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St. Alphonsus de Liguori

Compiled by Bernadette Vesco

PART I

With the entrance of Alphonsus de Liguori into the world came also the promise of greatness. He was born of a noble Neapolitan family on September 27, 1696, a time when prestige and earthly rank were revered inordinately. His family ancestry was both ancient and honorable. His father’s lineage could be traced back at least five hundred years, when Marco Liguori was the governor of Naples. His mother’s family was equally esteemed, as her father was a counselor of the Royal Court of Naples and was reputed to be a saint; he had three brothers who were in the religious life, one of them a saintly bishop, and one of his daughters was a superior in a convent. Don Joseph Liguori was a nobleman and captain of one of the royal galleys. Donna Anna was a deeply spiritual woman, highly respected by all who knew her. Yet, however venerable the ancestry of the Liguori family, it was destined to receive its greatest honor and its finest adornment through the first son of Don Joseph Liguori and Donna Anna Cavalieri, Alphonsus Maria de Liguori. A short time after the birth of Alphonsus, St. Francis Jerome, a friend of the family, prophesied of him: "This child will be blessed with length of days; he shall not see death before his ninetieth year, he will be a bishop and will do great things for Jesus Christ."1

Alphonsus was born into a turbulent age, one which needed most urgently strong and holy saints to combat some of God’s fiercest enemies:

The days were evil indeed, and needed the leadership and example of one of God’s greatest saints. The dawn of the Eighteenth Century found the Church and the faithful imperiled by great enemies: Jansenism within the fold, and secularism, anti-clericalism, state absolutism, without. During that century the Jesuits were to be suppressed by grasping civil rulers who could not bear the thought of the influence they (the Jesuits) exercised by reason of their devotion to the task of educating the people in the knowledge and service of God. Atheism and scoffing deism were to run rampant in France, and to spread the poison of their hatred for the Church in many lands. Jansenism, with its heretical representations of God as a frightening tyrant, was to be found in high places and low, and simple faith and childlike devotion were to reach a very low ebb. Governments throughout Europe, some of them outwardly Catholic, were to arrogate to themselves all authority in ecclesiastical matters, with the usual result that the true religion suffered sorely. Such was the century into which Alphonsus was sent. His life almost spanned it, and his work more than that of anyone else helped restore religion to the hearts of men and to offset the attacks of its enemies.2

Early Years

Both of Alphonsus’ parents contributed quite differently to the formation of their son’s character. Don Joseph was severe, a strict authoritarian who demanded absolute obedience. Though he had strong, almost consuming ambitions for his son’s future, he was nevertheless a model Catholic in principle and practice, who did not feel that his worldly ambitions could be in any way contrary to his religious principles.

Donna Anna complemented her husband’s severity by her gentleness and spirituality. She attended to every duty to her children, especially their religious instruction. She taught them their prayers, gave them a thorough knowledge of doctrine, and inspired their hearts with a great love of God and hatred for sin. Her impact on her children is attested to by the vocations they followed: out of her seven children who survived into adulthood, three of them became priests and two became nuns. Her effect on Alphonsus was obvious through the piety and love of God he exhibited in his actions. As a young child Alphonsus loved to set up little altars and imitate a priest saying Mass, especially on the feasts of his favorite saints. At the age of nine Alphonsus enrolled in the archconfraternity of young noblemen at Naples, which sought to advance the noble laity in virtue and holiness. Alphonsus faithfully attended the weekly meetings, listened attentively to the lessons and endeavored to put them into practice. He never failed to say the prayers required of the archconfraternity members. A lifelong friend of his from childhood once said that Alphonsus, "was a saint even in boyhood. I recall that one day the members of the Little Oratory at Naples were given a trip to a neighboring country house where they might enjoy themselves in greater freedom. Alphonsus and I were there. The boys got up a game, playing for small stakes, and invited Alphonsus to join them. He answered that he did not know the game. As is the manner of boys, they insisted, promising to teach him how to play. He consented at last, and at his first opportunity to score, he compiled thirty successive points. One of the lads, who had been most insistent on his entering the game, lost his temper over this apparent superiority and scornfully cried out: ‘You did not know the game, oh no!’ and added to the taunt an indecent word. Alphonsus blushed deeply and, turning upon the angry youth, said: ‘What! For a few paltry coins you are not afraid to offend God! Here, take your money!’ He threw the coins down in the midst of the group and walked off. The boys went on with their game, but when the time for departure came, Alphonsus was nowhere to be seen. They began searching for him, and at last found him in a secluded part of the garden, on his knees in prayer. He seemed utterly oblivious to all around him."3

Still, despite any signs Alphonsus displayed for a religious vocation, Don Joseph Liguori was determined that his firstborn son have an illustrious career and further distinguish the family name. At the age of twelve the highly talented Alphonsus began his course of study in civil and canon law. Alphonsus obediently followed the strict requirements of his father, devoting his time and energy to his schooling while neglecting almost entirely any other amusements.

