By CAROLE BRESLIN
After establishing the house at Villa degli Schiavi, Alphonsus stayed there, conducting many of his missions from this site. For the previous five years he had become widely known for his missions and sermons, bringing many Catholics back to the Catholic faith. While Alphonsus is well known as a moral theologian and for his writings, he spent 26 years giving missions in the kingdom of Naples.
From 1726 until 1752, he preached in Naples. With patience people waited to receive absolution, which would allow them to receive Holy Communion. He had an uncommon ability to resolve disputes, bring people back to the Church, and end family feuds — not an easy thing to do in 18th-century Italy.
While his reputation for holiness increased, difficulties increased also. Just as he met with opposition in the first days of the Redemptorines, the newly founded Redemptorists met with troubles, too.
In 1734 Spain exercised her authority over the kingdom of Naples. The Marquis Bernard Tanucci, the prime minister of King Charles III of Spain, was a lifelong opponent of the congregation. Thus when an evil priest spread false rumors about the Redemptorists three years later, Tanucci mounted an armed attack on the Villa degli Schiavi, forcing it to close.
Although Alphonsus removed his men to Scala, that house also had to be closed. It seemed the congregation was doomed, but Giuseppe Cardinal Spinelli, who liked both the method and the results of the missions that St. Alphonsus preached, put them to work in his see.
For two more years Alphonsus gave missions. When his friend and collaborator Msgr. Thomas Falcoia died, however, Alphonsus had to return to the congregation of the Redemptorists. A general chapter was held at which he was elected to be their superior. He took his vows as well as having the others take their vows. He wrote the rules and established a constitution. Finally, they received approval as a religious institute.
Soon after several more houses were founded. Once again Marquis Tanucci sought to disrupt the growth of the young order. As anti-clericalism increased, the Redemptorists were threatened by the prime minister with each new advance. Nevertheless, despite Tanucci’s efforts, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer thrived.
In 1748, Alphonsus published his first work on moral theology. Eventually, nine editions were published. He dedicated his first edition to a Jesuit, Fr. Busembaum. The second edition was dedicated and approved by Pope Benedict XIV. (In all nine editions were published with the last one coming out in 1785.)
By 1750, St. Alphonsus had worked as lawyer, served as a missionary, founded an order to which he was later elected superior, and written on moral theology. His 26 years of missionary work brought countless souls to Christ.
His heart yearned to address yet another serious problem in 18th-century Europe — the spread of Jansenism, a heresy that denied the freedom of the will and the possibility of resisting grace. The Jansenists also found fault with frequent Communion and devotion to Our Blessed Mother. To answer these claims, St. Alphonsus wrote his wonderful work The Glories of Mary, which is very popular to this day.
For nine years Alphonsus worked without rest, resisting the efforts of Tanucci, overcoming the split in the congregation, giving missions, establishing new houses, and working diligently to win the king’s approval of the order. He also wrote hymns and composed music, having been a brilliant musician from his youth. Furthermore, he did a considerable amount of painting.
Some believe that his sensitive and passionate nature resulted in the failing of his health. Although he was always patient, gentle, and forbearing, it did not mean that the obstacles he constantly had to overcome to protect the work of the Redemptorists did not affect him deeply.
By 1752 his health was failing, so he decreased the number of missions he was giving. He also began to write more books, including The Way of Salvation, The True Spouse of Christ, and Sermons for All the Sundays in the Year.
In 1762, at the age of 66, over the objections of St. Alphonsus, Pope Clement XIII appointed him bishop of Sant’ Agata dei Goti. This isolated see was in a great period of decline both spiritually and physically. The people had fallen away from the practice of their faith. Perhaps they were not at fault since the priests in their see — having had no bishop for many years — did little, if any, pastoral work, with some of them being decadent and immoral.
Naturally, a man whose only intention on earth was to do the will of God would work to improve their spiritual state. Naturally, after three decades or so of idleness, the people would resist. Alphonsus brought in priests from outside the see, preached missions, and reformed the clergy and the seminary.
Again the cross came quickly. Famine and the plague besieged the poor see. Alphonsus did all that he possibly could to feed the hungry and tend the sick. He sold all his personal belongings, including his uncle’s episcopal ring. He even pledged the endowment for the see and went into debt to pay for provisions.
He made many sacrifices for the spiritual welfare of the people as well. He corrected with compassion the first time, but if the penitent did not change his ways, he treated him much more severely. Of course, this also made him many enemies.
An attack of rheumatism in June 1767 left him severely debilitated. His neck was left bent over so far that his chin rubbed his chest raw. He could only celebrate Mass from a wheelchair.
Furthermore, his opponents were attacking his moral theology and accused him of being a puppet of the Jesuits, who were then undergoing suppression. The case against him for the latter accusation was decided in his favor.
After Pope Clement XIII had died, Alphonsus petitioned Pope Pius VI for retirement. It was granted. Free of his responsibilities as bishop, he turned his attention to getting royal sanction for his rule. Now that Alphonsus was virtually blind, deaf, and crippled, the royal almoner sought to betray him in this quest by rewording the rule to the satisfaction of the king, but much to the dissatisfaction of the Pope.
When the copy was presented to Alphonsus for his approval, the copy was difficult to read; but having gone through the first few lines carefully, he assumed the rest was accurate and gave his approval by signing the document. It was not until later that he learned he had been duped. Sadly the Holy See condemned Alphonsus for the new rule and the Redemptorists sided with the Holy See, abandoning the betrayed Alphonsus.
Since he had been removed from the order, he suffered great humiliation without defending himself. Just as he accepted responsibility for losing a court case so many years ago see part 1 of this column), he accepted responsibility for not reading the entire copy of the rule before signing it. He accepted this cross as God’s will.
One more cross — one more trial — was yet to afflict the saint. As he ended the closing of his earthly life, he experienced what St. John of the Cross called, the “dark night of the soul.” Temptations, scruples, and other fears attacked the man. These alternated with brief periods of joy and communion with God. He finally died, at peace on August 1, 1787.
His feast day is celebrated on August 1.