The Life of Saint Alphonsus Liguori (1696-1787)
Lawyer - Bishop - Founder -Religious Superior - Theologian - Mystic - Author - Poet - Doctor of the Church - Missionary
Who is this Saint Alphonsus, who has so many credits to his name? In order to answer that question, we must travel to Marianella, a village near Naples, in the troubled days of the 18th Century.
As God made a promise, He would not leave us orphans, the Church was under attack! Send a future Defender of the Faith! Unrest was spreading throughout Europe and the American colonies; and it would not leave Italy free from its tentacles. We were in the Age of Enlightenment, where the philosophy was an egocentric, prideful belief in the power of human reason, rather than the universal, Catholic belief in and dependence on God. Great enemies of the Roman Catholic Church, and all forms of religion, those egotists, fostering this theory, placed the focus on knowledge derived through the study of nature, rather than of the One Who created nature. Promulgators or promoters of this ideology, writers of that period, like Voltaire, accused the Roman Catholic Church of having enslaved the human mind. Although they did not go so far as to completely reject religion, they formed a new cultist form of religion called Deism, accepting the existence of God, “on purely rational grounds, without reliance on Revelation or Authority.” They rejected all forms of Christianity - consequently the existence of Jesus Christ. They promoted the rationale that human aspirations should be centered on the now, life on earth, rather than centering our lives on eternal life in the Kingdom to come. They taught that God created the world and its natural laws, but takes no further part in its functioning. The primary focus of this new cult was to mold their consciences into their new way of life - centering on man rather than God.
A child is born
A baby’s cry was heard in the darkness, and it would resound throughout the world, for generations to come. Alphonsus Mary, Anthony, John, Cosmos, Damian, Michael, Gaspard de Liguori took his leave from Heaven and came into the world on the family’s country estate, on Tuesday, September 27th, 1696. It is said that he preferred to be called by his Italian name of Alfonso Maria. Although born of parents of the nobility, his family like so many of their class, had seen hard times. Alphonsus never forgot his beginnings and would spend his almost ninety-one years on earth serving the poor and downtrodden.
A baby was born on Tuesday, September 27th, whose voice would not be stilled. The baby Alphonsus would grow into a fine instrument of the Lord and live on in the many books he would write - 111 of them in all - including the two volumes on Moral Theology (which would have him declared a Doctor of the Church), and in the many books on Mother Mary, his love.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. From his earliest years, his father insisted the boy Alphonsus be tutored by a private teacher, under his careful supervision. As the first born of seven children, he was most decidedly the favorite and the one who showed the greatest promise to take over the responsibility of overseeing his father’s estates. Alphonsus would not disappoint his father. Not only did he show himself to be far advanced in his academic studies, but he fared equally well as a fine musician. Wanting him to be well-rounded, his father had him study the harpsichord. The boy Alphonsus practiced three hours a day, and was so accomplished playing the harpsichord, by the time he was thirteen years old, he could well have excelled as a maestro. That training would do him well, in the music he later composed. In addition, as was required of his class, Alphonsus was trained to be a fine horseman and to be highly skilled at fencing. Only his poor eyesight would restrict him from engaging in these two pastimes.
Alphonsus begins a life in the courts of law
His father had him trained to become a lawyer. By the time he was sixteen years old, he was so proficient in his studies, he received a degree of Doctor of Laws. And this came about in spite of the fact that the required age to receive such a degree was no younger than twenty years of age. When he received his degree, his stature was so small, the robes of his new profession dragged on the floor, dwarfing him, to the delight of all in attendance. His next step - he studied for the Bar, and by the age of nineteen he was able to practice law in the courts, again far ahead of all who had preceded him. The world and its snares were weaving gossamer fibers (not unlike those of a spider’s web), threatening to entrap the young man in its web.
There was an ongoing battle for Alphonsus’ future. Although his father’s focus was to groom him for the world, his mother, who was highly spiritual, was the loving instrument who would prepare him for a future life as Jesus and Mary’s troubadour. But it would not be a battle easily won. Now, don’t get me wrong. Alphonsus’ father, even when trying to arrange a suitable marriage for him, always prompted him to place God first. Father and son even made retreats together.
But temptations were always lying in wait for the brilliant young lawyer. Alphonsus’ confessor testified, he never succumbed to serious sin till his death. In spite of the fact, he did become enamored of his life as a lawyer and grew increasingly fascinated by the daily challenges he was able to easily overcome. The flattery of those who saw his clever prowess in the courts not only turned his head with their open adulation, to compound the problem, Alphonsus found himself setting aside prayer and spiritual reading for the glitter of the world and its relentless temptations. And here, the tempter lurked. It would appear that Alphonsus’ future was sealed, until the day God stepped in. And as we have said so many times, God often has to teach us in painful ways.
