August 1 is the Feast of St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church. Founder of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, he was the outstanding expounder of Catholic morality and was noted for his deep devotion to Our Lady.
Newsroom (02/08/2021 00:55), Catholic News/Gaudium Press) In the ancient Kingdom of Naples in the 17th century, the noble couple Giuseppe de Liguori and Anna Cavalieri stood out for their virtue. On September 27, 1696, their firstborn entered the world and, because he had been consecrated in a special way to the Blessed Virgin, was given the name Alphonse Maria.
Vast Intellectual Formation
Gifted with brilliant intelligence, Alphonsus Maria received a thorough education at home under the tutelage of a preceptor and various teachers, chosen with zeal and care.
His father gave him a rigorous course of study, including languages such as Italian, Latin, Greek and French, which would serve him well in carrying out his future mission.
He also studied literature and even composed several spiritual songs. Because of his great inclination for the fine arts, he began his studies in drawing, painting and music, as well as in the arcana of exact and natural sciences.
Before he turned 14, he began to study law, and by the age of 16, he had already delved so deeply into the intricate universe of Neapolitan Law that he was allowed, by special concession, to take his doctoral exam at this young age.
Radical change of life
For more than a decade he dedicated himself to the practice of law. His honesty and science increased his clientele and to be praised for never having lost a case.
He maintained, however, an excellent professional rectitude, an unblemished purity, and an intense interior life. He made frequent visits to the Blessed Sacrament, nurtured a particular devotion to Our Lady, and was prodigal in pious exercises such as meditation and participation in spiritual retreats.
In September of 1722 he received the Sacrament of Confirmation, and six months later he made the solemn and irrevocable resolution to renounce the world. He gave up his birthright in favour of his brother Hercules and was prepared to remain celibate, against the wishes of his father, who wished to marry him off to some noble maiden.
The last impulse for his radical change of life would come when the Duke of Orsini and the Grand Duke of Tuscany were in dispute: this case involved great interests, and the high standing of the litigants as well as the prestige of the lawyers made it headline news all over Naples.
Alphonsus studied the case files carefully and prepared himself well for the debate. However, after having argued brilliantly in favour of his client, the Grand Duke’s lawyer cleverly claimed a clause based on ancient Lombard and Angevin law, thus dismissing all the work that had been done.
Having lost the case, the illustrious lawyer realized the fragility of human justice and the emptiness of the world’s promises. It was the last straw that was needed to definitively put into practice the resolutions he had taken: “O world, now I know you! Tribunals, you will see me no more!
The discovery of his true vocation
The blow of the loss of this case caused him tremendous suffering. However, understanding that the hand of God was at work, he began to lead a life dedicated to prayer and pious reading.
One day while he was in the Incurables Hospital, shortly after he had left the courts, he found himself surrounded by an intense and mysterious light, and heard these words within him: “Leave the world and give yourself entirely to me”.
Although somewhat stunned, he resumed his journey as if nothing had happened. Descending the stairs to leave, however, the phenomenon repeated itself. Stupefied, this time he replied: “Lord, for a long time I have resisted your grace: do with me what you will.”
Still under the influence of that supernatural manifestation, he went to the Church of the Redemption of Captives, dedicated to Our Lady of Mercy, and threw himself at Mary’s feet, asking her for the grace to know and do the Will of God.
He was then inspired to embrace the priesthood, and as a pledge of his promise to follow this vocation, he drew his gentlemanly sword and placed it at the feet of the Virgin.
Priest and missionary
Despite strong opposition from his father, Alphonsus was admitted to the diocesan seminary in October of 1723.
When he was ordained a priest on 21 December 1726, he set himself the obligation of leading a life dedicated to missionary activity and contemplation, following in the footsteps of the Most Holy Redeemer.
He gradually gained experience as a confessor. He was demanding regarding morals, but was free from rigorism while filled with trust in God’s merciful help. He acted as a consoler of the afflicted and a physician of souls, encouraging many sinners to return to the fold of the Good Shepherd.
In the course of his apostolic activity, he became aware that, while priests abounded in the large centres and villages, the poor people in the countryside were relegated to religious ignorance, and even influenced by the Jansenist poison.
It was necessary to save such souls, and to this end he began an intense apostolic activity that benefited the most humble workers and even the almsmen of Naples. Thus were born the Cappelle serotine, or Evening Chapels, an institution that eventually achieved an extraordinary growth.
A multitude of the faithful flocked to his preaching, for his words had the power to convert even the most obstinate sinners, drawing them to the path of virtue.
The Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer is born
Saint Alphonsus befriended Father Thomas Falcoia, a priest who – according to a vision he had had in Rome – was committed to founding a religious institution that would perfectly imitate the virtues of the Savior.
