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November 2, 2008|
All Souls' Day
Alphonsus Maria de Liguori was born in Naples on September 27, 1696, the first-born in a family that would number seven children. His mother instructed them in the truths of the faith starting when the children were very young, and taught them to pray. The boy Alphonsus was graced with a keen intellect, a sharp memory, good reasoning, a heart open to all the noble sentiments, and a firm and energetic will. His father wanted him to be a lawyer. He progressed so quickly in his legal studies that, at the age of sixteen, he passed the doctoral exam in canon and civil law. The judges were astonished at the wisdom of his answers and the soundness of his replies.
As a lawyer, Alphonsus achieved one success after another, which gave him a thirst for worldly success and glory. However, he was tempted to abandon this paththe sight of the ruses and lies that too often distorted the most just cases was repellent to his honest nature. Faithful to prayer and charitable works, he maintained his purity of soul. Once a year, he went to a monastery to devote himself to spiritual exercises. He later recounted that these retreats had been especially helpful in detaching him from worldly goods and orienting him towards God. During Lent in 1722 in particular, the preacher recounted the motives that must lead the soul to devote itself entirely to God. He depicted in vivid detail the emptiness of the things of this world, and did not shrink from describing for his retreatants the eternal torments of hell, as revealed by Jesus. The light went on in young Alphonsus' mindthe vanities of this world disappeared like smoke! He vowed himself without reservation to the divine will and, a little while later, committed himself to celibacy.
In 1723, there was much talk in Naples of an important lawsuit brought by Duke Orsini against the Grandduke of Tuscany. Many lawyers coveted the case, but Orsini entrusted his defense to Alphonsus, who at that point had never lost a lawsuit. On the appointed day, Alphonsus went to the bar and, with clarity, set forth his client's demands. All those in attendance were filled with admiration. But his adversary then produced a piece of evidence that had passed through Alphonsus' hands, that decisively crippled his argument. Alphonsus was flooredhow could he have overlooked this text? The case lost, Alphonsus felt crushed with humiliation. However, three days later, a sudden clarity made him realize the reason for his absent-mindednessGod had blinded him in order to tear him away from the vanities of the world. Under the impulse of divine grace, he now repeated the phrase that he had spitefully muttered as he left the courtroom: «Courts, you will never see me again!» After a period of prayer and penitence, he perceived that God was calling him to the priestly state. After completing his formation, he was ordained a priest on December 21, 1726.
The priest's temptation
The young priest preached the Gospel to everyone, but most willingly to the poor. Brimming over with sacred knowledge yet unpretentious, he appeared in the pulpit with the authority of a man of God conveying to the people not his own doctrine, but that of the Master Who had sent him. Moved with compassion by the religious ignorance of the rural folk, in November 1732 Don Alphonsus and several companions founded a new religious Institute that would be named the «Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.» Filled with the overabundance of the Redemption Christ won on the Cross, the Redemptorists are devoted to preaching missions to the poor, so as to instruct them in the fundamental truths of the faith, and to enlighten them on the important matter.
In fact, Don Alphonsus would write: «One matter surpasses all others in importance that of our eternal salvation; there lies our happiness or misery forever. It is impossible to escape this alternative: we will either be saved or lost forever, meriting an eternity of bliss or an eternity of torment, to live forever either happy or miserable» (Way of Salvation [WS], Meditation I). The salvation of souls is at the center of the Church's concerns, as Pope Benedict XVI reminds us in speaking to the bishops of Latin America: «Our Saviour wishes all men to be saved and to reach the knowledge of truth (I Tim 2:4-6). This, and not anything else, is the purpose of the Church: the salvation of souls, one by one» (May 13, 2007). Again, Don Alphonsus wrote: «Amazing thing! There is no one who does not blush at being accused of negligence in the affairs of the world; and yet so many do not blush at neglecting the most important affair of all, that of eternity! « Important affair, only affair, irreparable affair! Surely, the height of folly is to scorn the importance of eternal salvation, and the height of misfortune to lose one's salvation. Any other disaster can be recovered from: if one loses money, one can earn more; if one loses a job, one can find another; and even if one loses one's life, if one's soul is saved nothing is lost. But he who is damned is lost forever. For one dies only once, and the soul, once lost, is lost forever» (Preparation for Death [PD], Consideration XII).