It has been said that in the eight years he practiced law, he possessed a record of never having lost a case. That is, all except the one case which would change his life and the direction it had been taking. We now find our young lawyer in the year 1723, about to face his first defeat. There was a trial, centering around a lawsuit between a nobleman from Naples and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, being waged in the courts of law. We don’t know whether Alphonsus was representing the plaintiff or the defendant. We only know that Alphonsus began with his usual brilliant, cleverly prepared remarks to the court. Satisfied with the obvious results which would assuredly be forthcoming, the young Alphonsus confidently sat down, after he finished speaking. But his contentment was to be short-lived. Just as he was about to call his first witness, the opposing attorney coldly confronted him, insisting his arguments were ill placed, as Alphonsus had missed a section of the document, which completely negated his allegations and consequently jeopardized the success of his case. As this was so out of the ordinary, Alphonsus insisted on reading the document. Incredulously examining and reexamining the brief, and then, not satisfied, poring over it meticulously, over and over again, there was nothing left but to admit he had in fact missed that section and had consequently lost the case. He was desolate. All around him, in the courtroom, tried to console him, even the judge; but Alphonsus would have none of it. His greatest fear was that they might judge he had been purposely trying to deceive them. No amount of reassurances could dissuade him. He bolted out of the courtroom, crying out that he was finished with law and all its trappings.
He went to his room and refused to eat anything for three days. After his battle with himself (he thought), he realized that more than an attempt to humiliate him, this was an act by God to bring him to the road he was supposed to be traveling. Realizing he had journeyed to his eternal goal by the wide road, allowing the many deviations of the world he had chosen, to distract him and lure him from his Heavenly destination, he spent days upon days praying, seeking God’s Will in his life. There is no record of how long he prayed; we only know that on August the 28th, in the year 1723, our Alphonsus went to the Hospital for the Incurables, to visit the sick and dying. As he was making his rounds, suddenly he felt the room he was in, shake. Whereupon, he heard a voice call out to him, “Leave the world and give thyself to Me.” That he might not think this was his imagination, the voice repeated the command. His blood racing, his heart pounding, Alphonsus rushed out of the hospital and went over to the church of the Redemption of Captives (or as it also known: Our Lady of the Ransom). He knelt before the image of Our Lady and laid his sword at Her feet, swearing his lifetime allegiance. He then made a solemn resolution to enter the Religious Life, starting as a novice in the Fathers of the Oratory.
Alphonsus begins his walk toward Sainthood
His walk was not to be an easy one. His father was not too happy with his two ill-attempted tries at marrying Alphonsus to a suitable wife of a prestigious family, nor was he pleased with his son’s decision to leave his profession as a lawyer. His worst fears were realized! His father was furious with his decision to leave the world and enter Religious Life, especially as an Oratorian. After enduring two months of trials, finally triumph! - resignation on his father’s side and compromise on that of Alphonsus. His father gave his consent to his son pursuing a Religious Life as a priest, as long as it was not as an Oratorian; and Alphonsus agreed! The other hook was that Alphonsus agree to remain at home; and Alphonsus agreed!
Without fidelity to an Order already established, it freed Alphonsus to found an Order of his own, one day. On October 23rd., in the year 1723, Alphonsus was vested in the clothes of a cleric; and in September of the following year, he received the tonsure, soon after gaining admittance to a missionary secular priests organization, called the “Neopolitan Propaganda” where priests were not required to live a communal life in community. He was to receive minor orders in December of the year 1724, and joined the Subdiaconate in September of the following year, 1725. April the 6th, 1726, he was enrolled in the Diaconate, as a Deacon. On December 21st of that same year, Alphonsus was ordained a priest - he was now thirty years old.
For the next two years, he was involved in missionary work throughout the Kingdom of Naples. (Unlike today, it encompassed many areas of Italy, which at that time was not a unified country). As we aforementioned, the Church was under attack and suffering, what with the liberal, humanistic effects of Renaissance10 completely out of control and in contrast the unrelenting, uncompromising rigidity toward the Sacrament of Penance - a product of Jansenism,11 threatening to destroy her from within. St. Alphonsus came against both these extremes. He was able to win the hearts of all who listened, with his simplicity, speaking to the souls of men as well as to their minds, at their level - never talking down to them or over their heads. The simplest baker was able to absorb the Word of God alongside those of the intelligentsia.12 A common comment
This existed at that time, but is no longer part of the Sacrament of Holy Orders.
