St Alphonsus Rodríguez SJ: sanctity through service

POST BY GClapson

St Peter Claver & St Alphonsus Rodriguez
Claver & Rodriguez

From the early years of the Society of Jesus, generous men have asked to live in community as fully-fledged Jesuit religious, without feeling called to the priesthood. These brothers, who are prepared to serve in the enterprises of the Society, often through manual work, form an integral and vital part of all the Society’s mission.

They include the English brother Nicholas Owen who constructed priest holes during the Reformation and who was martyred in 1606. Other brothers have been active in mission territories, for example in the Reducciònes; and others distinguished themselves through their art. The magnificent paintings in St Ignatius Church in Rome by Brother Andrea Pozzo, for instance, are considered to be masterpieces. And yesterday (30 October) was the Feast of Blessed Dominic Collins SJ, a former soldier and an Irish Jesuit lay brother, who died for his Catholic faith on 31 October 1602. He was beatified as a martyr by Saint John Paul II on 27 September 1992.

Today, 31 October, is the Feast of St Alphonsus Rodríguez SJ, the Patron Saint of Jesuit brothers, who worked as the porter of the Jesuit college in Palma de Maiorca where his saintly life involved doing simple repetitive manual jobs. In Dorset on the south coast, Jesuit brothers of Britain gather each year on this date to celebrate the 16th century saint who achieved holiness through humility and sanctity through service, without ever being ordained priest, writing a theological treatise or serving as a missionary.

Alphonsus Rodríguez, the son of a wool merchant, received his First Holy Communion from one of the original Jesuits, Pierre Favre, to whom his family gave hospitality in Segovia. Having married at the age of 26, he fathered three children; but within five years, his wife and two of his children had died. When his third child died, he decided to consider life in a religious order.

DoorkeeperSt Alphosus Rodriguez by Gebhard Erohlich SJ

His association with Favre and other Jesuits made him consider the Jesuits but his lack of education and his poor health delayed his entry into the Society of Jesus until 1571 when he was 40 years old. It is claimed that the provincial at the time said that if Alphonsus was not qualified to become a brother or a priest, he could enter to become a saint.

For his probation as a novice, Alphonsus was sent to the recently founded Montesione College on Majorca, where he remained in the humble position of porter for 46 years. There he served not only the community but also the great number of people who came to the porter's lodge for advice and direction. As doorkeeper, his duties were to receive visitors who came to the college, to show them to the parlour where they were to meet their Jesuit spiritual directors, deliver messages and run errands. His duties also included comforting the sick – both physically and spiritually - and distributing alms to the needy.

Alphonsus says that each time the bell rang, he looked at the door and imagined that it was God who was standing outside seeking admittance. In his memoirs, he said he answered the door with the words: ‘I’m coming, Lord’. Among the distinguished Jesuits who came under his influence was St Peter Claver, who lived with him for some time at Majorca, and who followed his advice in asking for the missions of South America.

[Our main picture shows Br Alphonsus (seated) offering spiritual direction to Peter Claver – a student of theology at the time. Above: A painting of St Alphonsus by Gebhard Fröhlich SJ. Below: The Vision of St Alphonsus Rodríguez by Francisco de Zurbarán]

Hardships

In 1585, Alphonsus made his final vows as a brother, at the age of 54. Throughout his ministry in Majorca, he committed himself unreservedly to good works, showing absolute obedience and faithfulness to his vocation of service – even in the most menial of duties. Despite his personal troubles and trials, he adhered to a few simple spiritual guidelines that helped him navigate through life, principally, the imitation of Christ.

I put myself in spirit before our crucified Lord,” he wrote, “looking at him full of sorrow, shedding his blood and bearing great bodily hardships for me. As love is paid for in love, I must imitate him, sharing in spirit all his sufferings. I must consider how much I owe him and what he has done for me. Putting these sufferings between God and my soul, I must say, ‘What does it matter, my God, that I should endure for your love these small hardships? For you, Lord, endured so many great hardships for me.’

"Amid the hardship and trial itself, I stimulate my heart with this exercise. Thus, I encourage myself to endure for love of the Lord who is before me, until I make what is bitter sweet. In this way learning from Christ our Lord, I take and convert the sweet into bitter, renouncing myself and all earthly and carnal pleasures, delights and honours of this life, so that my whole heart is centred solely on God.”

Devotion

Brother Alphonsus had a deep devotion to Mary, especially as the Immaculate Conception: he would copy the entire little office of the Blessed Virgin for private recitation for those who asked. When his Jesuit superiors saw the good work he was doing among the townspeople, they were eager to have his influence spread far. His spiritual devotion was so deep that on feast days he was frequently asked to preach in the community’s dining room and it was reported that on more than one occasion the community sat quietly past dinner time to hear him finish his sermon.

On reaching his 80s, Brother Alphonsus became very feeble. He suffered severe memory loss and was unable even to recite his favourite prayers.  He died on 31 October 1617 and was declared venerable nine years later. Within another seven years, the Council General of Majorca chose him as one of the special patrons of the city and island. He is the Patron Saint of Jesuit Brothers.

Because of the Suppression of the Society of Jesus and its expulsion from Spain, his beatification was delayed until 1825. He was canonised on 15 January 1888 and his remains are enshrined at Majorca.

St Alphonsus Rodríguez SJ is the subject of a sonnet by fellow-Jesuit Gerard Manley Hopkins,

In Honour of St Alphonsus Rodríguez – Lay brother of The Society Of Jesus:

Honour is flashed off exploit, so we say;The Vision of St Alphonsus Rodríguez by Francisco de Zurbarán

And those strokes once that gashed flesh or galled shield

Should tongue that time now, trumpet now that field,

And, on the fighter, forge his glorious day.

On Christ they do and on the martyr may;

But be the war within, the brand we wield

Unseen, the heroic breast not outward-steeled,

Earth hears no hurtle then from fiercest fray.

 

Yet God (that hews mountain and continent,

Earth, all, out; who, with trickling increment,

Veins violets and tall trees makes more and more)

Could crowd career with conquest while there went

Those years and years by of world without event

That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

 

Find out more about life as a Jesuit Brother.