The rural people who came to these missions eagerly received these holy truths and prepared themselves for the Sacrament of Penance. The missionaries, faithful ministers of reconciliation, spent long hours in the confessional, where, as true doctors of souls, they were able to comfort the afflicted. «The more deeply a soul is mired in evil,» Don Alphonsus said, «the more necessary it is to receive him well, in order to extract him from the claws of the enemy.» Listening to the penitent with patience and gentleness helps to dispose him to absolution, either immediately, or after a time of trial. Don Alphonsus imposed as sacramental penances pious exercises that were very simple, but of a nature to draw penitents away from sin and rekindle their fervor. Unburdened of their sins, these people then received holy Communion, and went to tell their happiness to others in the most remote hamlets, and so give glory to the mercy of God. «God cannot scorn those who come and cast themselves at His feet; no, He Himself invites them, and promises to receive them on the spot. Return to Me, says the Lord, and I will receive you (Jer. 3:1). Turn to Me « and I will turn to you (Zac. 1:3). « Oh! with what love and tenderness does God press to His heart the sinner that returns to Him. « The Lord glories in showing mercy to sinners and forgiving them» (PD, Consideration XVI).
The most important
Some authors of the time, under the influence of Protestantism and Jansenism, tended to turn the faithful away from devotion to the Blessed Virgin Mary. Therefore, in 1750 Don Alphonsus published The Glories of Mary [GM], a commentary on the Salve Regina. In it, he enumerated the privileges of the Mother of Godall graces pass through Mary's hands, and as a result, Mary is our necessary Mediatrix (cf. GM, ch. 5). In fact, just as Mary is the Mother of Jesus, God wishes her to be the Mother of every man redeemed by Jesus. Just as she carried Jesus in her womb, she carries us in her heart, until Christ is formed in us. «There can be no doubt that by the merits of Jesus, Mary was made the mediatrix of our salvation; not indeed a mediatrix of justice, but of grace and intercession» (ibid.). In the missions, Don Alphonsus always wanted a sermon to be preached about the Virgin Mary, Mother of Mercy, and about the need for those who wish to persevere and be saved to have frequent recourse to her intercession. He wrote: «This was revealed by our Blessed Lady herself to St. Bridget, saying, 'I am the Queen of Heaven and the Mother of Mercy; I am the joy of the just and the door through which sinners are brought to God. There is no sinner on earth so accursed as to be deprived of my mercy « No one « is so cast off by God that he will not return to Him, and enjoy His mercy, if he invokes my aid' « Let us remember that it is in order to save the greatest and most abandoned sinners, who recommend themselves to her, that Mary is made the Queen of Mercy» (GM, ch. 1).
To live with Jesus
The young Redemptorist Congregation was not spared trials. In 1752, the King of the Two Sicilies, Charles III, ordered that the institute be stripped of its possessions, which were then handed over to the bishops. Later, Alphonsus himself was forced, due to the intrigues of some of his sons, to resign his position and move away. Unruffled, he preached to his followers submission to the divine will: «The Lord,» he said, «wants the Institute to prosper not through the favor or protection of princes, but through scorn, poverty, suffering, and persecution. When have you seen the works of God begin in the midst of approval? Saint Ignatius believed it boded well when he was informed of some new harassment or reversal.»
In 1762, Father Alphonsus was named bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths, a small diocese near Naples. Despite the example of many prelates of his time, for whom the episcopate meant luxury and ostentation, he continued to lead a life of poverty and mortification. Thanks to his preaching, in a short time the entire episcopal city changedConfession and Communion became more frequent, the churches were filled, and devotion to the Most Blessed Virgin grew in every heart. Concerned about the future of the diocese, he carefully examined candidates to the priesthood before laying hands on them. In an era when Church benefices attracted many who were ill equipped for ministry, his zeal led him to refuse unworthy candidates. The more or less general laxity of the era had resulted in a low point in religious fervor, even at the altar. One of Bishop de Liguori's main concerns was to reestablish everywhere the correct observance of religious rites. In fact, then as today, the glory of God calls for dignity in the observance of the divine mysteries. «The Mystery of the Eucharist is too great for anyone to permit himself to treat it according to his own whim, so that its sacredness and its universal ordering would be obscured « it is the right of all of Christ's faithful that the Liturgy, and in particular the celebration of Holy Mass, should truly be as the Church wishes» (Instruction Redemptionis Sacramentum by the Congregation for Divine Worship, March 25, 2004, nos. 11 and 12).
Paralyzed for nineteen years
On the occasion of the bicentenary of his death, August 1, 1987, Pope John Paul II wrote, «The popularity which the Saint has long enjoyed can be ascribed to his desire for conciseness, clarity, simplicity, optimism and friendliness which, in the end, came down to gentleness. At the root of this love for people is his concern regarding salvation: to save himself and to save others, a salvation that was aimed at perfection, at holiness. The frame of reference of his pastoral activity did not exclude anyone: he wrote for everyone.»
Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, obtain for us the grace of walking resolutely on the path to eternal salvation and of leading there as many souls as possible!