Doctor of Law

After years of intense work Alphonsus completed the requirements for his Doctor of Law degrees. At this time he was only sixteen years old, four years younger than the age required to try for the degree. After being granted a special dispensation, he passed every test with high honors and was awarded the degree of Doctor of Law in both Canon and Civil Law.

At the age of eighteen, after two years spent gaining practical knowledge, Alphonsus began what promised to be a celebrated law career. Almost immediately he became famous throughout Naples for his brilliant victories and powerful oratorical abilities. He was the pride of Don Joseph Liguori, who only looked forward to a highly connected marriage for Alphonsus to fulfill all of his aspirations.

Though the constant praise of the world was forever ringing in the ears of the exalted young nobleman, Alphonsus still managed for some time to continue observing his habitual daily acts of devotion and his prayer life. He left the confraternity of young nobles and joined the Sodality of Doctors, the duties of which he worked hard to fulfill. He was often found in the hospitals with the terminally ill patients, visiting them, and performing the simplest jobs there. He attended daily Mass and went on yearly retreats with his father. It was obvious to those around Alphonsus that he was a very pious and virtuous young man, yet, with such a demanding schedule and ever-increasing popularity, it was inevitable that some aspects of his life would eventually suffer. Over time his practice of going to daily Mass grew much less frequent as did his spiritual devotions, and the world pulled him more and more. "Banquets, entertainments, theaters," he later wrote, "these are the pleasures of the world, but pleasures which are filled with the bitterness of gall and sharp thorns. Believe me who have experienced it, and now weep over it." Though he committed no serious sin in these amusements there was no sanctity either, and God, Who desired Alphonsus to reach the heights of sanctity, had other plans for him.4

Retreat of 1722

A retreat made in 1722 was the means of awakening Alphonsus from his spiritual indolence. He would later refer to the retreat as one of the finest graces he received from God, asserting, "it was [there] that I learned to know God and to turn away from the world." One of the most profound consequences of the retreat, one which he would carry with him throughout his life, was an ardent devotion to the Blessed Sacrament. He constantly sought churches which were holding the Forty Hours’ Adoration and would spend hours before the altar in prayer. From that point in his life, Alphonsus was determined to become a saint.

After the pivotal retreat of 1722, Alphonsus was filled with the desire to be more closely united to God and to avoid the traps and distractions the world had been tempting him with. Soon this desire grew into a strong determination to consecrate himself to God, though he knew not what form the consecration would take. For a year he reflected and prayed about his desire. Then, during a retreat with his father, Alphonsus was inspired to give up his birthright as the eldest son in favor of his brother, and to never marry. He kept this decision to himself while he continued his work in law, waiting for the right time to deal the painful blow to his father.

St. Alphonsus’ Last Case

It was about this time that the providential event of this period in his life, the one which would change its course and lead him into his sacred vocation, took place. While Alphonsus had determined never to marry and to consecrate his life to God, he did not intend to give up the practice of law or enter the religious life. His career had been distinguished by a flawless record of victories, and led to his taking some of the most prominent cases in Naples. During one such important case, Alphonsus worked tirelessly for weeks, instructing himself in all of its aspects. He came to court confident and fully prepared. Yet after a brilliantly executed address to the court, his opponent presented a document overlooked by Alphonsus, upon which the case rested. Alphonsus’ error lost him the case.

The shock of this sudden change of events hit Alphonsus hard: until that point he had never lost a case and his work had been flawless. He was wounded so deeply that he suddenly understood it as a means employed by God to remove him from the world. With a voice full of emotion Alphonsus cried, "O world! I know you now! Courts, you shall never see me more!" And with those words he left the courtroom, never to return.

Jesus Calls Him

From that time forward the anguished Alphonsus spent most of his time either in front of the Blessed Sacrament, or helping the sick at the hospital. His father, anxious for his son to resume his career, asked him to help him with some legal work, to which Alphonsus answered, "Father, I beg you to ask someone else; I have said farewell to the courts forever and my only desire now is to occupy myself with the salvation of my soul." Don Joseph saw in this declaration all of his ambitions destroyed, and wept with sorrow and fury. Thereby adding to his own grief the weight of his father’s, Alphonsus sought consolation and distraction in his care for the sick. One day while he was helping at the hospital, he was suddenly surrounded by a brilliant light and heard these words: "Leave the world and give thyself to Me." Confused, Alphonsus began to depart, when he heard once again: "Leave the world and give thyself to Me." Alphonsus answered: "Lord Jesus, too long have I resisted Thy grace; do with me what Thou wilt." With this he went to the church of Our Lady of Ransom, and kneeling at the foot of the altar he was once again surrounded by the dazzling light. It was here that it was communicated to him that he was being asked to leave the world entirely and become a priest. After praying in front of the image of Our Lady, Alphonsus renounced his birthright before God and promised to enter the priesthood, after which he removed the sign of his nobility, the sword that hung at his waist, and laid it on the altar.

