Saturday, June 21, 2014

June 21, 2014 Saturday: St. Aloysius Gonzaga

In 1579, after two years in Florence, the marquis sent his two sons to Mantua, where they were boarded with relatives. But unfortunately for Ferrante’s (St. Aloysius' father) plans, the house of one host boasted a fine private chapel, where Luigi (St. Aloysius Gonzaga) spent much time reading the lives of the saints and meditating on the psalms. It was here that the thought came to the marquis’ son that he might like to become a priest. Upon returning to Castiglione, Luigi continued his readings and meditations, and when Charles Cardinal Borromeo visited the family, the twelve-year-old Luigi’s seriousness and learning impressed him greatly. Borromeo discovered that Luigi had not yet made his first communion and so prepared him for it. (In this way a future saint received his first communion from another.)

In 1581, still intending to pass on to Luigi his title and property, Ferrante decided that the family would travel with Maria of Austria, of the Spanish royal house, who was passing through Italy on her return to Spain. Maria was the widow of the emperor Maximilian II, and Ferrante saw an excellent opportunity for his son’s courtly education. Luigi became a page attending the Spanish heir apparent, the duke of Asturias, and was also made a knight of the Order of St. James.

Yet these honors only strengthened Luigi’s resolve not to lead such a life. While in Madrid, he found a Jesuit confessor and eventually decided to become a Jesuit himself. His confessor, however, told him that before entering the novitiate, Luigi needed first to obtain his father’s permission.

When Luigi approached his father, Ferrante flew into a rage and threatened to have Luigi flogged. There followed a battle of wills between the fierce and intransigent marquis of Castiglione and his equally determined sixteen-year-old son. Hoping to change his son’s mind, the marquis brought him back to the castle at Castiglione and promptly sent Luigi and his brother on an eighteen-month tour around the courts of Italy. But when Luigi returned, he had not changed his mind.

Worn out by his son’s persistence, Ferrante finally gave his permission. That November, Luigi, at age seventeen, renounced his inheritance, which passed to his brother Ridolfo, a typical Gonzaga with all the bad habits thereof. His old life over, Luigi left for Rome.

On his way to the novitiate, Aloysius (as he is most often called today) carried a remarkable letter from his father to the Jesuit superior general, which read, in part, “I merely say that I am giving into your Reverence’s hands the most precious thing I possess in all the world.”

At the beginning of 1591, a plague broke out in Rome. After begging alms for the victims, Aloysius began working with the sick, carrying the dying from the streets into a hospital founded by the Jesuits. There he washed and fed the plague victims, preparing them as best he could to receive the sacraments. But though he threw himself into his tasks, he privately confessed to his spiritual director, Fr. Robert Bellarmine, that his constitution was revolted by the sights and smells of the work; he had to work hard to overcome his physical repulsion.

At the time, many of the younger Jesuits had become infected with the disease, and so Aloysius’s superiors forbade him from returning to the hospital. But Aloysius—long accustomed to refusals from his father—persisted and requested permission to return, which was granted. Eventually he was allowed to care for the sick, but only at another hospital, called Our Lady of Consolation, where those with contagious diseases were not admitted. While there, Aloysius lifted a man out of his sickbed, tended to him, and brought him back to his bed. But the man was infected with the plague: Aloysius grew ill and was bedridden by March 3, 1591.

Aloysius rallied for a time, but as fever and a cough set in, he declined for many weeks. He had an intimation in prayer that he might die on the Feast of Corpus Christi, and when that day arrived he appeared to his friends better than on the previous day. Two priests came in the evening to bring him communion. As Fr. Tylenda tells the story, “When the two Jesuits came to his side, they noticed a change in his face and realized that their young Aloysius was dying. His eyes were fixed on the crucifix he held in his hands, and as he tried to pronounce the name of Jesus he died.” Like Joan of Arc and the Ugandan martyrs, Aloysius Gonzaga died with the name of Jesus on his lips.

He was twenty-three years old.

-Fr. James Martin SJ, My Life with the Saints