This priest had restored a convent of nuns in the city of Scala, organizing it along the lines of this charism. Into it entered a former Neapolitan Carmelite, Maria Celeste Crostarosa, to whom the Divine Redeemer appeared, making her acquainted with the habit and rules to be adopted by the nascent Congregation, as well as the figure of Father Alphonsus, who said to her:
“Behold the man chosen to be the head of my Institute, and Superior General of a new Congregation of men who will work for my glory.”
Fr. Falcoia was impressed to learn that the rules revealed to Sister Maria Celeste were entirely in keeping with the spirit of the institution that had been revealed to him.
Having been elected Bishop of Castellamare, Fr. Falcoia took advantage of a stay of Father Alphonsus in Santa Maria dei Monti to invite him to preach the Spiritual Exercises to the religious of Scala. This gave rise to the providential meeting between the three souls chosen by God for the foundation of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
She would be born on November 9, 1732, with the mission of “following Jesus Christ through the towns and villages, preaching the Gospel by means of missions and catechism classes”.
At the head of this new militia of Christ, the great Alphonsus Maria de Liguori began the most fruitful period of his existence.
A more powerful and permanent weapon than words
When he had passed the second half of his life, Father Alphonsus fell ill. No longer able to devote himself to the missions, he devoted his time to writing.
Counting on 25 years of direct experience with the problems of people’s consciences, he wrote his famous Moral Theology, as well as the Practice of the Confessor, the Homo Apostolicus, and the Jungle of Predicable Matters, dedicated to the formation of his priests.
He taught that “to know how to live is to know how to pray”, because “he who prays is saved, he who does not pray is condemned”.
This conviction also gave rise to the popular Visits to the Blessed Sacrament and Glories of Mary, followed by Preparation for Death, Prayer, the Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ, and an infinite number of pamphlets that served as support for the missions.
Bishop of St. Agnes of the Goths
In 1762 he could not avoid being named Bishop of St. Agnes of the Goths. With the approval of the College of Cardinals, Pope Clement XIII was adamant. Despite having sent a letter alleging serious impediments to carrying out his episcopal duties, including his advanced age and infirmities, the Saint was obliged to accept the post.
During his thirteen years as bishop, he made a point of preaching every Saturday in honor of Our Lady in the Cathedral. He promoted the Redemptorist mission in all the towns and villages, giving the sermon himself, which was the high point of the mission.
He founded a convent of Redemptorist Sisters from Scala to be the nucleus of the contemplative life. He undertook a great reform of the clergy and the major seminary, remodeling its facilities, ensuring the choice of candidates and the quality of their formation. As a result, all the parishes took on a completely different appearance.
A model of virtue to the end
In 1775, when he was about to reach his 80th birthday, the Pope relieved Saint Alphonsus of the duty of governing the diocese. He then moved to the Pagani Monastery in the Diocese of Nocera, where he lived a life of recollection in the community he had founded there.
It is in the crucible, however, that God purifies his chosen ones. The temptations he suffered in that convent were the hardest of his long life.
As in a true inner Purgatory, the sufferings ranged from the harassment of the devil inculcating scruples into him, to the most arduous doubts against the Faith.
The most terrible trial, however, was undoubtedly the persecution of him by some members of the institution he had founded, culminating in the division of his own Congregation and his temporary exclusion from it, as determined by Rome.
Alphonsus reacted to all of this with complete flexibility to the Will of God. He encouraged his spiritual sons with words full of confidence: “I am sure that Jesus Christ looks kindly on this little Congregation […]; for in the midst of so many persecutions He does not cease to protect us”.
It was an unlimited trust in the Mother of Perpetual Help, whom he had loved and served so much throughout his long existence, that was the source of his strength until his last days.
When he could no longer see, his faithful companion, Brother Romito, read him some pages from the Glories of Mary, without the Saint recognizing his own words.
On learning which book it was, he exclaimed, “How sweet it is, at the hour of death, to think that one has been able to contribute to implanting in hearts devotion to the Blessed Virgin!”
On another occasion, when he could not remember whether he had already recited the Rosary that day, he said to Brother Romito, who was trying to dissuade him, “Do you not know that my salvation depends on this devotion?”
After so many sufferings and trials, and keeping next to him a crucifix and the picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Hope – which he had painted in his youth – while his spiritual sons recited the prayers of the dying and the Litany of the Blessed Virgin, the ninety-year-old Saint Alphonsus serenely delivered his soul to God at the hour of the Angelus on August 1, 1787.
A model of virtue in all circumstances of life, he continues to be a beacon of “constancy, courage and persevering spirit”, especially for those who experience great tribulation.
“Let us imitate St. Alphonsus in his perseverance, in his humble and profound confidence, understanding that in our spiritual life we will have to face dark tunnels, without having to be afraid of them. Beyond this darkness, Providence traces out for us a path even more luminous and more beautiful than the previous one”.
Text extracted, with adaptations, from the Magazine Heralds of the Gospel n. 128, August 2012.
Compiled by Sandra Chisholm
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