The Real Saint Aloysius Gonzaga

Updated on February 10, 2018
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Bede is an artist with a long time interest in the lives of the saints.

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Forty years ago this year, my Mother gave me two books for my first Holy Communion: an illustrated book of Jesus’ life and the Picture Book of Saints. The latter book was one of my favorite childhood books. The illustrations spoke more than the text. Among the illustrations was St. Aloysius; he appears as pretty as an angel amid the lilies. Most depictions that I saw later in life confirmed my verdict: St. Aloysius was a wimp. However, I decided to read a long biography of him this past summer, to try to discover the “real St. Aloysius.”

Typically over sentimental depictions of St. Aloysius.
Typically over sentimental depictions of St. Aloysius. | Source

My previous judgment dissolved as a truer image of St. Aloysius emerged; an image more akin to an oak tree rather than cotton candy, as artists often depict him. Here are five ways that reveal his strength of character:

1. Disgust with Court Life

As a member of the prestigious Gonzaga family of Castiglione, Aloysius was born into phenomenal wealth and luxury. Servants constantly waited on him; he had the finest food, clothes, and personal tutors to educate him; there was unlimited money at his disposal, and perhaps most exciting of all, he was heir-apparent to one of the wealthiest and most powerful marquisates in Europe. As such, the most beautiful young princesses eyed him, hoping for a dream life in the Gonzaga palaces.

These depictions of Aloysius were painted from life when he was 5 and 17 years old.
These depictions of Aloysius were painted from life when he was 5 and 17 years old. | Source

Yet, as early as age seven, Aloysius started having other plans. He was bedridden with quartan ague, a type of malarial fever. Along with the germ that made him ill, God planted another seed that would germinate in time. At this age, he revealed to his mother, Marta, his desire to devote his life to God. She said that it might be difficult, as he was the eldest of the family. Nonetheless, this aspiration grew along with the conviction that court life was not for him. I believe this desire to bypass a lavish life-style reveals Aloysius’ inner strength.

2. Austerity of Life

Though coddled from his earliest days, Aloysius started living as strictly as a Carthusian monk. For example, though he had the finest cuisine available, he fasted on bread and water three days a week. Though his six siblings were attired in the flamboyant costumes of the Renaissance, he chose to dress very modestly, often simply in black clothing. He avoided the parties held at the court and lived a prayerful life.

In addition to this outward disavowal of court life, he embraced quite severe penances. For instance, he would get up in the night to pray, kneeling on the stone floor without a cushion; when it was cold, he would open the window and wear light clothing; he scourged himself with a dog leash, and practiced “custody of the eyes” in the company of women. This latter instance has earned him the reputation of being overly prudish, but at least his intention seems to have been pure.

 Aloysius had great devotion to the Virgin Mary. This painting is by the 17th century artist, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone. The lily of purity is one of Aloysius' symbols.
Aloysius had great devotion to the Virgin Mary. This painting is by the 17th century artist, Carlo Francesco Nuvolone. The lily of purity is one of Aloysius' symbols. | Source

Undoubtedly, the piety of the times and his reading of the heroic deeds of medieval saints influenced his practices. To modern sensibilities, these penances seem quite harsh and even masochistic. However, he seems to have striven wholeheartedly for holiness. Additionally, it took real courage to forego both courtly pleasures and popularity and reveals that he was by no means a weakling.

3. Bearing his Father’s Opposition

The seed that God planted at age seven came to maturity by age fifteen. He told his mother of his desire to join the Jesuits, still a new order at the time. His mother, who was quite devout, actually rejoiced in his decision. She informed Don Ferdinand, the dreaded Marquis, of Aloysius’ desire. His response was an outburst of rage, as he placed all his hopes on his eldest son.

When Aloysius himself approached his father, he received a severe rebuke and threat of flogging. His father was especially angered that he chose the Jesuits; St. Ignatius, the founder of the Jesuits, forbade his priests to attain higher dignities, such as a bishopric. Don Ferdinand put tremendous pressure on Aloysius to change his mind. He especially sought every avenue to dissuade Aloysius from joining the Jesuits, with the help of several priests. It was to no avail; Aloysius stood firm like the Hoover Dam.

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During this extended trial, Aloysius revealed manly virtue, especially patience; for as St. Thomas Aquinas says, “Patience is a virtue aligned with fortitude.” Finally, after two years of conflict, he approached his father who was bedridden with gout and said, “I am in your power, father, and you can do with me as you please. But know this, that God calls me to the Society of Jesus, and you are resisting His Will by opposing my vocation.” After Aloysius left the room, Don Ferdinand burst into tears. The father summoned Aloysius back to his room, revealed his love for him, and said, “I had set all my hopes upon you…I will not keep you back any longer; go where you will.”

4. Jesuit Novice

Having renounced the vast Gonzaga fortunes and legal rights of the marquisate of Castiglione to his younger brother, Rodolfo, Aloysius finally joined the Jesuits at age seventeen. "I am a piece of twisted iron,” he said, “I entered the religious life to get twisted straight." He soon learned that doing the twist would be painful. His novice-master recognized the generosity of the lad, but quickly put an end to his excessive penances. Aloysius was obliged to eat and sleep more, pray less, and enter into the recreational life with the other Jesuits. He obeyed, but at no small cost, since his new life seemed comparatively casual to his former life.

