Saint Alphonsus Mary Liguori
Yesterday we admired, in Peter and the Machabees, the substructure of the palace built by Wisdom in time to endure for eternity. Today, in conformity with the divine ways of that Wisdom, who in her playing reaches from end to end, we are suffered to contemplate the progress of the glorious building, to behold the summit of the work, the last row of stones actually laid. Now, summit and foundation, the work is all one; the materials are all priceless: witness the diamond of fine water which displays its luster today.
To this great Saint, great both in works and in doctrine, are directly applied these words of the Holy Ghost: they that instruct many to justice shall shine as stars for all eternity (Dan. xii. 3). At the time he appeared, an odious sect was denying the mercy and the sweetness of our heavenly Father; it triumphed in the practical conduct of even those who were shocked by its Calvinistic theories. Under pretext of a reaction against an imaginary school of laxity, and denouncing with much ado some erroneous propositions made by obscure persons, the new Pharisees had set themselves up as zealous for the law. Stretching the commandments, and exaggerating the sanction, they loaded the conscience with the same unbearable burdens which the Man-God reproached the ancient Pharisees with laying on the shoulders of men; but the cry of alarm they had raised in the name of endangered morals, had none the less deceived the simple, and ended by misleading even the best.
Thanks to the show of austerity displayed by its adherents, Jansenism, so clever in veiling its teachings, had too well succeeded in its designs of forcing itself upon the Church in spite of the Church. Unsuspecting allies within the holy city gave up to its mercy the sources of salvation. Soon in too many places, the sacred Keys were used but to open hell; the Holy Table, spread for the preservation and increase of life in all, became accessible only to the perfect; and these latter were esteemed such, according as, by a strange reversion of the Apostle’s words, they subjected the spirit of adoption of sons to the spirit of servitude and fear. As to the faithful who did not rise to the height of this new asceticism, “finding in the tribunal of penance, instead of fathers and physicians, only exactors and executioners (Supplices litterae Episopatus pro concessioine tituli Doctoris S. Alphonso Mariae),” they had but to choose between despair and indifference. Everywhere legislatures and parliaments lent a hand to the so-called reformers, without heeding the flood of odious unbelief that was rising around them, without seeing the gathering storm-clouds.
Wo to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites: because you shut the kingdom of heaven against men, for you yourselves do not enter in; and those that are going in, you suffer not to enter. . . . Wo to you Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites: because you go round about the sea and the land to make one proselyte; and when he is made, you make him the child of hell twofold more than yourselves (St. Matth. xxiii. 13, 15). Not of your conventicles was it said that the sons of Wisdom are the Church of the just, for it was added: Their generation is obedience and love (Eccli. iii. 1). Not of the fear which you preached did the Psalmist sing: The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Wisdom (Ps. cs. 10); for even under the law of Sinai the Holy Spirit said: Ye that fear the Lord, believe him: and your reward shall not be made void. Ye that fear the Lord, hope in him: and mercy shall come to you for your delight. Ye that fear the Lord, love him: and your hearts shall be enlightened (Eccli. ii. 8-10). Every deviation, whether towards rigour or weakness, offends the rectitude of justice; but, especially since Bethlehem and Calvary, no sin so wounds the divine Heart as distrust; no fault is unpardonable except in the despair of a Judas, saying like Cain: My iniquity is greater than that I may deserve pardon (Gen. iv. 13).
Who then, in the sombre quietism into which the teachers then in vogue had led even the strongest minds, could find once more the key of knowledge? But Wisdom, says the Holy Ghost, kept in her treasures the signification of discipline (Eccli i. 31). Just as in other times she had raised up new avengers for every dogma that had been attacked: so now, against a heresy which, in spite of the speculative pretensions of its beginning, had only in its moral bearing any sort of duration, she brought forth Alphonsus Liguori as the avenger of the violated law and the Doctor by excellence of Christian morality. A stranger alike to fatal rigorism and baneful indulgence, he knew how to restore to the justices of the Lord their rectitude, and at the same time their power of rejoicing hearts, to his commandments their luminous brightness, whereby they are justified in themselves, to his testimonies the purity which attracts souls and faithfully guides the simple and the little ones from the beginnings of Wisdom to its summits (Ps. xviii. 8-10). It was not only in the sphere of casuistry that Alphonsus succeeded, in his Moral Theology, in counteracting the poison which threatened to infect the whole Christian life. Whilst on the one hand he never left unanswered any attack made at the time against revealed truth, his ascetic and mystical works brought back piety to its traditional sources, the frequentation of the Sacraments, and the love of our Lord and His Blessed Mother.
