“They say that every man is a child of his own times. No one can choose the canvas on which he will paint his life, nor can he take credit or blame for being born into particular historical circumstances. They also say it’s what you do with what you’ve got that makes the difference. What sets the great personalities of history apart is their vital awareness of the possibilities that life holds out. They seize them and shape their destinies instead of behaving like puppets of circumstances” (A Passion for the Church, Eulogio Pacho).
The canvas onto which Blessed Francis Palau y Quer was painted dates back to nineteenth century Spain, a time of much religious and civil turmoil and persecution. Born in Aytona in the Spanish province of Lerida, Francis Palau y Quer was welcomed into the world by his parents on December 29, 1811, the seventh of nine children. Francis excelled in his studies and was a child of great desires and aspirations. At the age of seventeen he entered the Seminary of Lerida. Those were four hard years that demanded tenacity and application in meeting daily responsibilities. The discipline was strict and the fixed schedule cumbersome. He was an excellent student and unshakable in his initiatives.
After four years of seminary studies and formation Francis discerned that his calling was somewhere else, but where? Although this was not yet perfectly clear, he was convinced that he was called to the religious life. In the summer of 1832, the young Francis made a decisive choice: he would not return to the seminary. As a result he forfeited the scholarship he had obtained four years earlier. On November 14, 1832, he entered the Discalced Carmelites in Barcelona taking the habit of the Order and the name Francisco of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. He was keenly aware that religious life in Spain and throughout Europe faced hard times, but he had no doubts about his vocation. Neither was he frightened at the risks he incurred.
On committing himself to this new way of life, the image of the Prophet Elijah, the father and inspiration of the first Carmelites, filled him with enthusiasm, as did the witness and lives of St. Teresa of Jesus and St. John of the Cross. They became for him the ideal model of the life he wished to live; he cherished the Teresian-Elijan zeal and that Sanjuanist contemplative silence during his Novitiate. “When I made my religious profession,” Francis would write, “the revolution already had in hand the firebrand for burning all the religious establishments. . . . I was not ignorant of the pressing peril to which I exposed myself nor of the rules of foresight that would have saved me from it. Nevertheless, I dedicated myself by solemn vows to a state whose rules I believed I could practice until death, independently of all human events.” With clear interior conviction Palau made his solemn religious profession of vows and consecrated himself to God on November 15, 1833. It was also decided by the community that he should become a priest, which Francis accepted humbly, and again began studies in the seminary of Lerida. On February 22, 1834 he was ordained deacon.
In July of 1835, the impending wake of violence burst on Palau and his community when rabid crowds attacked the convents of Barcelona and set fire to them. Luckily they were all able to escape from death, but from then on life in community was completely disbanded. “Would it last for long?” they all asked themselves. Yes, the disbanded community was not to return during the lifetime of Francis Palau. So what was he to do? Overnight, the thread of his life was broken. Would he be able to mend it?
Hoping against hope, Francis lived as best he could his religious obligations while waiting to return to his established convent and community life. During this time, he was ordained to the priesthood by Bishop Santiago Fort y Puig on April 1, 1836. He was barely 25 years old, a priest and religious expelled from his convent. Days, weeks, months and then years passed by. He soon realized that all hopes for returning to “ordinary” life was not to be. But even in this he saw the hand of Providence guiding his life.
He began by staying solidly set in the contemplative and apostolic foundations on which his life had been grounded as a Carmelite. He spent times of solitary prayer and then went out to preach to the people of Spain. The fame of the Spanish priest who led an austere life like that of John the Baptist soon drew people to him, and was the beginning of that which eventually led to the founding of the Carmelite Missionaries. Palau became for them father, master and guide. He was also to found his School of Virtue which would later be suppressed by the government, offering spiritual formation to the people of Spain. Imprisonment, expulsion and persecution would be his lot, yet he was unswerving in his fidelity to his mission and his faith.
Blessed Francis Palau had many mystical experiences of the Church as a bride, and she become the object of his love and for her he would dedicate his entire life. “I live and will live for the Church; I live and will die for her,” Palau exclaimed. The inner world of Father Francis revolved around the mysterious reality of the Church.
“Francis Palau was no different from the rest of men in being born a child of his times,” one biographer related. “What set him apart in that troubled age was his clear awareness, the eager way in which he studied the signs of his times, and his determined and creative response to them. He built for the future and built in ways that have stood the test of time. He fully realized his humanity and justly occupies a place among the great figures of the nineteenth century.”