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This is a detail of a painting by Guercino, titled the Vocation of St. Aloysius. St. Aloysius is shown renouncing the crown for the Cross.A beautiful stained glass from Lille Cathedral, depicting St. Aloysius' entrance into the Jesuit Order.An allegorical painting by Theodore Boeyermans, depicting St. Aloysius pronouncing his vows. St Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier are in the firmament while the world, flesh(cupid), and the Devil try to prevent him. Note the crown on the ground.
This is a detail of a painting by Guercino, titled the Vocation of St. Aloysius. St. Aloysius is shown renouncing the crown for the Cross.
This is a detail of a painting by Guercino, titled the Vocation of St. Aloysius. St. Aloysius is shown renouncing the crown for the Cross. | Source
A beautiful stained glass from Lille Cathedral, depicting St. Aloysius' entrance into the Jesuit Order.
A beautiful stained glass from Lille Cathedral, depicting St. Aloysius' entrance into the Jesuit Order. | Source
An allegorical painting by Theodore Boeyermans, depicting St. Aloysius pronouncing his vows. St Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier are in the firmament while the world, flesh(cupid), and the Devil try to prevent him. Note the crown on the ground.
An allegorical painting by Theodore Boeyermans, depicting St. Aloysius pronouncing his vows. St Ignatius and St. Francis Xavier are in the firmament while the world, flesh(cupid), and the Devil try to prevent him. Note the crown on the ground. | Source

In the main, he led a very conscientious and devout life as a novice, attending classes, and fulfilling the various duties imposed on him, such as working in the refectory. One day, the novice-master requested that the Brother in charge of the refectory test Aloysius frequently, by blaming and reproving him. The Brother could not succeed in upsetting him, or cause him to utter an excuse.

Aloysius also volunteered to work at the local hospital. On closer inspection, this was heroic of him since he was very sensitive to disgusting sores and odors. He strove to conquer his inborn squeamishness, and attend to the most repulsive cases. A fellow novice, Decio Striverio, remembers approaching a particularly loathsome patient, full of bleeding sores. Aloysius turned completely pale as they approached, but as if summoning some hidden strength, his color returned and he approached the victim as if he were Christ Himself. "Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did it for Me.” (Mt. 25:40)

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Here, St. Aloysius is shown caring  for victims of the plague .
Here, St. Aloysius is shown caring  for victims of the plague .
Here, St. Aloysius is shown caring for victims of the plague . | Source
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5. Assistance to Plague Victims

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 hospitals. Aloysius’ duty was to collect alms, which he performed willingly. Nevertheless, he desired to assist in the hospitals. His superiors gave him permission.

Aloysius worked first at the overcrowded hospital of St. Sixtus. He traversed the streets of Rome and carried the ill on his back to the hospital; when there, he undressed and washed the victims, gave them fresh clothing, placed them in a bed and fed them. However, the Jesuit superiors took alarm, as some of the novices started dying. They assigned Aloysius to the hospital of Santa Maria di Consolazione, reserved for non-contagious patients.

While assisting at this hospital, he lifted an unknowingly infected man out of his bed, tended his needs, and returned him to his bed. Unfortunately, this act of charity cost Aloysius his life. He received the diagnosis of infection on March 3, 1591, and died on June 21, 1591. He was 23 years old. In a letter addressed to his mother shortly before his death, he wrote, “Our parting will not be for long; we shall see each other again in heaven; we shall be united with our Savior; there we shall praise him with heart and soul, sing of his mercies forever, and enjoy eternal happiness.”

This lithograph shows the act of charity that cut short Aloysius' earthly life.
This lithograph shows the act of charity that cut short Aloysius' earthly life. | Source

No Wimp but a Beautiful Man

Aloysius’ patronage extends foremost over the youth. Thus, artists have made the effort to emphasize his angelic purity, as a role model for chastity. While undoubtedly commendable, the realization of this virtue in pictorial form often becomes a caricature. There is a fine line between heroic purity and honey-dripping effeminacy, at least in artistic terms. Interestingly, St. Aloysius is also the patron of AIDS patients and caregivers, due to his compassionate care and ultimate infection of an incurable disease. In the final analysis, the sugarcoated holy card depiction of St. Aloysius is misleading, as he possessed ferocious will power. Moreover, one can easily absolve his youthful quirkiness before entering the Jesuits, in light of his large-hearted compassion revealed in the end.

References

The Life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, Patron of Christian Youth, by Maurice Meschler, S.J.,

Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, by Virgil Cepari, S. J.

This article has more historical details about St. Aloysius and the House of Gonzaga.

© 2018 Bede

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    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 11 days ago from Minnesota

      Thanks again for the appreciation Alex…it keeps me going.

      Thanks for the comment Mamerto. You’re definitely right, he is a very good inspiration for young people in our times. I hope to put together another Hub sometime with him as an example of a particular virtue... you can probably guess.

    • Mamerto profile image

      JR Mamerto 11 days ago from Cabuyao

      He should be an inspiration to every young people!

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 12 days ago from Maryland, United States of America

      Of course. I loved reading this. :)

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 12 days ago from Minnesota

      Thanks for the comment Alexander.

    • Guckenberger profile image

      Alexander James Guckenberger 12 days ago from Maryland, United States of America

      Very interesting and informative.

    • Bede le Venerable profile image
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      Bede 12 days ago from Minnesota

      Thanks for the comment, Linda. I’m glad to have dispelled St. Aloysius’ reputation for being a wimp. He received inspiration when reading about the saints as a lad, then became a saint himself. So, I guess it’s our job to become saints and pass on the flame!

    • AliciaC profile image

      Linda Crampton 12 days ago from British Columbia, Canada

      I admire the fortitude and perseverance of the saints that you describe. St. Aloysius deserves respect. I'm glad you've dispelled the impression that he was a wimp!

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