The Sacred Congregation of Rites, after examining in the name of the Holy See the works of our Saint, and declaring that nothing deserving of censure was to be found therein (Decretum, 14 and 18 Maii. 1803), arranged his innumerable writings under forty separate titles. Alphonsus, however, resolved only late in life to give to the public, through the press, the lights which flooded his soul; his first work, the golden book of Visits to the Most Holy Sacrament and to the Blessed Virgin, did not appear till the author was nearly fifty years of age. Though God prolonged his life beyond the usual limits, he spared him neither the double burden of the episcopate and the government of the Congregation he had founded, nor the most painful infirmities, nor still more grievous moral sufferings.
Let us listen to the Church’s account of his life.
Alphonsus Mary de Liguori was born of a noble family at Naples, and from his early youth gave clear proofs of sanctity. While he was still a child, his parents once presented him to St. Francis Girolamo, of the Society of Jesus. The Saint blessed him, and prophesied that he would reach his ninetieth year, that he would be raised to the episcopal dignity, and would do much good for the Church. Even as a boy he shrank from games, and both by his words and example incited noble youth to Christian modesty. When he reached early manhood he enrolled himself in pious associations, and made it his delight to serve the sick in the public hospital, to spend much time in prayer and in the church, and frequently to receive the sacred mysteries. He joined study to piety with such success that, when scarcely sixteen years of age, he took the degree of Doctor in both Canon and Civil Law, in the University of his native city. In obedience to his fathers wishes, he pleaded at the bar; but, while winning himself a name in the discharge of this office, he learnt by experience what dangers beset a lawyer’s life, and, of his own accord, abandoned the profession. Then he refused a brilliant marriage proposed to him by his father, renounced his right of inheritance as eldest son, and, hanging up his sword at the altar of the Virgin of Mercy, he devoted himself to the divine service.
Having been made priest, he attacked vice with such great zeal that, in the exercise of his apostolic ministry, he hastened from place to place, working wonderful conversions. He had a special compassion for the poor, and particularly for country people, and founded a congregation for priests, called “of the Holy Redeemer,” who were to follow the Redeemer through the fields, and hamlets, and villages, preaching to the poor. In order that nothing might turn him from his purpose, he bound himself by a perpetual vow never to waste any time. On fire with love of souls, he strove to win them to Christ and to make them lead more perfect lives, both by preaching the divine word and by writings full of sacred learning and piety. Marvellous was the number of hatreds he stilled and of wanderers he brought back to the path of salvation. He had the greatest devotion to the Mother of God, and published a book on the “Glories of Mary.” More than once, while he was speaking of her with great earnestness during his sermons, a wonderful brightness came upon him from Our Lady’s image, and he was seen by all the people to be rapt in ecstasy. The Passion of our Lord and the Holy Eucharist were the objects of his unceasing contemplation, and he spread devotion to them in a wonderful degree. When he was praying before the Altar of the Blessed Sacrament, or celebrating Holy Mass, which he never failed to do, through the violence of his love he shed burning tears, was agitated in an extraordinary manner, and at times was carried out of his senses. He joined a wonderful innocence, which he had never stained by deadly sin, with an equally wonderful spirit of penance, and chastised his body by fasting, iron chains, hair-shirts, and scourgings even to blood. At the same time he was remarkable for the gifts of prophecy, reading of hearts, bilocation, and many miracles.
He firmly refused the ecclesiastical dignities which were offered him, but he was compelled by the authority of Pope Clement XIII. to accept the government of the Church of St. Agatha of the Goths. As Bishop, though he changed his outward dress, yet he made no alteration in the severity of his life. He observed the same moderation; his zeal for Christian discipline was most ardent, and he displayed the greatest devotedness in rooting out vice, in guarding against false doctrine, and in discharging the other duties of the pastoral charge. He was most generous towards the poor, distributing to them all the revenues of his See, and in a time of scarcity of corn he sold even the furniture of his house to feed his starving people.
