’s minds and often hardened their hearts. And so, his preaching and counsel emphasized personal reform. He insisted that we need to show each other the mercy that God has shown us. He told Catholics that they must love Protestants. “We must be careful to have great charity for them and love them in truth, banishing from the soul all considerations that would tend to chill our esteem for them. We need to win their goodwill.”
Faber isn’t talking about simple good manners. He says we must have real esteem and love for people with whom we seriously disagree. You can’t fake this. It’s possible only if we allow God’s mercy and love to change our hearts.
Clinging to Jesus. In his last journal entry, written just before his death in 1546, Faber wrote of his continuing need for grace against “temptations of various fears, needs, and deficiencies.” The transformation he experienced in his initial encounter with Christ wasn’t a one-time event—he knew he needed grace and wisdom all his life. Always aware of his shortcomings, he was hard on himself; his scrupulosity never completely went away. His humility sometimes descended into self-condemnation.
What helped him the most were the discernment skills that Ignatius taught him. He came to understand one of Ignatius’ most troubling insights: “It is a mark of the evil spirit to assume the appearance of an angel of light.” In other words, the devil’s lies and deceptions can seem attractive and plausible. Even our most zealous ambitions and pious urges can mislead us if they are being manipulated by the evil spirit. All these inner voices need to be interpreted.
If a promising new venture leaves you feeling defeated and depressed, you might well ask, “Does God really want me to do this?” If you fall into hopelessness and cynicism because of your failures, that’s not the work of the Holy Spirit. Faber wrote, “The spirit of God is peaceful and gentle, even in reproof.”
Time and again, Faber took comfort in the fact that God loved him. He was never very confident in himself, but his confidence in God grew. “If I retain the certainty and the awareness of God’s presence in me, he will make of me what I can and should be,” he wrote. “Always serve the Lord with gladness,” he wrote to a friend, “for he is the source of all welfare. Let your whole concern be only this: to cling to no one but Jesus, who can never be taken away from you.”
Keep Seeking the Lord. Many of us deal with challenges like anxiety, scrupulosity, or discouragement. We’re tempted to give in to them and tell ourselves (and God), “This is the way I am. It’s not going to change. I have to live with this.”
Faber’s life offers hope that serious personal wounds can be healed. Our weaknesses may not disappear, but they don’t have to blight our lives. As we keep opening ourselves to grace, we give God the opportunity to keep transforming us. He is always with us, always loving us, always showering us with mercy and strength. For Peter Faber and for all of us, the key is to seek the Lord in gratitude and humility. In that way, a lifelong struggle can become a lifelong victory.
Jim Manney has written and edited many Ignatian spirituality books, including What Do You Really Want? (Our Sunday Visitor).
Prayer of St. Peter Faber
Cast from me every evil
that stands in the way of my seeing you,
hearing, tasting, savoring, and touching you;
fearing and being mindful of you;
knowing, trusting, loving, and possessing you;
being conscious of your presence
and, as far as may be, enjoying you.
This is what I ask for myself
and earnestly desire from you. Amen.