Literally a “servant,” the Diaconate is the first of the major Holy Orders, but the lowest in the hierarchical order of the Church. When a man is going to be ordained a Priest (usually a year before), he is first ordained to the Diaconate. A Deacon’s duties are: assisting the celebrant at Mass, preaching, administering Holy Communion, and Baptism with permission. Vatican II declares: “It is the duty of the Deacon...to administer Baptism solemnly, to be custodian and dispenser of the Eucharist, to assist at and bless marriages in the name of the Church, to bring Viaticum to the dying, to read Sacred Scripture to people, to instruct and exhort the people, to preside at the worship and prayer of the Faithful, to administer sacramentals, and to officiate at funeral and burial services.” (The Catholic Encyclopedia - Broderick)
“It is a pleasure to listen to your sermons; you forget yourself and preach Jesus.”13 He passed on this wisdom to all he instructed for missionary work: “Your style must be simple, but the sermon must be well constructed. If skill be lacking, it is unconnected and tasteless; if it be bombastic, the simple cannot understand it. I have never preached a sermon the poorest old woman in the congregation cannot understand.”14
Again in contrast to the rigors of Jansenism to which he was most opposed, he treated souls seeking forgiveness in the confessional as precious souls desiring to be saved, instead of as criminals deserving punishment. He brought the gentle, forgiving love of the Savior to all who reached out to him, seeking pardon in the confessional. He did not treat penitents harshly. More like his Lord, who gently told Mary Magdalene to go and sin no more, St. Alphonsus did not try to frighten them into leading a more holy life, free of sin. It has been said, he never refused anyone seeking absolution. Now this did not sit well with some, causing them to look upon him and his teaching with distrust.
Alphonsus ministers to the poor and the downtrodden
He organized those called the lazzaroni15 into groups, which would meet, seeking his guidance in the ways of virtue, as they were receiving Alphonsus’ lessons on the on true Faith. Coming from a seedy way of life to this new way, some went overboard, bordering on extreme scrupulosity. One lazzarone who came to him, was practicing an extreme form of fasting, which earned him a severe reprimand from St. Alphonsus. One of his priests added: “It is God’s Will we eat in order to live. If you are given cutlets, eat them and be thankful. They will do you good.” As usual, there are always those in the sidelines, waiting to pounce on every word that is uttered, and so, Alphonsus and his group of Lazzaroni came under suspicion; resulting in their being put into the same category as cults or heresies that had cropped up. They went so far as to accuse them of being secret societies of Epicureans,16 of Quietists,17 or some new heresy. That not working, they accused them of being a new cult “of Cutlets.” Now this would be funny, if it did not get caught up with the Church and the State (as Church and State in those times were inseparable), who took it quite seriously. The result, arrests were made and St. Alphonsus had to present himself before the Archbishop and the local magistrates. The Archbishop, after hearing our Saint, just cautioned him to exercise more discretion in the future. The result - the Cutlets kept meeting and learning, and grew into the Association of the Chapels,18 which numbers, till today, thousands of workers who meet daily for prayer and instruction in the confraternity chapels.
A new career to serve God arises
In the year 1729, St. Alphonsus, now thirty-three years old, left his father’s house and became a chaplain to missionaries formed by the Apostle of China, Matthew Ripa.19 He went to live among them; but never became part of the Order. But there, as God would have it, he was to meet a friend of Matthew Ripa, Father Thomas Falcoia, who would become his lifetime friend and associate, although there was significant variance in their ages, Alphonsus being thirty-three and Falcoia sixty-six.
Father Falcoia fascinated Alphonsus. He was part of the Congregation of the “Pii Operarii” (Pious Workers). You can see how there was already a strong bond between these two men, what with Alphonsus’ love for the humble and Falcoia’s community of workers. In addition, it appears the older priest had been shown a vision of a community of men and women who would be living a life fashioned by an imitation of the virtues of Our Lord. Father Falcoia began by forming a group of twelve priests who would live in common. But sadly, that soon disbanded. In 1719, Father Falcoia, along with Father Filangieri, founded a congregation of religious women at Scala, on the mountains looming behind the breathtaking area of Amalfi. Because he did not have a clear view of the direction extinction of the human will, withdrawal from worldly concerns and passive contemplation of God and Divine things.his vision was to take, he originally formed these Nuns using the Rule of the Visitandines Sisters.
But God had a different plan in mind. The new institute He had given Father Falcoia would begin with the Nuns at Scala. As God is always weaving the garment He calls Church, in the same year that St. Alphonsus left his father’s house, 1729, a postulant, Julia Crostarosa (also born in Naples in the same year as Alphonsus), entered the convent of Scala. Sister Maria Celeste, as Julia would become known as a religious, while still a novice, had a series of visions of what the Lord wanted a new congregation to look like. It appears they were to be an Order of women. She had been told to write all the visions down on paper, and show it to her director. She did so, and although Father Falcoia pretended to treat her and her visions with some suspicion, secretly he was pleased, as the visions confirmed the Rule which had been planted in his heart, twenty years before. He submitted the Rule to some theologians and approval was granted. The Rule might be started in the convent at Scala, should the Nuns there approve.
