Saints for Our Times: St. Alphonsus urged more simplicity, compassion
By Mary Lou Gibson
There are so many ways to describe St. Alphonsus Liguori: a skilled musician, a successful lawyer, a popular preacher, reforming bishop, founder of a religious congregation, a moral theologian, writer, visionary and mystic. These accomplishments also brought him many professional and personal difficulties.
He was born in 1696 at Marianella near Naples the eldest of seven children. He was given the name Alphonsus Marie Anthony John Cosmas Damian Michael Gaspard de’Liguori. Rosemary Guiley writes in “The Encyclopedia of Saints” that Alphonsus was a precocious child who learned quickly.
He was 16 when he acquired the doctor of law degree. By the age of 27, Alphonsus was one of the leading lawyers in Naples, but his career ended abruptly when he lost an important case because he overlooked a critical document that undermined his case.
Guiley writes that he took this as a sign from God that he should live his life as a priest. He went to the church of Redemption of Captives and laid his sword before the statue of Mary and then offered himself as a novice to the Fathers of the Oratory. He was ordained in 1726 and in 1729 left his father’s house to become a chaplain to a college training missionaries for China.
Bernard Bangley writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that Alphonsus became a popular preacher in the region around Naples where he had grown up. He had a simple, direct way of speaking to undereducated people and believed that Christianity was for everyone.
It was during this time that he met Father Thomas Falcoia and the two became lifelong friends. He also met Sister Mary Celeste, a nun at the convent of Scala, which Father Falcoia had helped to refound. With their help, Alphonsus founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Savior in 1732 (17 years later “Savior” was replaced with “Redeemer”). Alphonsus became superior general in 1743. Pope Benedict XIV approved the Rule and Institute of men in 1749 and the Rule and Institute of women in 1750.
Almost from the beginning, the order suffered from internal dissension about authority as well as political opposition. Alphonsus wanted his priests to preach practical sermons, retreats and missions. He organized Christian clubs for the unemployed of Naples. He continued his missionary work until 1752, while also dealing with declining health.
He began to write and in 1745 published the first of many theological and devotional works. His most important work, “Moral Theology” was published in 1748 and went through nine reprints during his life. Another work, “Glories of Mary” was published in 1750 and influenced Marian piety well into the 19th century, according to Richard McBrien writing in “Lives of the Saints.” In total he wrote about 110 books and pamphlets, many of which are still read today.
His life took another turn in 1762 when King Charles of Naples forced Alphonsus to become bishop of Sant’ Agata dei Goti, a tiny diocese near Naples whose clergy were lax and the people were not instructed in their religious life. There were some 30,000 people, 17 religious houses and 400 diocesan priests now under his care. These years were not easy for Alphonsus. Guiley writes that many of his reforms were not welcomed and he was even threatened with assassination. But he continued to urge his priests to be simple in the pulpit and compassionate in the confessional. And he stated repeatedly that “Poverty is the true characteristic of a bishop.”
He also suffered from an attack of rheumatic fever that left him partially paralyzed for the rest of his life. Guiley writes that his neck was permanently bent, at first so badly that his head rested on his chest. He resigned as bishop in 1775, and retired to his order’s monastery at Nocera di Pagani where he lived for 12 more years.
There was still one more crisis that Alphonsus had to deal with in 1780 that split the order. Paul Burns writes in “Butler’s Lives of the Saints” that his rule received ecclesiastical but not civil approval. Alphonsus, old, crippled and partly blind, was betrayed into signing and submitting for royal approval a new rule that completely altered his own rule. Pope Pius VI refused to accept the new rule, recognized the Redemptorists in the Papal States as the true Redemptorists and a new superior was appointed to replace Alphonsus. So at this point in his life Burns writes that Alphonsus was effectively excluded from the order he had founded.
For the rest of his life, he lived through a “dark night of the soul” that was replaced by some peace where he experienced visions, ecstasies and made prophecies that were later fulfilled. There were numerous stories told of the miracle of bilocation that took him to the bedside of the dying Pope Clement XIV on Sept. 21, 1794. Guiley writes that he was seen to levitate and that he knew the secret and hidden thoughts of people.
Alphonsus died Aug. 1, 1787, believing his congregation had failed. In 1793, the order was recognized by the Neapolitan state and the Redemptorists now operate all over the world.
Alphonsus was beatified in 1816 by Pope Pius VII and canonized in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI. He was declared a doctor of the church by Pope Pius IX in 1871. His feast day is Aug. 1, and he is the patron of confessors, the lay apostolate and moral theologians.