ST. ALPHONSUS MARIE DE LIGUORI: FOUNDER OF THE REDEMPTORISTS; DOCTOR OF THE CHURCH
It was at the still standing country house of the Liguori family at the village of Marianella near Naples, Italy where St. Alphonsus de Liguori was born on September 27, 1696. His virtuous distinguished and aristocratic parents were Don Joseph de Liguori, a captain in the royal navy of the Kingdom of Naples and religious and saintly Donna Anna Cavalieri. Born first of eight children he was baptized Alphonsus Mary Anthony John Francis Cosmas Damian Michaelangelo Gaspar de Liguori (better known as just his first name of Alphonsus).
His strongly pious mother raised 3 sons – priests and two daughters – nuns.
Born the eldest son of a stern overbearing disciplinarian who saw to it that his children didn’t waste their time, Alphonsus led a very active and fruitful life. Because he was given the best education possible that included in addition to the serious subjects painting, music, poetry, dancing and fencing, Alphonsus was productive not only in writing over a hundred books but also in composing poetry and music (hymns) and painting pictures.
But it was in writing on moral theology that he excelled and received popular acclamation. His greatest work Moral Theology went through nine editions in his lifetime alone and more than 60 during the century after it was written. It became a standard work of Catholic doctrine. It was so good that even the Holy See declared in a decree on July 21 1831 that priests could follow any of Alphonsus’ opinion on moral questions. This was a badge of honor Rome never gave to any other saint. Because of his contributions to moral theology Alphonsus is considered not only the greatest moral theologian of the Catholic Church but the “father” of moral theology and so was named a Doctor of the Church and “Doctor and Prince of Moral Theologians” in 1871.
Becomes a Priest
However Alphonsus didn’t start out to be a moral theologian or even a man of God. Propelled by his ambitious father into a legal career he was so diligent and brilliant in his studies that at the unbelievable early age of 16 he received his doctorate in both canon and civil law at the University of Naples, Italy and was admitted to the bar when he was just 19!
An excellent lawyer and successful barrister his first loss in court after 8 years of successful practice dealt him a devastating blow. Humiliated by his embarrassing defeat of an important court case he fasted and prayed for 3 days as he underwent a spiritual crisis.
One day while doing works of charity in the Hospital for the Incurables he found himself surrounded by a mysterious light at the same time hearing what seemed like an interior voice saying, “Leave the world and give yourself to me.”
When it happened again Alphonsus by now having a powerful attraction to the priesthood realized it was God’s way of telling him that he wasn’t meant to be a lawyer. Going to the church of our Lady of Ransom, he laid his sword and belt, symbols of his nobility, on her altar and offered to join the priests of the Oratory. He studied theology privately and to his father’s great displeasure Alphonsus after a few years of theological studies at home (his father’s condition) was ordained a priest on December 21, 1726 when he was thirty.
For the next five years Alphonsus chose to do missionary work among the poorest of the poor of Naples. Because he preached so beguilingly: simply clearly, intelligibly and without affectation his fame as a down-to-earth preacher spread rapidly and he was loved by his congregation. “I have never preached a sermon that the poorest old woman in the congregation could not understand,” he instructed his missioners.
His confessional was also always crowded because he charitably treated the penitents as souls to be saved rather than as criminals to be punished. To the dismay and suspicion of other priests compassionate Alphonsus never refused absolution to a penitent.
This was not the only act of Alphonsus that was displeasing to everybody.
Redemptorists Order Founded
It was in 1731 that he, aided by his friends Thomas Falcoia who was h;is spiritual director and Maria Celeste a former Carmelite whose convent had been dissolved, founded the Redemptoristine Sisters – a new religious order of nuns according to the rule given to Sister Mary Celeste in a vision because it coincided with a vision that Bishop Falcoia had experienced earlier in Rome.
The following year on November 9, 1732 he founded a religious Order of priests and brothers – the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer (Redemptorists). He established the order amid untold difficulties and innumerable trials to develop preachers who would preach practical sermons, act as missionaries and bring the word of God especially to the poor, abandoned and forgotten. This is why the Redemptorists have been called “the Salvation Army of the Church.”
However disagreements over the Rule for the Order and internal dissension became so bad that Sister Maria Celeste was expelled from her Order and left founding a new convent in Foggia.