But nothing that is of God, will run too smoothly. As the way to our salvation was by way of the Cross, so the Rule would not be accepted without controversy. Although most of the Nuns approved adoption of the new Rule, who but the superior would reject it. She appealed to Father Filangieri, Father Falcoia’s friend, who now was General of the “Pii Operarii” and Father Falcoia’s superior. He sided with the superior at Scala and not only denied permission for the formation of the new Rule in the convent at Scala, he restricted Father Falcoia from having any further contact with the convent and the Nuns. Sadly, years passed and it appeared the Rule would never be instituted. Then in 1729, Father Filangieri died and on October the 8th, in the year 1730, Father Falcoia became Bishop Falcoia, Bishop of Castellamare, freeing him to implement the Rule in the convent of Scala, of course with the approval of the Bishop of Scala, which was granted.14
St. Alphonsus comes into the picture
As the Saints work until they die, so it was with St. Alphonsus Liguori, our hero. Although very ill and bordering on exhaustion from overwork, in the summer of 1730, we find our Saint visiting Scala, along with some of his associates. It would appear, the Lord gives His chosen ones new life and energy when they have something to do for Him and the Church. And so it was with St. Alphonsus. There were souls to be saved? No time for tiredness. Off our Saint went into the mountains to preach to those tending the goats. We read in Holy Scripture, “even the stones would cry out...”20 Word got out that the preaching was so successful, the Bishop of Scala asked our Saint to give a retreat in his Cathedral.
So once again, God will have His way. Bishop Falcoia, becoming aware of our Saint’s success with the goat herdsmen, asked St. Alphonsus if he would preach to the Nuns in the convent of Scala, as well as give the retreat in the Cathedral. He agreed to both requests. And so, in 1730, along with two of his friends, Alphonsus set out for Scala and the new pursuits God had placed in his path. Not only did he give the retreat to the Nuns, he, with all the expertise he had acquired as a lawyer, delved deeply into Sister Celeste’s revelations and whereas he had been formerly opposed to the visions, from erroneous accounts he had received in Naples, ascertained they were of God, and certainly not due to hallucinations, or figments of her imagination.
With that, our Saint recommended the Rule of the convent should be revamped, instituting the Rule envisioned by Sister Celeste. Not only did the Nuns agree, but the Bishop of Scala gave his blessing. On the Feast of the Transfiguration, in the years 1731, the Nuns donned their new habits of red and blue, the traditional colors of Our Lord’s robes. All comes to those who wait and obey. Well, the first phase of Bishop Falcoia’s vision was to materialize. But who to found the new Order of his visions! It had been long Falcoia’s dream that St. Alphonsus would be the priest who would undertake this mission. Well, that was to be fulfilled, as Sister Celeste had another vision: On October 3, 1731, on the eve of the Feast day of St. Francis, she saw Our Lord on St. Francis’ right and a priest - St. Alphonsus on the left. She heard a voice proclaim: “This is he whom I have chosen to be head of My Institute, the Prefect General of a new Congregation of men, who shall work for My glory.”
With that, Bishop Falcoia advised St. Alphonsus of Sister Celeste’s vision and suggested he leave Naples and found a congregation of missionaries whose primary function was to evangelize the goat herdsmen of the mountains. St. Alphonsus left for Scala to begin the Lord’s work. He was so successful, Bishop Falcoia proposed St. Alphonsus expand his outreach to the peasants of the country districts. And St. Alphonsus agreed. All seemed to be going well, when a violent storm of protests came spewing forth.
The Superior of the Neopolitan Propaganda and even Bishop Falcoia’s dear friend Matthew Ripa strongly objected to the project. But supported by his spiritual director, Father Pagano, by Father Fiorillo - a renowned Dominican preacher, by Father Manulio - Provincial of the Jesuits and finally by Vincent Cutica - Superior of the Vincentians, Bishop Falcoia would see his dream realized. On the 9th of November, in the year 1732, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer began, modestly, in a little house provided by the Nuns of Scala.
Their beginnings were small, with seven postulants under St. Alphonsus, and Bishop Falcoia as informal Superior General. Then, with a baby institute numbering only a few, what should creep in - jealousy and pride! Who would be Superior? Dissension and discord began, primarily centering on who was in supreme authority. One faction opposed Bishop Falcoia and subsequently St. Alphonsus, and a schism was hatched in both the men’s house and that of the Nuns. With the result, Sister Celeste left Scala and founded a new convent in Foggia. After five months, a very sad, wounded Alphonsus remained with only one lay brother. As for Sister Celeste, she died in the odor of sanctity on the 14th of September, 1755, and in August of 1901, she was declared Venerable.
