Saint Alphonsus Ligouri was a renaissance man, whose kind was a rarity back then, and even more so now in our age of middle-aged undergrads receiving their ‘degrees’ in odd, esoteric subjects that would have puzzled anyone before, say, 1960. Alphonsus received a double doctorate in civil and canon law at the tender age of 16, and the gowns so drowned his small body that people laughed. He went on to a long and fruitful life, , as a priest, bishop, poet, musician, artist, lawyer, moral theologian, author of innumerable treatises, before going to his eternal reward after a final about of suffering – including being cast out of the very Order he founded – on the first day of August, 1787.
Born of noble lineage, Alphonsus 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. 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, offering 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 as a preacher and confessor.
On November 9th, 1732, he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer – the Redemptorists – with the task primarily of giving 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, offering instead His infinite mercy, if we but give our sins to, and give up our sins for, Him. The penitents should be treated as souls to be saved than as criminals to be punished he told his priests.
Saint Alphonsus is author of numerous works of spirituality and devotional works, on Our Lady and the Saviour – his Stations of the Cross are used in many parishes in Lent – his magnum opus being his Moral Theology, published in 1748, in ten or five volumes (depending on edition) and still in print, an English version just having been issued 2017.
In 1762, Alphonsus, against his own objections, was appointed bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti, promoting the Faith throughout his diocese, especially devotion to the Eucharist and to the Blessed Virgin Mary – he issued a decree suspending priests who rushed through Mass in less than 15 minutes (!).
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 landmark and prophetic encyclical on the principles of the moral life, Veritatis Splendor, the splendour – the beauty – of truth – which I cannot recommend highly enough – published in 1993 a few days after the memorial of our saint, on the feast of the Transfiguration.
Alphonsus Ligouri was canonized by Gregory XVI on May 26th, 1839 (fittingly, the feast of Saint Philip Neri, to whose Oratory the saint always remained devoted), and declared a Doctors of the Church by Blessed Pius IX on July 7th 1871. He was also declared the patron saint of moral theologians by Venerable Pius XII on April 26th, 1956.
A much-needed saint, whose moral clarity allows us to see through the fog of our current confusion. A true renaissance saint, in the sense of rediscovering who we are, and who we are meant to be.
Saint Alphonsus Ligouri, ora pro nobis!