August 2, 2008
Saturday
vol. 19, no. 215

Saint Alphonsus Liguori


"Keeper of the Moral Compass"

    This holy Doctor of the Church was born near Naples and received a law doctorate in his teens. He had the world as his oyster and chose to cast his net into the sea in being a fisher of men. He founded an order dedicated to redeeming souls and he wrote volumes during a time when the enlightenment was already threatening the foundations of the Church. He vowed never to waste a moment and never did. He was the outstanding moral theologian who held the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass as the greatest gift any Catholic could partake in. He foretold the very crisis the Church is suffering today. He was the "Keeper of the Moral Compass" Saint Alphonsus Liguori.

    St. Alphonsus was born of noble parents in 1696 near Naples, Italy during the Pontificate of Pope Innocent XII, himself a native of Naples. Young Alphonsus' spiritual training was placed in the capable hands of the Fathers of the Oratory where he was noted as an outstanding and most devout Brother of the Little Oratory.

    Growing in wisdom, he acquired a Doctorate in Law at the unbelievable young age of 16. Consumed with passion for his work, he immersed himself in studying. But the more he strove for worldly success, the more he felt an emptiness. After a particular devastating defeat in a court trial between the Duke of Orsini and the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1723, he decided law was not in his best interest. During this dark night of the soul for Alphonsus, he also rejected any ideas of marriage and all other worldly trappings. He retired to the seminary, deciding to labor only for God. In this wisdom he found peace and was able to break down that black wall that had so troubled him.

    He was ordained a priest in 1726 by Innocents' successor Pope Benedict XIII whose spirituality greatly impressed Alphonsus. If this man of such lofty office could have time for him, then he could have time for anyone. While he had wanted to be an Oratorian priest, it was the influence of the Sovereign Pontiff who most influenced his thinking. Young Alphonsus decided to dedicate his life as the holiest priest he could be, devoted to the most neglected souls.

    Three years after his ordination, Benedict recommended Alphonsus as chaplain at the seminary training missionaries. It was there he met another priest Father Thomas Falcoia who would later become a bishop. Falcoia had founded a convent of nuns and asked Fr. Alphonsus to preach a retreat to the sisters. While doing so, one of the nuns confided that she had been receiving visions from Heaven. When Alphonsus could no find nothing wrong, he deduced that they were authentic. By the time his investigation was complete, Pope Benedict had passed to his Heavenly reward on March 2, 1730. The new Pope would not be elected for five months.

    Many believe it was during this frustrating time of waiting for a new Pope that Alphonsus vowed he would never lose time and once again plunged himself fully into his work both in his prayer life and working in God's vineyard. With Fr. Falcoia's blessing, Alphonsus changed the rule and the habit of the nun in following the nun's locutions from Our Lord, and the order eventually became the Redemptorines. Two years later in 1732, at Fr. Falcoia's urging, he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer which came to be known as the Redemptorists and received Papal approval 17 years later by Pope Benedict XIV who had been elected on August 22, 1740. Benedict had succeeded Benedict XIII's successor Pope Clement XII whose pontificate lasted from July 16, 1730 until February 6, 1740. It was the latter who had excommunicated all those associated with the Masonic movement. This was something St. Alphonsus vigorously supported fighting against for he could see the agenda of this great enemy of the Church.

    He warned of the ultimate goal of the enemy: "The devil has always attempted, by means of the heretics, to deprive the world of the Mass, making them precursors of the antichrist, who, before anything else, will try to abolish and will actually abolish the Holy Sacrament of the altar, as a punishment for the sins of men, according to the prediction of Daniel 'And strength was given him against the continual sacrificer'." Alphonsus, through a thorough knowledge of the Faith, the cavalier attitude already permeating the Church and through messages he himself received from Heaven knew that day would come when, just as Our Lord foretold in Matthew 24: 15, the "abomination of desolation" would occur. Could he foresee April 3, 1969. Many believe he could and tried to warn the church two centuries before.