With even his closest having left him, St. Alphonsus stood firm about keeping the neophyte community going and the Lord blessed his steadfast stance. Soon others flocked to Scala; so many, they had to move into larger quarters. Before you knew it, in 1733, the missionaries were giving fruit-bearing retreats and missions in the Diocese of Amalfi. Although in 1738, the missionaries left Scala, by the year 1746, they would open four houses in Nocera de’ Pagani. .
Our Saint is so well renowned as a moral theologian, a prolific writer and founder of the Redemptorists, one of his most meaningful contributions to Mother Church is often glossed over - his outstanding missionary work. For twenty-six years, he traveled up and down the Kingdom of Naples preaching the Kingdom of God, especially to the smallest villages and far-reaching rural areas. He was loved by all who heard him; but most of all Jesus was loved, as St. Alphonsus did not bring himself to the people but the Lord and His Cross.
Wherever he preached, people flocked to the confessional, drawing back to the Church many repentant sinners who had been away from the Sacraments for years. So powerful was his message, families’ wounds were healed and divisions mended, enemies reconciled, neighbor helped neighbor. As has been passed down to other members of the Redemptorists, St. Alphonsus would make it a practice to return, months after having given a mission in a certain area, to check up on the faithful there - often giving a “renewal of a mission.”
The persecution persists
Spain reasserted its authority over the Kingdom of Naples, and with that Charles III appointed the lifelong enemy of St. Alphonsus - the Marquis Tanucci as Prime Minister of the Kingdom of Naples. The persecution which ensued, lasted the forty-two years he was regent. Timing was against St. Alphonsus. Had this come about just a few years later, after the Order had been approved, Tanucci could not have fought so successfully against St. Alphonsus and the founding of his congregation. As there was no separation between Church and State, and the omnipotence of kings, even in spiritual matters, it made the State supreme in all matters of the Church, as well as those concerning the State. Consequently, Tanucci’s stand against the institution of any new Orders was absolute.
A viable enemy just waiting to strike, all Tanucci needed was a Judas in the congregation. Now St. Alphonsus had opened a house in Villa degli Schiavi. little community, forcing Alphonsus to close the house. As if this was not enough, this was followed, the next year by the closing of the house in Scala, as well. His voice not to be silenced, a Cardinal Spinelli, who was then Archbishop of Naples, assigned Alphonsus to go out into the hinterlands and preach. And so he did, for two years, until his friend Bishop Falcoia died; at which time the position of Superior General was vacated.
A general chapter was held, in which Alphonsus was elected Superior General. Vows were taken by all, followed by rules and constitutions, which were formulated. This all spelled to their now, at last, being a religious institute. This was to give birth to more foundations; but not without much persecution by the bureaucracy and infamous design of the local authorities as well as those of the Kingdom. Tanucci, his ardent foe, was like a sword over his head, threatening to come down on Alphonsus and destroy all he had built.
The first edition of his famous Moral Theology was published in 1748; and the second edition in 1753-1755. In these books, he vigorously fought the rigidity of Jansenism, proposing a middle road between its stifling severity and at the opposite side of the spectrum - wholesale relaxation of all the teachings of the Church. Not only did he attack this deadly and divisive heresy in these publications, he waged additional battles against it in another book, fighting most especially the teachings coming forth; that is: Holy communion can be received worthily only very rarely. Whenever Our Lord is under attack, look carefully- you’ll see an attack on Mother Mary, and vice-a-versa. Not content to try to undermine the life-giving reception of the Holy Eucharist, Jansenism promulgated the lie that devotion to Our Lady, Our Most Precious Mother, is nothing short of superstition, a futile, hopeless superstition. Saint Alphonsus attacked these serious false teachings unflinchingly with his publication of The Glories of Mary, in 1750.
With only a breathe of life, our Crusader carries on
From the time his dear friend and mentor (Bishop Falcoia) passed on, Alphonsus did not relinquish the battle, but fought on bravely. He continued to guide and promote his new congregation, with attacks from within and without, tirelessly striving to get it approved by the king. His hours were spent ministering to the many souls who came hungering for individual spiritual guidance; he tirelessly continued to conduct missions all over Naples and Sicily; and with all that he found time to write hymns, compose liturgical music, and paint the most beautiful paintings of Our Dearest Lord and Savior, and Our Most Precious Mother Mary.
In 1752, with the last ounce of strength ebbing out of his now ailing body, St. Alphonsus was forced to curb his outreach to the children of God, and instead spend every waking hour writing - with his eyes on the people of God who would be hungering, no starving for the Word of God. Much maligned and mistreated, he was still regarded highly as a God-given gift to Mother Church. A canon said of him,
“If I were Pope, I would canonize him without process.”25 Another priest - Father Mazzini said of him,
“He fulfilled in a most perfect way, the Divine precept of loving God above all things, with his whole heart and with all his strength, as all might have seen and as I saw better than anyone during the long years I spent with him. The love of God shone forth in all his acts and words, in his devout manner of speaking of Him, his recollection, his deep devotion before the Blessed Sacrament, and his continual exercise of the Divine presence.”