All the members of the group of Alphonsus left except one. But despite all these difficulties the congregation grew with new postulants who elected Alphonsus their superior for life. However he suffered the next fifty years of his life trying to win official recognition of the order as external politics tried to divide and destroy the Redemptorists.
While his Rule received ecclesiastical approval when Pope Benedict XIV finally approved the rule for the men in 1749 and that of the Women in 1750, still the order had not received civil approval vital under an absolute regime.
The chief aim of the Redemptorists is “to imitate as closely as possible . . . the life and 12 virtues of Our Lord Jesus Christ.” So a special virtue was practiced for each month.
Their chief work was the giving of parish “missions” – that is giving sermons, hearing Confessions and doing spiritual exercises to turn them away from sin. This they (including Alphonsus himself) did during nine months of the year.
Not only were many hardened sinners returned to the healing sacraments, enemies reconciled but family feuds were healed. It was because he was a true representative of the Gospel spirit of moderation and kindness.
Alphonsus was not only a beguiling preacher who gave practical sermons – short simple, meaningful and to the point but was also a very practical writer. Like his sermons his writing was outstanding in the practical guidance of souls.
He even asked his printer to use a good grade of paper and to avoid bulky looking books as he said that “spiritual books especially ought to be handy for reading.”
The aim of most of his writing was to be for the reader “a safer and secure spiritual bridge . . . from earth to heaven for men and women in every state and stage of life.” His writing expounding his moderate views sympathetic to sinners proved to be a great success.
Many of his works are still being published today in Italian, French, German, Dutch and English. Today his writings have been translated in more than 72 languages! Fr. Miller says that Alphonsus was the most popular author who ever lived as no other writer has had so many different editions of his work published. It is estimated that he wrote and published about 60 books – all written during the half hours he snatched from his labors as a missionary.
His style of writing is very similar to the prayerful meditation he taught: first a brief aspect of the mysteries of our redemption followed by a meaningful prayer.
Because Alphonsus prolifically wrote so well for the honor of God, the Blessed Virgin and a religion, Pope Pius VII asked when his tomb was opened years after his death that the three fingers of his right hand be preserved and sent to Rome.
A Great Mariologies
Always a great lover of Mary, Alphonsus had been gathering material for his most popular book, The Glories of Mary since his ordination to the priesthood in December 21, 1726. This loving work was only published in 1750 when he was 54 thinking himself to be near death at that time. It’s no wonder that the book was said by F. J. Connell to be “probably the most widely read book on the Blessed Virgin in the world” even if he was not the first to teach that Mary is the “Mother of All Graces.” Its popularity was probably due to the fact that it was the loving work of a great Mariologist that mirrored the soul of its author.
Before that time he spoke endlessly of Mary’s Mercy claiming that she held the greatest privilege because of God’s mercy in giving us a Redeemer thus earning for herself the apt title of Mother of Mercy.
Alphonsus not only fulfilled his own vow to preach about Mary every Saturday which he did till the age of 80 but he also required the Redemptorists to preach a sermon on Mary’s mercy at every mission.
As a special token of Mary’s love for her devoted servant the much-sought-after famed miraculous picture of Our Lady of Perpetual Help from 13the century Crete was placed in 1866 in the Church of St. Alphonsus in Rome. The Church has since been noted for spreading the devotion to her as the Mother of Perpetual Help. Go to the Redemptorist Church at Baclaran and see a faithful replica of this painting.
Little is written about Alphonsus, the musician. Because his father wanted him to be a well-rounded boy he was given training in music so that he not only was considerably skillful in playing the harpsichord but he became a composer of music especially of hymns.
Because Alphonsus knew the power of music over the mind and heart of the people he composed hymns (both the words and music of about 50 hymns) with simple and catchy melodies to stir up the love of Jesus and Mary. He also restored Gregorian chant to the mass. He was even called a “professor’s professor of music.”
Becomes a Bishop
The only time he left his beloved Kingdom of Naples was when in 1762 he reluctantly went to Rome for his unwilling consecration as bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths, an area that was spiritually lax.
