The Real Saint Aloysius Gonzaga
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 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, to try to discover the real St. Aloysius.
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 (Latin for Louis), 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. His father, Ferrante de Gonzaga, Marquis of Castiglione, introduced him to military life at age four, in the hope that Aloysius might learn the "art of arms." For a couple months, Aloysius remained with a platoon of soldiers, shot a cannon and picked up the rough language of the camp, something for which he repented later in life.
As early as age seven, however, Aloysius started having other plans for his life. 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. While 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.
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, yet in view of his wholehearted desire for holiness, it is understandable. 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.
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.
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)
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.”
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 results in 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.
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