    Naturally Alphonsus' prophecies and his very holy work was a threat to satan himself and thus the evil one targeted this holy man. The devil attacked by even then infiltrating the Church, and even the very Order he founded for there were some who sought to relax the rules, to rally others against St. Alphonsus as being too strict. They were the perfect foils for lucifer. Trusting as he was, St. Alphonsus did not realize that someone had undermined him, changing the words of the rule that he presented to the Pope. What is even worse, Alphonsus had signed the final draft without recognizing the sabotage. When it was discovered, a division within the Congregation ensued. Because of the confusion, Pope Benedict XIV had no choice but to act according to the law and order the first group of members recruited by St. Alphonsus to withdraw from the saint's authority. Through it all Alphonsus bore up with tremendous patience and Christian love. Yet, satan incessant and furious as ever continued to hound him through dissension and opposition from jealous ecclesiatics whom had already sold out.

    Though he didn't write his first book until he was 49, Alphonsus would make up for lost time throughout the last four decades of his life for he would live to the ripe old age of 91. During this time he published sixty volumes until his director forbade him to keep writing. So wracked with pain, he would hold a piece of marble to his temple hoping to hold in the terrible pounding headache, while he wrote with the other hand. True to his vow, he never wasted a moment, stealing away to write more when others sought recreation or rest.

    The greatest love of his life was the Lord in the Blessed Sacrament through the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. He wrote volumes on the Blessed Sacrament and the Mass for he truly believed as should every Catholic still that, as he wrote on The Holy Mass, "Man cannot perform a more holy, a more grand, a more sublime action than to celebrate a Mass, in regard to which the Council of Trent says: 'We must needs confess that no other work can be performed...so holy and divine as this tremendous Mystery itself. God Himself cannot cause an action to be performed that is holier and grander than the celebration of the Mass."

    He couldn't emphasize the singular importance of the Mass enough, asserting that The Mass is the most beautiful and the best thing in the Church. At the Mass, Jesus Christ giveth Himself to us by means of the Most Holy Sacrament of the altar, which is the end and the purpose of all the other Sacaraments. Hundreds of private prayers have not as much efficacy as a single petition offered in the Divine Office. One single Mass gives more honor to God than all the penances of the Saints, the labors of the Apostles, the sufferings of the martyrs, and even the burning love of the Blessed Mother of God."

    Wouldn't it be wonderful today if any prelate would speak so eloquently, so simply and so definitively about the divine gift. Sadly we are saddled with the very thing St. Alphonsus warned against - the loss of the eternal sacrifice through the vehicle of the Novus Ordo - an abomination and a sacrilege. Tomes have been written trying to justify this synthetic rite concocted by the very men St. Alphonsus warned of, and none can hold up compared to just a few simple but eloquent, beautiful sentences of this magnificent master moral theologian of the 18th century.

    In 1762, against his wishes because he would have to relinquish control as Superior General of his congregation, he was consecrated Bishop of Benevento. There he served Holy Mother Church until, at the age of 79 he retired to a village near Naples where he suffered mental, physical and spiritual pangs because of the dissensions within his beloved congregation he had founded. Saddened, but full of trust in God, he handed it all over to Our Lord and died peacefully in 1787. For the last seven years of his life his health would not permit him to continue saying Holy Mass, but not one day went by that he did not receive Our Lord in Holy Communion.

    He would become known as the patron of moral theologians and confessors, honors posthumously bestowed on him by the Church in 1839 upon his canonization by Pope Gregory XVI and in 1871 Pope Pius IX proclaimed Alphonsus a Doctor of the Church. His feast day is August 2. In emulating this great saint, we could do no better than to heed his simple reflection: Let us do with all our heart the duty of each day, leaving the result to God, as well as the care of the future.


    Note: [editor's bold, brackets and italicized for emphasis] Some of the sources taken from: Dictionary of Saints, John J. Delaney (Doubleday); Little Pictorial Lives of the Saints, a compilation based on Butlerís Lives of the Saints and other sources by John Gilmary Shea (Benziger Brothers: New York, 1894; Saints of the Roman Calendar, Enzo Lodi).

For the wonderful sermons of St. Alphonsus, see Sermons on the Spiritual Life


      Doctors of the Church Series