Saint Alphonsus Ligouri died in 1787, two years before the unleashing of the demonic fury of the French Revolution, after a long and fruitful life as a priest, bishop, poet, musician, artist, lawyer, moral theologian, author of innumerable treatises, and, finally, one of the elite 36 Doctors of the Church. As well, he is the patron saint of moral theologians.
Born of noble lineage, he was at first destined for a military career, learning to ride and fence, but poor eyesight and asthma prompted him to switch to the more sedate career of law, degrees in which he obtained doctorates, both civil and canonical. However, at the age of 27, he admitted to a confidante, with words that bear reflection on all those pursuing a profession which all-too-often cleans out the bank accounts of those desperate in the pursuit of what should be simple and easily obtainable earthly justice:
My friend, our profession is too full of difficulties and dangers; we lead an unhappy life and run risk of dying an unhappy death.
Indeed. Thankfully for history, Alphonsus chose the priesthood, confirmed by an interior voice which said, Leave the world, and give yourself to me.
He at first joined the Oratory of Saint Philip Neri, but, at his father’s objection, began studying for the priesthood at home, and was ordained on December 21, 1726. At once, he began working with the poor and homeless youth, preaching simple and direct homilies that everyone could understand – the custom at the time was to offer God’s word in high-flowing rhetoric – and the young Father Alphonsus became immensely popular.
On November 9th, 1732, he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer – the Redemptorists – with the object of preaching popular missions, especially to the underprivileged, fighting the heresy of Jansenism, with its strict moral code and depressing, harsh view of a punishing, vengeful God. The penitents should be treated as souls to be saved than as criminals to be punished he told his priests.
In the midst of all his responsibilities, Alphonsus, verifying that paradox that people with what seems no time make the best use of their time – he found that time to write hymns and poems for the people to the glory of God, including perhaps his most famous Tu scendi dalle stele, a very popular – and now traditional – Italian Christmas carol.
Here is Andrea Bocelli accompanying himself:
And, if you’d like a more formal version, with Luciano Pavarotti, full orchestra and children’s choir:
Saint Alphonsus was on the right track, that moral truth is best presented not just with simplicity, but with beauty, for the moral life is and should be immensely attractive, which is why Pope Saint John Paul II titled his encyclical on the principles of the moral life, Veritatis Splendor, the splendour – the beauty – of truth, published in 1993 a few days after the memorial of our saint, on the feast of the Transfiguration,.
This memorial of the patron saint of moral theologians is a fitting one on which to re-visit, reflect upon, and pray for whatever is going on at John Paul II Institute in Rome. It seems the simmering war – between orthodoxy and heterodoxy, and, between the truth and the anti-truth – is now flaring out into the open, almost in apocalyptic dimensions. The Institute is a fitting arena, perhaps. For the saintly pontiff warned that the battle for good and evil, Christ and anti-Christ, for the very soul of Man, would be waged at the heart of the marriage and family, the sanctuary of human life.
Father Jose Granados, the Institute’s vice-president – fresh from witnessing the wholesale firings of colleagues with whom he has worked for years, with almost no warning, and this after apparently being promised that there would be no layoffs – has tried and continues to try to argue in good faith.
But how does one dialogue and work ‘in good faith’ with people, even those in the hierarchy, who seem no longer to believe in such a thing as ‘intrinsic evil’, the foundational truth that some actions – not just sexual sins, but lying and dishonourable conduct – are to be condemned, ‘semper et pro semper’, in John Paul II’s words, always and for always, at all times, in all circumstances, regardless of exigencies and noble intentions, with which the road to hell is rather richly paved.
Now the rumour is that they – the powers that have taken over the venerable and fruitful Institute, on which I wrote recently – after firing a plethora of fine, orthodox, intelligent professors, plan to hire Father Maurizio Chiodi, who has proclaimed publicly for all to hear that in some cases contraception and sodomy are permissible, based on the ‘reasoning’ of Amoris Laetitia‘s ambiguous Chapter 8, used for such insidious ends.
One can only wonder what Saint Alphonsus and Saint John Paul II are thinking – more to the point, what Christ, Peter and Saint Paul think – today’s parable of the good and bad fish bears much pondering. And something smells real fishy in Rome at present.
Of course, the truth will win out in the end. The Institute will lose students, wither, die, for people want the truth, that pearl of great price, and will seek it out wherever it may be found. The don’t want emotive mush, however well-packaged in esoteric and scholarly language.
There is still the John Paul II Institute in Washington, far from the current machinations at the Vatican; their tentacles may eventually reach there, perhaps; if so, to the hedges and catacombs we go, figurative or otherwise.
Stay on the side of all the saints, dear reader, all the Doctors, popes, Magisteria, all the Tradition that has gone before us, of light, truth, beauty and good. It is all there, for those eyes to see and ears to hear, and we must go, over hill and vale, thicket and narrow, winding path, where it – the whole fullness of Christ’s salvific teaching – may be found.
After all, what is life, if not an adventure?