The confessional was his most treasured pulpit. Having suffered from scrupulosity himself, he was most gentle and understanding to those who came to him suffering the same affliction. Another priest, Father Cajone said of him, during the process of Beatification of St. Alphonsus,
“His special and characteristic virtue seemed to me to be purity of intention. In all things and at all times, he acted for God without any admixture27of self. He said to us one day, `By the Grace of God I have never confessed having acted from passion. It may be that I have not noticed what was passing in me, but I have not remarked it so as to confess it.’”
Considering his background - that of Neapolitan, and one from the South of Italy, his natural roots and inclinations would be more of one of passion, easily prone to anger, pride or the making of impetuous, sudden decisions, his behavior was all the more remarkable. And certainly, the cards that were dealt him, over his ninety-one years on earth - the treachery, the ongoing attacks, the disappointments, the betrayals were enough to make any Saint into a sinner. But true Saint he was, and with all the obstacles that were put in his way to obstruct his path to Sainthood, he remained true to his mission and to his desire to please God, and Mother Church would recognize this in death, as well as in life.
Saint Alphonsus is made Bishop
When our Saint was sixty-six years old, Pope Clement XIII made him Bishop of Sant’ Agata dei Goti (located between Benevento and Capua), in spite of Saint Alphonsus’ objections. When the emissary from the Pope arrived, he greeted our Saint with, “Most Illustrious Lord,” and proceeded to hand him the proclamation by the Pope. St. Alphonsus carefully read it through and admonished the emissary to refrain from addressing him with such a title, insisting it would be the death of him. But His Holiness Pope Clement XIII would hear nothing of his refusal and Saint Alphonsus was ordained Bishop of Sant’ Agata dei Goti in the Church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva.29
Once made Bishop, Alphonsus set up a modest dwelling for himself. The first thing he did was to gently but firmly refuse the room, with its lovely view, that other Bishops had formerly occupied, and move into one without any window - the better to do penance. He then insisted they discard the mattress of wool, prepared for him, and replace it with one of straw, explaining, “I did not come here for comfort, but for penitence.” His secretary testified he found St. Alphonsus sleeping on the floor, many times, rather than in bed. This Saint, who had been born of Royalty, would mend his habit rather than spend money to purchase a new one.
He soon discovered the Cathedral had never been consecrated. Post haste, he called upon the Archbishop of Amalfi, who had been formerly Bishop of this province, and together they consecrated the Cathedral. This small Diocese that St. Alphonsus settled into numbered 30,000 laity, 17 religious houses and 400 secular priests,30 of whom many did no pastoral work in a parish, but instead led lazy, uninvolved lives on their all too easily gained benefice (or salary); and worse, some stooped to leading most decadent life styles. This sloth and evil trickled down to the laity, who more than willingly followed suit, in some cases outdoing their fallen priests. And this is what St. Alphonsus found - a Diocese which had suffered 30 years of neglect, and was showing the decaying fruits of that neglect!
Not one to sit back and accept defeat, he, without delay, organized a contingency of priests to act as missionaries to all the parishes in his Diocese. He very prudently did not pick priests from his own Redemptorists, but from Orders and religious institutes in Naples. His only advice was for the missionaries to speak simply, when delivering talks and homilies in the pulpit, and to be charitable in the confessional, exercising the loving forgiveness of their Savior before them. One day, after he witnessed a priest ignoring his advice in the pulpit, he called the missionary in to his office and chastised him, “Your sermon kept me awake all night. If you wanted to preach only yourself, rather than Jesus Christ, why come all the way from Naples to Ariola to do it?”
As the only way that reform would come about would be to go after those who would one day represent Jesus on the Altar, our new Bishop Alphonsus began with the seminaries. Better to nip in the bud, misconceptions and bad habits, while these future Priests were still in the Seminary, rather than after they received Holy Orders.
One of Saint Alphonsus’ great loves was the Mass, and the Eucharist Who comes to us during that Mass. One of the serious infringements of Church law that he went about immediately correcting was: Some priests rushed through Mass as if a run-away train was pursuing them, barely taking more than fifteen minutes to celebrate the most important mission of their priesthood - the Sacrifice of the Mass. He suspended them until they promised to correct the abuses suffered on the Altar. He wrote a treatise, which is as much alive today as the day he wrote it:
“’The priest at the Altar,’ says St. Cyprian, `represents the Person of Jesus Christ.’ But whom do so many priests today represent?
