St Aloysius Gonzaga SJ

St Aloysius Gonzaga SJ

Pope Francis has declared a Jubilee Year of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga to be celebrated from 9 March 2018, the 450th anniversary of Aloysius’s birth, until the same date in 2019. The Jesuit, whose feast is celebrated on 21 June, was proclaimed patron saint of young people by Pope Benedict XIII in 1729; patron saint of students by Pope Pius XI in 1926; and, on the fourth centenary of Aloysius’s death in 1991, Pope Saint John Paul II declared him patron of those suffering from AIDS and their caregivers.

Aloysius was born in the Gonzaga castle at Castiglione, Italy, on 9 March 1568, the first of six siblings. The Gonzagas were one of the great families of the Renaissance – wealthy, proud, influential and often caught up in bloody feuds with other famous contemporary clans. True to the Gonzaga type, Aloysius grew up headstrong and combative. But unlike his father, Don Ferrante, who looked to foreign wars as an outlet for his aggression, Aloysius was intent on conquering himself.

From an early age, Aloysius began channelling all his energy and resolve into practising his faith. As a seven-year-old, he attended Mass daily, followed devotions of various types, recited prayers by heart and performed penances. Undoubtedly, the piety of the times and his reading of the heroic deeds of medieval saints influenced his religious practices. He was not content with just ‘being good’; he was determined to excel in holiness. Bereft of role models at court, he would rely on his willpower and designed his own programme of spirituality,

Aloysius was sent to the court of a family friend, the Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici of Tuscany, in Florence, for two years. He devoted his energy to studies of both sacred and secular subjects, as well as court etiquette. Aloysius looked back on those years as the ‘cradle of his spiritual life’. It was at the nearby Servite Basilica della Santissima Annunziata that he felt inspired to dedicate himself totally to the Virgin with a vow of perpetual chastity. His primary motivation for doing so was a desire for unadulterated holiness rather than a fear of falling into sin.

Aloysius was no killjoy or recluse. As a member of the aristocracy, he joyfully fulfilled his obligation to participate in pageantry and elaborate parties. However, he showed exceptional maturity in defining his priorities, and was courageous enough to hold fast to his convictions against peer pressure and social compulsions. He would slip out of activities that he deemed frivolous, licentious or unwholesome in order to preserve his integrity and holiness.

The young Aloysius had already come to grips with how to operate in freedom of spirit, how to make decisions in harmony with God’s plan and to lead a life consistent with the choice made. Yet it took him several years to comprehend his vocation to religious life. He received divine confirmation one day in 1583 while he was praying before the image of the Blessed Virgin in the Jesuit church in Madrid. He experienced a distinct interior call from God to join the Society of Jesus.

His father was vehemently opposed to his desire. He put the boy through several trials in order to distract and dissuade him. Aloysius, being equally strong-willed, prayed incessantly and pleaded persistently.

The problem was not that Aloysius wanted to be a priest but that he had chosen to join the Society of Jesus, whose members took a vow to forgo ecclesiastical dignities. If he would choose to be a diocesan priest, he could lay claim to a comfortable lifestyle and eventually be endowed with ecclesiastical positions that would bring honour to the family. Aloysius, however, was convinced that his religious vocation entailed a radical severance from rank and title. The standoff lasted for over two years until the senior Gonzaga, with a heavy heart, gave his consent. Aloysius formally renounced his inheritance in favour of his brother. He was received into the Jesuit novitiate at Sant’Andrea in Rome on 25 November 1585.

In the Society of Jesus, Aloysius’s radical option for holiness came under scrutiny. Through feedback from his spiritual guides, including his novice master and the saintly Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, and prayerful discernment, he came to realise that it was not only his heredity and circumstance that he needed to overcome but also the spiritual practices he had indiscriminately adopted. Aloysius’s magnanimity and unconditional obedience would bring about the much-needed transformation, and testify to the authenticity of his original pursuits, which all along, though misguided, had been undertaken to please God and not for selfish gain.

Aloysius had to relearn the basics of an organic and God-centred spirituality. He undertook an unusual form of ‘penance’: eat and sleep more, pray less, and join in with the recreational life of the other Jesuits. Aloysius took it all in his stride, cheerfully.

The years 1590 and 1591 were especially difficult in Italy because of poor harvests and the arrival of a dreadful plague. The Jesuits did what they could to assist, by collecting and distributing alms and working in the hospital of Santa Maria di Consolazione.

One evening, Aloysius stumbled on a plague-stricken man lying unconscious on the street. He placed the helpless victim over his shoulders, carried him to the hospital, washed and clothed him. In doing so, Aloysius contracted the disease. After months of suffering, he died as he held onto a cross and called the name of Jesus, on 21 June, at the age of 23. 

Hedwig Lewis SJ

Why is St Aloysius's life worth celebrating? Read Christopher Brolly SJ's reflection Facebook Graces