By CAROLE BRESLIN
Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ, having read the works of St. Alphonsus Liguori, took him as a mentor. It is not surprising, then, that Fr. Hardon taught his students, “If you are not encountering the cross, you are not doing God’s work.” Such were the lives of saints such as St. Teresa of Avila, St. John of the Cross, and especially of St. Alphonsus Liguori.
To begin with, Alphonsus was baptized with ten names — quite a burden to bear. In 1696, Joseph de’ Liguori, a captain of the royal galleys, and his wife, Anna Cavalieri, welcomed their firstborn, a son, and named him Alphonsus Mary Anthony John Francis Cosmas Damian Michael Caspar de’ Liguori. Burdened with such a name, Alphonsus began to call himself simply Alfonso Maria. Most precocious, he possessed a brilliant mind and his father sought to provide him with a formal education. He advanced so quickly in his studies that at the age of just 13 he started studying jurisprudence.
Remarkably, at the age of 16, four years before the customary age, he went to the University of Naples to sit for the examination for a doctoral degree, not just in civil law but also in canon law — the law of the Church. He passed both exams with honors.
During his rather short career as a barrister, some claim he never lost a case. Despite his pious upbringing, he soon immersed himself in worldly pursuits, though not of a nature that was seriously sinful. He greatly appreciated music, the theater, and other stage performances.
In 1717, his father arranged a marriage for Alphonsus. Providentially, the marriage was never finalized. In the meantime, Alphonsus continued to enjoy the life of society. In 1722 he attended a lenten retreat with the Lazarists. That fall, he received the Sacrament of Confirmation, which greatly restored his original piety, leading him to vow that he would not marry nor would he do anything except to continue to practice law until God made it clear he was to do something else.
Just a few months later, a court case drove him out of court never to practice again. The case between a Neapolitan nobleman and the grand duke of Tuscany over a large estate involved (in present U.S. dollars) nearly $300,000,000. Alphonsus gave a most eloquent speech on behalf of his client. Those in the court were impressed with his knowledge and his oratorical skills.
Feeling very self-satisfied, he sat and then let the opposing lawyer give his presentation. The opponent walked over to Alphonsus, complimented him on his delivery, and then chastised him for not looking at the facts. He handed Alphonsus a document showing that he had ignored the point of location. Alphonsus lost the case because he had not determined if it should be tried under Lombard law or under Angevin jurisdiction.
Alphonsus sat stunned that he had missed that most important point in the documents. He admitted his mistake, left the court, and refused to ever practice law again. Despite the pleading of his father, he refused to return to law. He also refused to entertain any thoughts about marriage. St. Alphonsus heard our Lord calling him, “Leave the world, and give yourself to me.”
Again his father insisted that his son return to the practice of law while Alphonsus insisted that he would become a priest. They finally reached an agreement whereby Alphonsus would become a priest. However, instead of joining the household of the Oratorians, he would become a priest while residing at home.
In 1726 at the age of 30 he began his studies in theology for the priesthood. He preached and gave missions around Naples for the next two years as he completed his studies. The style of preaching during this time of the Renaissance demonstrated great pomp while delivering fire and brimstone in the confessional. With his brilliant mind, St. Alphonsus was certainly qualified to engage in such practices.
He rejected such a style, however; instead, he was simple and loving. As he told his missioners, “If skill be lacking, it is unconnected and tasteless; if it be bombastic, the simple cannot understand it. I have never preached a sermon which the poorest old woman in the congregation could not understand.”
Alphonsus continued his charitable ways in the confessional as well. His yearning to heal rather than punish became well known. Word spread that he had never refused absolution to a penitent. This caused great suspicion among his peers who gave out severe penances to punish the sinners.
Within another year the saint organized the Lazzaroni — a religious order — of Naples into groups in order to teach the doctrines of the Church. When he urged an imprudent penitent to eat food because God made us to require food to live, people twisted his words to destroy his work. Some of his followers were arrested for the heresy of Quietism and for being a secret society.
Both the Church and the state brought Alphonsus before them to answer for the accusations. Although Alphonsus was exonerated, the bishop advised him that before undertaking any other such endeavors, he needed to proceed with more prudence. Thus Alphonsus continued his work, which soon had several thousand laymen who met daily for prayer and catechesis. They became known as the Association of the Chapels.
In 1729, he began work for the missionaries to China. He left home to act as chaplain at a college that trained missionaries. Here he met Thomas Falcoia.
Msgr. Falcoia founded an order of nuns with Sr. Mary Celeste. Both had received a vision and inspiration to begin an order of nuns. When a convent was established in the See of Castellammare, Alphonsus gave a retreat to the nuns. His background in law motivated him to investigate the visions with exacting detail. After much consideration, he discerned that they were authentic. With the consent of the bishop, the nuns established the Redemptorines on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 1731.
His next project involved his good friend the monsignor in establishing a congregation of missionaries to serve the peasants in the country region. Again he met with obstacles and opposition, one of which was the painful farewell to his father in Naples. In 1732, he said his goodbyes and went to Scala where on November 9, 1732 he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
With only seven postulants, Msgr. Falcoia, and Alphonsus, it would seem peace would reign. However, conflicts occurred without delay. In the end, both the order of women and the order of men split and parted ways. Sr. Mary Celeste left with some women to found a convent in Foggia with St. Alphonsus being left alone with only one faithful brother.
Slowly, the congregation grew. New postulants came, necessitating a larger house for the men. In 1733, St. Alphonsus and his men gave missions in Naples. By the fall of 1733, another house was founded at Villa degli Schiavi in which Alphonsus gave most of his missions.
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(Carole Breslin home-schooled her four daughters and served as treasurer of the Michigan Catholic Home Educators for eight years. For over ten years, she was national coordinator for the Marian Catechists, founded by Fr. John A. Hardon, SJ.)