They represent only mountebanks31 earning their livelihood by their antics. Most lamentable of all is to see religious, and some even of reformed Orders, say Mass with such haste and such mutilation of the rite as would scandalize even the heathen. Truly the sight of the Mass celebrated in this way is enough to make one lose the Faith.”32
Famine comes and St. Alphonsus meets it head-on
St. Alphonsus was no sooner getting his house in order, than, as a matter of course, famine struck his Diocese, followed by plague, and subsequently thousands of sufferers and victims. The famine and plague were no strangers to our Saint, and came as no surprise. He had seen it coming for the past two years, with no response from the local authorities, who apathetically ignored the looming problem. St. Alphonsus met it head on, selling all he owned to feed the starving multitudes, down to his carriage and mules and even his uncle’s Episcopal ring. The Pope authorized him to donate all the endowment from the Holy See to try to alleviate the disastrous problem facing the people. Our Saint stopped at nothing to help the starving masses, to the point of going into deep debt.
Tempers ran high, as mothers and fathers saw their children dying in their arms. Someone had to pay! They accused the mayor of withholding food, and demanded his life! St. Alphonsus offered his life in exchange for the mayor’s and distributed food for the next two days; and through this, was able to abate the raging mob’s fury. Our Saint was most compassionate; but when all else failed and the morality of the people suffered, he was not past engaging the local authorities to bring about order. This made him many dangerous enemies.
Saint Alphonsus is struck down once again
In June of 1767, at the age of 71, St. Alphonsus was struck down by rheumatic fever and no one gave him a chance of recovering. Not only did they give him Extreme Unction33they prepared him for his funeral. But God was not finished with Saint Alphonsus! After twelve months of impending death, our Saint’s life was spared. But his illness left him crippled. He was left paralyzed with his upper body permanently, incurably bent over, causing his neck to press his chin against his chest. The persisting agony of the rheumatism was further aggravated by the additional pain emanating from the sores on his chest, as a result of his chin immovably piercing his chest. His beard could not be cut, as it grew wedged between his chin and his chest, and this added to the almost unbearable suffering of our Saint. Most beloved priest, it appeared he would not be able to celebrate Mass, as he could not lift his head to drink of the chalice. The fathers fashioned a straw made of gold, which enabled him to consume the cup in spite of his disability. To facilitate him celebrating the Holy Mass, a chair was provided; in this way allowing him to engage fully in the Mass. The pictures you see of the Saint, bent over, are a result of the excruciating painful deformity he suffered the last twenty years of his life.
Saint Alphonsus is under a different attack
Not only did his book Moral Theology come under attack, he was accused of carrying on the work of the Society of Jesus under the banner of the Redemptorists, and consequently brought to court. Now, as the Jesuits had been suppressed in the Spanish Kingdom in 1767, the charges against the Redemptorists were serious and the court case lasted for thirteen years. But as God does take care of his ministers, the judges finally dismissed all charges against St. Alphonsus. Battle fought and won! Oh, how those one liners almost make the attacks seem minimal, but how many agonizing hours, days, months and years lay concealed between the lines.
Saint Alphonsus had appealed to Pope Clement XIII and Clement XIV to be allowed to resign as Bishop of his Diocese, but both had refused to sanction his request. But one year after Clement XIV died,34the new Pope, Pius VI, taking into consideration his physical limitations, finally granted Saint Alphonsus’ request. At last, our Saint, tired, old and suffering, would be able to spend his last days in his Redemptorist cell in Nocera. But that was not to come about! .
Saint Alphonsus Ligouri
Two years passed when the Redemptorists were again under attack. Alphonsus knew the only way was to attempt, once again, to get official sanction from the king. This proved to be disastrous!
It was proposed by the “royal almoner,”35Bishop Testa, that if Saint Alphonsus would relieve himself and the community of Redemptorists of all rights to hold property in common, he would present the Rule to the king, as it was, without any changes. But Bishop Testa reneged on his agreement and altered the Rule in many major areas, especially the abolishment of religious vows. The Bishop was able to enlist Father Majone, a consular of the Redemptorists to present the adulterated Rule, which was written in very small letters and blurred by the many erasures, to our ailing Saint. Now Saint Alphonsus, by this time was aged, crippled and bent over by rheumatism, confined to a wheelchair, deaf and to top it all, could barely see. As Saint Alphonsus believed he had no cause to be suspicious, he read the first few familiar lines and signed the paper. He was not only betrayed by his consular and the Bishop, they even enlisted his vicar general, Father Andrew Villani, who went along with them. The Rule was signed by the king, and presented to the Redemptorists and to Saint Alphonsus. All the Redemptorists turned on their founder, “You have founded the congregation and now you have destroyed it.”36 Recognizing what had come to pass, Saint Alphonsus turned to Father Villani, “I never thought I could be deceived by you, Don Andrew.” And then distraught, blaming his infirmity and carelessness, he cried. He accepted all the blame, saying it was his responsibility to have read it over himself; but, then helplessly, he admitted he could barely read it. The dye was cast! If he refused the Rule, the king would suppress the Redemptorists. If he did not refuse the Rule, the Pope who had approved the original Rule, would suppress his congregation.
