1696 – 1787
Memorial: Liturgical Color: White
A lawyer becomes holy and analyzes the morality he lives to perfection
Today’s saint was given the gift of a comprehensive education by his parents from a young age. He finished his university studies with degrees in civil and canon law when he was just sixteen years old. After practicing law for eight years, and declining a marriage arranged by his father, the noble, highly educated, and intelligent Alphonsus made a mistake. A bad mistake. He overlooked a simple matter of fact and lost an important case for his client. Alphonsus was crushed by the embarrassment. He had never made such a galling, avoidable, public error before. But this one mistake was for the great benefit of the Church. Alphonsus decided to abandon the practice of law and the lust for vanity, wealth, and earthly glory. Shortly afterward, he heard an inner voice speak to him, on two separate occasions, while visiting the deathly ill at a hospital: “Leave the world and give yourself to me.” This was the turning point. Alphonsus made a dramatic gesture. He went to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, placed his sword on the altar, and requested to join a local order as a priest.
He was ordained in 1726 and travelled throughout the region of Naples as a missionary, becoming well known as a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional. In 1732, after forming various friendships with local clergy and convents of nuns, he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. The rest of Alphonsus’ long life was spent building up this order. Like so many nascent orders, it struggled with internal divisions over its identity, authority, and specific mission in the Church. These struggles caused our saint no end of spiritual torment, especially after a deep division resulted from an act of forgery and betrayal by one of Alphonsus’ closest priest collaborators.
Saint Alphonsus took a personal vow to never waste a moment of time. It showed. He did everything, and he did it well. Amidst all of his duties as a founder and priest, he stole an hour hour here and an hour there to write a page or two, to dictate a few lines, or to take rough notes on a train of thought that had just crossed his mind. Over time, these stolen hours accumulated and Alphonsus composed volume after volume on theology and devotion. He became particularly well known as a moral theologian. In that sensitive field of study, he acquired just the right balance. He was clear on the Church’s teachings and demanding of its faithful but was not overly rigorous. His razor-thin moral distinctions clarified correct behavior on contentious topics but may seem belabored and overly detailed from a post-modern perspective. Alphonsus was personally scrupulous but aware of it. He never imposed his finely tuned conscience on the morally deaf. A Pontifical University in Rome dedicated to moral theology was founded by the Redemptorists and is named the Alphonsianum in his honor.
Saint Alphonsus was made a bishop, over his objections, when he was sixty-six years old. He brought his typical energy and zeal to his diocesan responsibilities, demanding his priests celebrate the Mass with true devotion or not at all. He maintained contact with every class of society as a bishop, no matter how downtrodden, poor, or forgotten a group was. His works on the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin Mary, and Prayer became widely read. His reflections on the Stations of the Cross are still used in many parishes over two hundred years after his death. Alphonsus was also a talented musician and composed the music and words for the most beloved Italian Christmas carol. After a long and holy life, he died at the age of ninety-one with an image of the Virgin Mary in his hands.
Saint Alphonsus, may your life of spiritual suffering, writing, dedication to the truth, and apostolic energy provide sufficient witness for all priests and religious to do half as much as you, laboring without cease for the good of the Church and the world.
ST. ALPHONSUS was born of noble parents, near Naples, in 1696. His spiritual training was intrusted to the Fathers of the Oratory in that city, and from his boyhood Alphonsus was known as a most devout Brother of the Little Oratory. At the early age of sixteen he was made doctor in law, and he threw himself into this career with ardor and success. A mistake, by which he lost an important cause, showed him the vanity of human fame, and determined him to labor only for the glory of God. He entered the priesthood, devoting himself to the most neglected souls; and to carry on this work he founded later the missionary Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. At the age of sixty-six he became Bishop of St. Agatha, and undertook the reform of his diocese with the zeal of a Saint. He made a vow never to lose time, and, though his life was spent in prayer and work, he composed a vast number of books, filled with such science, unction, and wisdom that he has been declared one of the Doctors of the Church. St. Alphonsus wrote his first book at the age of forty-nine, and in his eighty-third year had published about sixty volumes, when his director forbade him to write more. Very many of these books were written in the half-hours snatched from his labors as missionary, religious superior, and Bishop, or in the midst of continual bodily and mental sufferings. With his left hand he would hold a piece of marble against his aching head while his right hand wrote. Yet he counted no time wasted which was spent in charity. He did not refuse to hold a long correspondence with a simple soldier who asked his advice, or to play the harpsichord while he taught his novices to sing spiritual canticles. He lived in evil times, and met with many persecutions and disappointments. For his last seven years he was prevented by constant sickness from offering the Adorable Sacrifice; but he received Holy Communion daily, and his love for Jesus Christ and his trust in Mary’s prayers sustained him to the end. He died in 1787, in his ninety-first year.
Reflection.— Let us do with all our heart the duty of each day, leaving the result to God, as well as the care of the future.
Lives of the Saints, by Alban Butler, Benziger Bros. ed.