The worldly consequences of Alphonsus’ decision were overwhelming, as the devastated Don Joseph Liguori refused to speak to his son and expressed his disgust with being even in the same room with him. Though he ultimately gave his consent that Alphonsus enter the seminary, he nevertheless avoided being present when his son was clothed with the official ecclesiastical garb, and actually avoided seeing him for an entire year. Most of Alphonsus’ friends and acquaintances scoffed at him and believed him to be crazy, while the whole of Naples buzzed with the unbelievable news. Despite this adversity Alphonsus was determined to follow his vocation, and tended to his training with the same industry he had once applied to his law studies. He served Mass every day and spent a large portion of the day in prayer before the altar. He gave up every mark of his nobility and wore the simplest clothes. He taught catechism to the children after Mass, and in all ways strove to imitate the Redeemer, an endeavor that foreshadowed the Divine mission that would soon be entrusted to him.

Missionary Priest

Since he was particularly attracted to missionary work, after his ordination in 1726 Alphonsus became a member of the Congregation of Apostolic Missions. The Congregation was originally founded to conduct foreign missions, but there was such a pressing need throughout Naples for their work that they were entirely occupied there. His talent for missionary activity was evident through the great success he met with in his work. The oratorical talent that had once made him a renowned lawyer now proved him to be an equally powerful preacher. He soon acquired a reputation and was requested to preach all over Naples. He also became known as an effective confessor.5 For five years Alphonsus was employed in missionary activity, and though once again vanity tempted him through the wide renown he received, he was unaffected, desiring only to be a missionary to the poorest and most abandoned souls.

His Style: Be Clear and Edifying

One way in which Alphonsus’ concern for souls was manifested was through his style of sermons. At the time it was the trend to give sermons in such a way that style and artifice were concentrated on rather than clarity and content; the sermon was used as a means of glorifying the preacher’s ingenuity through tricks of rhetoric, especially by inverting sentences so that the faithful did not comprehend what was being said until the very end. Thus, the people did not receive the instruction and spiritual nourishment that they should have. Alphonsus disliked such a style of preaching, which only existed to feed the vanity of the elocutionists. "He made it his principle that unless his words were clear and inspiring even to the most humble and illiterate members of his audience, he was speaking in vain. He realized that most of the people, even those of the nobility and the educated classes, had little training in philosophy and theology; that learned treatises or fantastic discourses might amaze them and make them look upon the preacher as a great man, but would not induce them to love God and to hate sin. So he preached simply, instructively, clearly — and for oratorical adornment merely allowed his own love of God and desire to save sinners overflow into his words."6 It was this love and simplicity of Alphonsus’ that made him successful with people of every rank; crowds gathered wherever he was preaching, and those who heard him could hardly remain untouched, even his father, who found himself at one of Alphonsus’ missions. Afterwards he approached Alphonsus and said to him: "O my son, how grateful I am to you! You have taught me really to know God. I bless you and thank you a thousand times for embracing a state so holy and pleasing to God."

Apostolic Zeal

Alphonsus still desired to help poor and abandoned souls, and when he wasn’t preaching a mission he could be found in the streets of Naples, surrounded by the most forgotten, including beggars, prostitutes and wanderers. It was in this work of saving the lowest souls that Alphonsus was happiest. He was so effective in this activity and the crowds grew so large that soon he could not handle it alone and some of his associates joined him. He began to gather his motley flock into private homes and chapels, and there they would pray, have instructions, and make meditations. He saw to it that priests heard their confessions, and that Mass and exposition of the Blessed Sacrament were available to them. His work in this area continued for many years.

Though Alphonsus dedicated himself to the care of other souls, he never neglected his own. He continued his fervent spiritual devotions, often making many prolonged visits to the Blessed Sacrament every day, and he engaged in severe penances and mortifications. Clearly, the holiness of Alphonsus and the fruit of his labors would alone have made him a man revered for ages to come, but God had even greater plans for him. Upon giving up the world Alphonsus had determined to become a saint. Not one to do anything half-way, he would not tolerate mediocrity from himself and his character was such that if he was going to become a saint, he would become a great one. But in order to reach this goal God was going to ask much of him. Alphonsus’ advances in sanctity and various experiences in missionary activity were preparing him for his greatest work for the salvation of souls.

(Continued next Issue)

Footnotes:

  1. Miller, Father D.F., C.SS.R. Saint Alphonsus Liguori. Tan Books and Publishers, Inc. Rockford, Ill. 1940, p. 8.

  2. Ibid., p. 5.

  3. Ibid., pp. 10-11.

  4. Catholic Encyclopedia: St. Alphonsus Liguori. Online: www.newadvent.org/cathen/01334a.htm

  5. The Catholic Encyclopedia for School and Home. Volume 1. McGraw Hill Book Company. New York: 1965.

  6. Miller, p. 37.

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