He was all things to all men. He brought religious women to lead a more perfect life, and took care to erect a monastery for nuns of his Congregation. Severe and continual sickness forced him to resign his bishopric, and he returned to his children as poor as when he had left them. Though worn out in body by old age, labours, chronic gout, and other painful maladies, his mind was fresh and clear, and he never ceased speaking or writing of heavenly things till at length, on the Kalends of August he most peacefully expired, at Nocera-dei-Pagani, amidst his weeping children. It was in the year 1787, the ninetieth of his age. His virtues and miracles made him famous, and on this account, in 1816, Pope Pius VII. enrolled him amongst the Blessed. God still glorified him with new signs and wonders, and, on the feast of the Most Blessed Trinity, in the year 1839, Gregory XVI. solemnly inscribed his name on the list of the Saints; finally, Pope Pius IX., after consulting the Congregation of Sacred Rites, declared him a Doctor of the universal Church.
“I have not hid thy justice within my heart: I have declared thy truth and thy salvation (Gradual of the Mass, fr. Ps. xxxix. 11).” Thus sings the Church in thy name today, in gratitude for the great service thou didst render her in the days of sinners, when godliness seemed to be lost. Exposed to the attacks of an extravagant pharisaism, and watched by a sceptical and mocking philosophy, even the good wavered as to which was the way of the Lord. While the moralists of the day could but forge fetters for consciences, the enemy had a good chance of crying: Let us break their bonds asunder: and let us cast away their yoke from us. The ancient wisdom revered by their fathers, now that it was compromised by these foolish teachers, seemed but a ruined edifice to people eager for emancipation. In this unprecedented extremity, thou, O Alphonsus, wast the prudent man whom the Church needed, whose mouth uttered words to strengthen men’s hearts.
Long before thy birth, a great Pope had said that it belongs to Doctors to enlighten the Church, to adorn her with virtues, to form her manners; by them, he added, she shines in the midst of darkness as a morning star; their word, made fruitful from on high, solves the enigmas of the Scriptures, unravels difficulties, clears obscurities, interprets what is doubtful; their profound works, beautified by eloquence of speech, are so many priceless pearls which ennoble no less than adorn the House of God. Thus did Boniface VIII. speak in the thirteenth century, when he was raising to the rank of doubles the feasts of the Apostles and Evangelists, and of the four then recognised Doctors, St Gregory, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Jerome. But is it not a description, striking as a prophecy, faithful as a portrait, of all that that thou wert?
Glory then be to thee, who in our days of decadence renewest the youth of the Church, and through whom justice and peace once more embrace one another at the meeting of mercy and truth. For this object thou didst literally give unreservedly thy time and thy strength. “The love of God,” says St. Gregory, “is never idle: where it exists it does great things: if it refuses to act, it is not love (Greg. in Ev., Hom. xxx).” What fidelity was thine in accomplishing that awful vow, whereby thou didst deny thyself the possibility of even a moment’s relaxation. When suffering intolerable pain, which would appear to anyone else to justify, if not to command, some rest, thou wouldst hold to thy forehead with one hand a piece of marble, which seemed to give some slight relief, and with the other wouldst continue thy precious writings.
But still greater was the example God set before the world, when, in thine old age, he suffered thee, through the treason of one of thine own sons, to be disgraced by that Apostolic See, for which thou hadst worn away thy life, and which in return withdrew thee, as unworthy, from the very institute thou hadst founded! Then hell was permitted to join its stripes with those of heaven; and thou, the Doctor of peace, didst endure terrible temptations against faith and holy hope. Thus was thy work made perfect in that weakness which is stronger than strength; and thus didst thou merit for troubled souls the support of the virtue of Christ. Nevertheless, having become a child once more in the blind obedience required under such painful trials, thou wast near at once to the kingdom of heaven and to the Crib, which thou didst celebrate in such sweet accents. And the virtue which the Man-God felt going out from Him during his mortal life escaped from thee, too, in such abundance that the little sick children presented by their mothers for thy blessing were all healed.
Now that thy tears and thy toils are over, watch over us evermore; Preserve in the Church the fruits of thy labours. The religious family begotten by thee has not degenerated; more than once, in the persecutions of last century, the enemy has honoured it with special tokens of his hatred; already, too, has the aureola of the blessed passed from the father to his sons; may they ever cherish these noble traditions! May the Eternal Father, Who in Baptism made us all worthy to be partakers of the lot of the saints in light, lead us all happily by thy example and teachings in the footsteps of our Most Holy Redeemer into the kingdom of this Son of His love (Col. i. 12, 13).
The Liturgical Year. 1904. Abbot Dom Gueranger, O.S.B. Translated from the French by Dom Laurence Shepherd, O.S.B. Imprimatur, 1910.