ST. ALOYSIUS GONZAGA: Patron of Catholic Youth
1568 – 1591
His Father’s Great Plans for Him
When Aloysius (Luigi or Louis) Gonzaga, the eldest son and heir of Marquis Ferdinand of Castiglione, Duke of Mantua, Prince of the Roman Empire was born on 9 March 1568 at the family castle in Castiglione near Mantua in Lombardy, Italy his father had great plans for him.
An army man himself his father had dreams of Aloysius who was handsome, charming and clever as well as being brave being honored as a great statesman or military hero. Thus to satisfy his father’s ambitions for him he grew up in army camps, trained in the art of war and attended military parades.
His Own Plans
So Aloysius who even at the early age of seven already had a spiritual awakening, had other plans for himself. Probably greatly influenced by his very pious mother Marta Tana Santena who became his first teacher in holiness, Aloysius developed a love for prayer with which he began his day including the Office of Mary and the Psalms. He began to think about his soul and God and decided he wanted to devote himself heart and soul to God his creator.
His Training and Education
But as sons of a princely family he and his brother were sent to be educated at the age of eight to spend two years at the court of Francesco de Medici, Grand Duke of Tuscany, in Florence, Italy. Already absorbed in spiritual matters he took a vow of perpetual chastity.
Nevertheless from Florence he was sent to the court of the Duke of Mantua. Here he continued his self-imposed pitiless austerities and severe fasts. On his return he taught catechism to the poor of Castiglione.
At the age of twelve he received Jesus in First Holy Communion from the hands of his illustrious relative Charles Borromeo who was then the Archbishop of Milan and who later became a saint.
When he was thirteen he traveled with his parents and the Empress of Austria to Spain. Here Philip II made him page of honor to the royal heir, Don Diego. A brilliant scholar, handsome and polite Aloysius was well-liked by everyone. However he managed to remain pure and chaste amidst the vices of the royal court.
The more he saw of court life the more he sought relief by reading about lives of saints.
It was when he read a book about the experiences of Jesuit missionaries in India that he got the idea of entering the Society of Jesus.
“I forbid you to become a priest!” was the violent reaction of his father on being informed of his son’s request.
His Father’s Efforts to Thwart his Plans
To make his son change his mind his father recalled him from the Spanish court and sent him on various missions as his representative to different cities to expose him to plenty of temptations and make him love the things of this world. He enlisted the aid of eminent people to try to change the mind-set of his obstinate son. But to no avail.
Allowed to Join Jesuits
After a four-year struggle and persistent effort his father finally relented and allowed him to join the Jesuits in 1585. At twenty Aloysius signed away forever his right to the title and considerable lands of the Gonzagas and became a Jesuit novice at Rome.
He was then sent to Milan to the Jesuit seminary to study philosophy with renowned theologian Saint Robert Bellarmine as his spiritual adviser.
But because of poor health he was recalled to Rome where he finally made his first vows in 1587.
Aloysius was a model of perfection from the beginning of his religious life. “I am a twisted piece of iron, and have entered religion in order to get straightened out” is what he often said to himself in great humility. Because of his delicate health he was forbidden to pray except at certain times, made to eat more and take more recreation as he wanted to suffer like Jesus who suffered on the cross to the detriment of his health.
In 1590 a great famine broke out in Italy. It was followed the following year by a terrible epidemic of the plague. Because the hospitals were already filled to overflowing the Jesuit Fathers immediately opened an emergency hospital of their own.
But because they hardly had any money with which to feed themselves let alone their patients Aloysius, a nobleman himself, went around the city begging for money for food and medicine from his wealthy friends.
Besides being a begging religious he helped in the hospital as well even tending and dressing the patients’ wounds and sores himself. When he saw a man so diseased that no one wanted even to approach him Aloysius immediately told himself, “This is Jesus.”
So tenderly carrying him in his arms he brought him to the hospital and personally cared for him. Of course being of frail health himself he contracted the disease at once.
For three months his fellow Jesuits did everything they could to alleviate his patient suffering. Two years before when he had a premonition of his approaching death he turned over to his rector his beloved priceless theological and spiritual notes.
After being a Jesuit for only six years Aloysius aged hardly twenty-three years of age went peacefully to meet his Maker on 21 June 1591 while gazing at the crucifix that had given him the strength to suffer. He received the last rites from St. Robert Bellarmine.
He was canonized in 1726 by Pope Benedict XIII who in 1729 declared him the special protector and patron of youth especially of young Catholic students. This title was reaffirmed by Pope Pius XI in 1926. Aloysius had certainly lived up to his motto: “I was born for greater things.” At the same time he had fulfilled his father’s ambition for him to be brave and honored but not in the way he intended. Ironically he died shortly before being ordained so he never reached the priesthood he so desired.
On June 21, St. Aloysius’ feast day the Church prays: “O God, author of all heavenly gifts, You gave Saint Aloysius both a wonderful innocence of life and a deep spirit of penance. Through his merits grant that we may imitate his penitence.”
He is one of the most venerated of modern saints especially for his intense love of chastity and his all-absorbing love for God.
SOURCES of REFERENCE
ST. ALOYSIUS GONZAGA
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. II – pp 603 – 606
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – p 177, 249
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp 217 – 218
A Calendar of Saints – p 115
A Year With the Saints – June 21
Butler’s Saint for the Day – pp 286 – 288
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. 1 pp 261 – 262
My First Book of Saints – pp 128 – 129
Saint Companions – pp 222 – 223
Saints for Our Times – pp 128 – 129
Saint of the Day – pp 138 – 140
Saints – A Visual Guide – pp 260 – 261
Voices of the Saints – pp 524 – 525
Best – Loved Saints – pp 145 – 148
33 Saints for Boys and Girls – pp 7 – 14
Book of Saints – Part 2 – pp 12 – 13