St Alphonsus Maria de Liguori
Bishop, Doctor of the Church
Name: Alphonsus Maria de Liguori
Birth: 27 September 1696, Marianella, Naples, Italy
Death: 1 August 1787, Pagani, Italy
Canonisation: 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI
Proclaimed a Doctor of the Church: 1871 by Pope Pius IX
Feast: 1 August
Patron of: People with arthritis, lawyers, confessors, moralists, and vocations
The Story of St. Alphonsus
"Your God is ever beside you - indeed, He is even within you."
“My God, if I resist I do wrong, and if I consent I do worse; I do not know what to do!” exclaimed Alphonsus in frustration.
It was August 29, 1723, the birthday of the empress, His father had wanted Alphonsus to accompany him to the celebrations, where he would meet important people who would help his professional advancement. But Alphonsus asked to be excused saying: “All that is vanity!” His father, in violent anger, drove away in this carriage leaving Alphonsus torn between his respect and love for his parents and his resolution to set aside the things considered valuable by people concerned only with wealth and power.
Alphonsus Maria De Liguori, The first of seven children, was born September 27 1696 at Marianella near Naples in southern Italy. His father Giuseppe De Liguori a naval captain; his mother Donna Anna Cavalieri, was a very pious and holy woman. They belonged to a poorer branch of a well-connected and noble family. Don Giuseppe had the ambition of restoring the nobility of the family through Alphonsus. With this in mind the young Alphonsus was trained in riding, fencing music and the liberal arts he was sent to study law. When he was 10 years old his father was negotiating a marriage for him with Teresita, the sole heir to the major branch of the Liguori’s but he did not pursue the matter when a male heir was born to that family!
His father, no doubt, was very happy when at the age of sixteen, four years younger than usually allowed, Alphonsus graduated as a Doctor of Church and Civil Law from the University of Naples. In June 1723, he represented the Duke of Tuscany in a case against a nobleman who was a friend of the king of Naples. Although his legal case was very strong, the decision was given against him, either because he misread an important document or, more probably, because the judges had been bribed by the king.
For three days he would not eat and could not be consoled. He decided to give up the legal profession. For days there were emotional and sometimes angry scenes between him and his father. After the incident on August 29, he went, as was his practice, to visit the patients in the Hospital of the Incurables. There he found himself surrounded by what seemed to be a supernatural light and he seemed to hear a voice that said: “Leave the world and give yourself to me.” He made a final decision to become a priest and laid his sword before the altar of our Lady.
On hearing this news, his father became even more upset and the emotional appeals and violent threats from his family continued. Alphonsus wanted to join the Oratorians. Eventually, Don Giuseppe made a compromise. Alphonsus could become a priest if he would live at home which was a common practice at that time. In December of 1726, Alphonsus was ordained a priest.
For the next few years he worked with a group of secular priests called the Propanda. Their work was giving missions. He focused his concern on the labourers, porters and slum dwellers of Naples. He was most inventive in reaching the people. He organised about 300 “evening chapels” for prayer and discussion.
THE FOUNDING OF THE REDEMPTORISTS (1732)
In June 1739 Alphonsus went to Scala, a place about 50 kilometres to the south of Naples, for a well-earned rest. There he was overcome by the way in which the illiterate goat attendants were spiritually neglected. He got the idea of founding an institute to work for the most abandoned people in country districts.
Two other people, with Alphonsus, played important roles in founding the institute that would later become known as the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (C.Ss.R) or Redemptorists. One was Sister Maria Celeste Crostarosa, a mystical nun who has a vision of Alphonsus founding an institute for men similar to the one she had founded for women. The other was Msgr. Thomas Falcoia was the spiritual director of Sister Crostarosa. Falcoia also had the aspiration to found an institute and he was actually superior for eleven years of the group founded by Alphonsus. Briefly, we might say that Sister Crostarosa gave the vision and Msgr. Falcoia the organisation to the new group. But it was Alphonsus that gave it its clear apostolic purpose—that of preaching to the most abandoned.
On November 9, 1732, the first groups of companions took their vows at Scala. In 1749 the Congregation was approved by Pope Benedict XIV.
ALPHONSUS' APOSTOLIC SPIRIT
To be able to appreciate the apostolic spirit of Alphonsus, one should have some idea of the state of the Church in Naples at that time. There were about three million people in the Kingdom. About half of them lived in poverty in the hills while the richer ones lived in the lowlands. According to available records, which are probably very exaggerated, there were 138 bishops, 56,500 secular priests, 31, 800 male religious and 26, 000 nun in the kingdom at the time. Very few priests were educated and most of them lived easy lives with their families doing little or no priestly work.
In those days, very many accepted the ideas of Jansenism. According to Jansenism, people were bad by their nature and only a small selected group were going to be saved. Ignorance, even if it could not be helped, would not excuse from sin. So most of the country folk were automatically damned.
Alphonsus would not accept the soft lives of the priests or the strict ideas of the theologians. He saw the need for a group to minister to the poor in the rural areas and to teach them about Christ who died to save all. “With Him is plentiful Redemption” became the motto of the Redemptorists. Seen against the background of the time, Alphonsus was making a strong stand for the poor.
It was his pastoral compassion that made him work so hard all his life. He wrote one hundred and ten books altogether. In these books, we notice especially his warm love for Christ, his strong belief in the necessity of prayer, his devotion to the Blessed Sacrament and to Our Blessed Mother, and his practical common sense. During his life, he gave retreats and different kinds of spiritual exercises but his principal method of helping people was through Missions.
In 1762, Alphonsus was appointed Bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths, a poor diocese in the hills of Southern Italy. When his heal failed, he sent his resignation to the Pope. He resigned in 1775.
Alphonsus spent his last thirteen years at the monastery of his congregation in Paganism. He was almost entirely deaf and blind. His head curved forcibly into his chest. However, he remained active to the very end, writing books, receiving visitors, and praying. He died on August 1 1787. He was declared a saint in 1838 and later a Doctor of the Church.
One of the joys of Alphonsus in his old age was to hear that the Congregation had moved out of Italy, across the Alps, the mountains on the northern border of Italy, and into Northern Europe. This expansion was led by Clement Mary Hofbauer.
[From the booklet: Gerry Pierse C.Ss.R "Redemptorists: Who are they? (Manila: 1988)]
St Alphonsus is a gigantic figure, not only in the history of the Church, but for the whole of humanity as well. Even people who would not seem close to him, in the sense of having followed his vision, still see in him the teacher of the Catholic souls of the West. He did for modern Catholicism what St Augustine accomplished in ancient times.- John Paul II