Not only was his small diocese full of thousands of uninstructed men and women but also hundreds of priests who were indifferent. The worst of it was that the congregation was not only lax but corrupt. He had to work hard reorganizing the seminary and religious houses, rehabilitating the clergy by teaching them theology and writing and be unbending in his reforms. When a severe famine came he insisted that the wealthy share food with the starving. Subsequent court actions naturally followed and added to his difficulties. He himself sold almost everything: all of his furniture, his carriage and mules, even his uncle’s Episcopal ring to feed the poor. Thus he came to be known as father of the poor.
All this time he was suffering from such a bad case of arthritis and rheumatism that his body was being deformed.
When he was 71 years of age he had such a bad attack of rheumatic fever that kept him bedridden for over a year. Try as he might to resign he was not allowed to do so. This was because as Pope Clement XIII said, “His shadow alone is enough to govern the diocese.”
By this time his neck was paralyzed so that he could not even raise his head. An open wound on his chest caused by the pressure of his chin necessitated his drinking through a tube.
Yet he somehow managed to say mass even if it meant having his chair tilted back so he could drink the Precious Blood.
It was only in 1775 when he was 78 that he was finally moved to the Redemptorist headquarters in Pagani hoping to end his days in peace.
His Last 13 Years
On the contrary he spent his last 13 years in anything but peace. Besides being assailed by acute physical suffering gradually losing his sight and hearing, for the last two years of his life he was tortured by private spiritual torments and exhausted by efforts to finally win recognition for his Order.
The greatest blow that dealt poor tragic Alphonsus was when in 1780 he was expelled from the order he had founded because he had failed to read carefully a vital document before signing it. This document authorized reforms that were favorable to the anti-clerical government. Even his fellow religious in the Kingdom of Naples were cut off from the Congregation Alphonsus founded. His being 83 years old at the time, crippled, deaf and nearly blind was not accepted as an excuse.
It was not till he finally died on August 1, 1787 at the age of ninety one after a life of “extraordinary industry” because as a youth he had vowed “never to waste time” he finally got the peace he long longed for. Unfortunately he died outside the Congregation he had founded believing that his Order had failed. However his order the Redemptorists finally won their recognition by the Neapolitan state in 1793 (62 years after it was founded) and expanded to the whole world. Our own Baclaran Church and Magallanes Church are run by Redemptorists. It is ironic that Pope Pius VI who issued the decree of expulsion led the battle for his canonization and declared him “Venerable”.
He was canonized in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI the first and only professional “Moral Theologian” to have been canonized. He was (declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX in 1871.) in recognition for his contribution to moral theology.
He is the patron of vocations and charity but known most of all as patron of Moral theologians, of vocations and of all priests engaged in hearing confession. He is also the patron of the sick especially those suffering from arthritis and old age because he bore so well his cross of illness. He is known as Prince of Moralists and Most Zealous Doctor.
SOURCES of REFEREANCE
ST. ALPHONSUS MARIE DE LIGUORI
1696 – 1787
Butler’s Lives of the Saints – Vol. III – pp. 242 – 248
The Illustrated World Encyclopedia of Saints – pp. 210
The Book of Saints – p. 204
Pocket Dictionary of Saints – pp. 316 – 318
The Watkins Dictionary of Saints – p. 9
A Calendar of Saints – p. 146
All Saints – pp. 329 – 330
Saints for Everyday – pp 274 – 275
A Year with the Saints – August 1
Butler’s Saints for the Day – pp. 359 – 361
Lives of the Saints – pp 317 – 319
Illustrated Lives of the Saints – Vol. I pp. 339 – 341
My First Book of Saints – pp. 166 – 167
Saint Companions – pp 279 – 281
Saints for Our Time – pp 279 – 281
Saint of the Day – pp. 185 – 186
Lives of the Saints – pp 317 – 319
The Doctors of the Church – Vol. II pp. 195 – 209
The 33 Doctors of the church – pp. 603 – 636
Voices of the Saints – pp 610 – 611
Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives – Group 4 Card 5
Best Loves Saints – p. 158 – 161
Book of Saints – Part 4 – pp 20 – 21
Novena – pp. 50 – 53
Saints of the Roman Calendar – pp 218 – 220
Saints of the Modern Generation – pp 85 – 94
Saints and their Symbols – 207