Saint Alphonsus did not know where to turn; it appeared everyone was against him. He thought he would reach out to the Pope, but the Redemptorists had already contacted His Holiness and placed themselves and the congregation under the umbrella of the Pope. The Pope recognized these Redemptorists of the Papal States as the only true Redemptorists and placed a Father Francis de Paula as their superior general. And Saint Alphonsus was barred from the Order he had founded.
Related items of Interest
Related Prayer Cards etc
virtuoso, artist, master or professor
praise and admiration
Alphonsus loses; God wins!
Catholic Encyclopedia - 1914Edition
This title is given to members of the Regular Clergy or to some Brothers. In a Religious community, clerics are required to pray the Breviary each day.
At that time, it was an introductory ceremony, where a layman became a cleric. It was not part of receiving the Sacrament of Holy Orders, but preceded its reception. At the end of the ceremony, the candidate was vested with a surplus, the top of his head would be shaved in a circle, leaving a permanent tonsure, a sign of his office and commitment.
Catholic Encyclopedia - 1914Edition
10 Having given birth in the Fourteenth Century, in Italy, the Renaissance was a period of radical changes in the intellectual, artistic, political, social, and even geographical structure of Christian civilization. It marked the trend toward humanism and laid the groundwork for the Reformation. (Catholic Encyclopedia - Broderick) For us, the most deadly aspect of the Renaissance was the effect it had on the Religious life of the world. For more on Renaissance, read Bob and Penny Lord’s book, Scandal of the Cross, and its Triumph, chapter XVI
11 From a book written by Bishop Jansen, which was published, in 1640, after his death. This heresy proposed man was not able to resist temptation and rejected the doctrine that Christ died for all men. For more on Jansenism, read Bob and Penny Lord’s book, Tragedy of the Reformation, chapter on Religious Wars, page 170
12 educated class, intellectual leaders, intellectual elite
13excerpt from Butler’s Lives of the Saints- Thurston and Attwater
15Neapolitan beggars, vagabonds and loafers
16 a cult founded after the philosophy of Epicurus - that is the goal of man was to live a life of calm pleasure regulated by morality, temperance, serenity and cultural development. (Webster’s New World Dictionary)
17 17th Century cult - a form of religious mysticism that involves
18 Catholic Encyclopedia - 1914Edition
19 Matthew Ripa went to China and after suffering intense persecution at the hands of the Chinese Government, returned to Italy with five Chinese young men who became the first students of a school founded by Ripa called the Chinese College. Resource - New Catholic Encyclopedia - Catholic University of America - Washington, D.C.13
20 cf Lk 19:40
21 Catholic Encyclopedia - 1914Edition
22 One of the Shrines we went to videotape the life of St. Alphonsus. The
Ciorani, Deliceto and Caposele - all located in the Kingdom of Naples
23Catholic Encyclopedia - 1914Edition
24schiavi - slaves
25Butler’s lives of the Saints - Thurston and Attwater
27 1) a mixture 2) a thing or ingredient added in mixing. (Webster’s New World Dictionary)
28 Butler’s lives of the Saints - Thurston and Attwater
29 Our Lady above the Minerva (which was the temple of Minerva, a Roman Goddess). In many instances, Mother Church has built churches on top of temples, signifying the birth of the True Church over the pagan ruins. As you travel through Rome, you will see many ancient columns from ancient Roman temples with a church attached.
30 Priests belonging to no specific religious order, society or congregation. They belong to a specific Diocese with loyalty to Bishop of that Diocese. They are today called Diocesan Clergy.
31 a person who mounted a bench, or platform, in a public place and sold quack medicines, usually attracting an audience by tricks, stories, etc. (Webster’s New World Dictionary)
32 Butler’s lives of the Saints - Thurston and Attwater
33Now called the Sacrament of the Anointing of the Sick. It is to be administered to one who is seriously ill, or aged, or in danger of dying.
34Pope Clement XIV died on September 22, 1774. On the 21st of that same month, Saint Alphonsus went into a trance and remained in this state for twenty-four hours. Upon awakening, he shared, “I have been assisting the Pope who has just died.” It was believed that he possibly had bi-located and been with the Pope. Others claimed it was just a part of his vision. In any event, it was mentioned in Saint Alphonsus’ cause for beatification
35distributor of alms
36 Catholic Encyclopedia - 1914Edition
About the Authors:
Bob and Penny Lord are renowned Catholic authors of many best selling books about the Catholic Faith. They are hosts on EWTN Global Television and have written over 25 books. They are best known as the authors of “Miracles of the Eucharist books.” They have been dubbed, “Experts on the Saints.” Many of the ebooks are now available at Smashwords.com.