June 21 — Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious – Memorial

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, Religious
1568–1591

June 21—Memorial
Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of Catholic youth and plague victims

Though he had many possessions, he did not go away sad

The Jesuit Order, from its very founding, had a sharp sense of its educational superiority, its fidelity to the Holy Father, and its mission to educate and spiritually guide the elites among the courts and aristocracies of Europe. The Order did not, however, develop a strong community identity. There were, and are, common houses. But Jesuit communities built on common prayer, meals, and apostolates were rare. Much more common was the Jesuit alone, trekking under the canopy of a Canadian forest, riding the waves like a cork in a boat off the coast of India, or hiking the narrow mountain pathways in the mists of the high Andes. Where there was one Jesuit, there were all Jesuits. Each man embodied his entire Order. It was a community of many ones. Jesuits were united by their vows, their long education, and their common mission.  Actually living, praying, eating, relaxing, and working together, so crucial to the common life of other Orders, did not play an equivalent role among the Jesuits.

Jesuit superiors were aware of the dangers that isolation might pose to unity. So they encouraged, and even mandated, a means to sew into one fabric the patches of a thousand lives being lived across the globe. Letters! Jesuits were required to write letters to their superiors, giving regular accounts of their work. These letters had to be detailed, instructive, and inspiring. After they were reviewed, the most edifying were published and distributed to Jesuit houses. Through these letters, the Order was made one. Every Jesuit knew what at least some of his brothers were doing for God and the Church. These collections of letters, known as the Jesuit Relations, were eventually distributed beyond the confines of the Order. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the Relations were often exciting best sellers recounting the apostolic exploits of isolated Jesuits walking along the rim of Christendom.

It was just such an inspiring letter, or relation, from India that inspired today’s saint, Aloysius Gonzaga, to become a Jesuit. Saint Aloysius was known to his family as Luigi, Aloysius being the Latinized version of his baptismal name. He was the eldest of seven children born into an aristocratic family from Northern Italy. Kings and Queens and Cardinals and Princes ate at the family table, were family themselves, or were at least friends or acquaintances. Young Luigi knew, and detested, the frivolous existence lived by so many in his aristocratic milieux. He also suffered from various physical infirmities, which produced that vulnerability and perspective which leads so clearly and directly to a deep dependence on God.

After receiving his First Communion at about the age of twelve, he came to personally know the great future saint Cardinal Charles Borromeo, who would later be his confessor and spiritual director. Borromeo was a Jesuit. His example, together with Aloysius’ reading about the works of Jesuit missionaries, convinced him to enter the Jesuit Novitiate, against his family’s wishes. So Aloysius went to Rome to begin his studies. And there he grew to embrace those of lesser education and refinement than himself. He volunteered to work bringing victims of a plague to a Jesuit hospital, despite his personal revulsion at the patients’ decrepit physical conditions. After his own physical limitations restricted his participation in this corporal work of mercy, he still persevered and insisted on returning to the hospital over his superiors’ objections.

While working in the hospital, Aloysius contracted the plague from a patient he personally cared for, was incapacitated shortly thereafter, and, a few months later, died on June 21, 1591. He was twenty-three. His reputation for purity, prayerfulness, and suffering led many to consider him a saint soon after his death. Aloysius was beatified just fourteen years later, in 1605, and canonized in 1726. He is buried in the Church of Saint Ignatius of Loyola in Rome. His contribution to the Jesuit canon was not a pagan tribe converted, a new ocean crossed, or an unknown language catalogued. His letter was his life, and it was to die young and to die holy.

Saint Aloysius, you laid all your treasures, including your youth, on an altar to God. May your example of generosity, and your service to the sick and dying, inspire all Catholic youth to give God the gold of their early years, not just the silver of middle age or the bronze of their retirement.