21 Jun Saint Aloysius Gonzaga
Today is the feast day of Saint Gonzaga. Ora pro nobis.
by Fr. Francis Xavier Weninger, 1877
The angelical youth, Aloysius, was the son of a Margrave, and was born at Castiglione, in Italy, in the year 1568. As his mother, Martha, was in great danger of losing her life in childbirth, he was baptized before he was entirely born and thus fitted for heaven before earth had possessed him. After his mother, however, had made a vow to devote herself with her child at Loretto to the Blessed Virgin, she brought Aloysius happily into the world. No sooner had he begun to speak and walk, than his noble mother instilled into him those religious sentiments with which her whole heart was filled. He had hardly reached the age of five years, when he was frequently found kneeling in a corner and devoutly praying. It was at this tender age that he went to Casale, where, by the wish of his father, Ferdinand, he was present at a large mustering of soldiers. He there stealthily took some powder out of the pocket of a soldier, and fired off a cannon, which very nearly cost him his life, as he might easily have been crushed by the recoiling wheels. At that time, he learned also, from associating with the soldiers, certain profane expressions which he repeated without comprehending their meaning. When his tutor heard these words and forbade him ever to use them again, they never more passed his lips. These two faults were the greatest he ever committed, and in the innocence of his heart, he never ceased to weep over them. At seven years of age, he turned his heart entirely from the world and gave it to God. He called this year the period of his conversion, and said afterwards that he then began to love God above everything, as every human creature ought to do after having attained the use of reason.
When eight years old, his father sent him with his younger brother, accompanied by a tutor, to the Court of the Duke of Tuscany. The pure life he had led in his fatheres house and which he continued to lead at Florence, procured him the name of an innocent Angel. In this city he made his first confession with such deep compunction that he swooned away on entering the confessional. From Florence he went to Mantua and thence returned to Castiglione. The celebrated St. Charles Borromeo travelling through this latter place and becoming acquainted with St. Aloysius, admired the special gifts with which God had graced him and prepared him for his first holy Communion, after which he administered the same to him. How carefully the Saint prepared himself and with how many tears of fervent piety he received the divine food, words have no power to express. From that moment the Saint evinced an angelic devotion and reverence towards the most holy Sacrament.
He always prepared himself during three days for its reception, and after it, spent as many in humble thanksgiving. After a few years he was sent to the Spanish Court at Madrid, as page to the Prince James. One day, as the Prince was standing by an open window and the wind blew roughly in his face, he exclaimed: “Wind, I command thee to cease incommoding me thus!”Aloysius, who was near him, very wisely remarked: “Your royal highness may command men and they must obey; but God, to whom the greatest monarchs of the earth are subject, has kept the power over the elements to Himself.” This wise and Christian speech caused the youth to be highly loved and esteemed by the king. When Aloysius had attained his 15th year, he earnestly took counsel with God and his conscience as to his future vocation. During his sojourn at Florence he had already resolved to retire from the world, but was as yet undecided in what manner he would serve God. After long and fervent prayer, he conceived great inclination towards the Society of Jesus, not only because this order was new and in its first fervor, but also because of its offering such opportunities to work for the salvation of souls, and even to sacrifice life itself among the heathens in the service of God.
On the feast of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin, he received from heaven the assurance that this inclination came from God; for, after having devoutly received holy Communion, he thought he heard these emphatic words from the Divine Mother: “Join the society of my Son, and make known your resolution to your confessor.”Aloysius, full of joy, informed his confessor, then his mother, and lastly his father, of the will of heaven as to his vocation. His mother cheerfully consented, but his father refused him and, for three years, left nothing undone to change his son's determination. But the latter remained firm in his resolution to obey the voice of God. Remarkable is the answer he gave to those who endeavored, by description of temporal honors, pleasures and wealth, to persuade him not to enter the priesthood. “What does all this contribute to gain eternal life?” he would ask after such representations, in order to show that in choosing and entering on a course of life, we must, above all things, be mindful of the end and aim of our being, which is to serve God and gain heaven. Two circumstances at length induced his father to give his consent: one was the sight of his son scourging himself until the blood ran, whilst he implored the Almighty to change his father's heart; the other was the firmness with which the innocent youth, one day, addressed to him the following words: “God calls me, I must obey Him. You, my dear father, oppose the Most High Himself when you oppose my following my vocation.”
Hence, his father consented, although with tearful eyes; and Aloysius, returning thanks to God, resigned the marquisate to his brother, went to Rome and requested the Father General, Claudius Aquaviva, to receive him into the society of Jesus. He was immediately accepted, as there had already been sufficient proofs of his vocation, and thus he entered the novitiate in the 18th year of his age. How happy he was, and how zealous from the first day to the last, words fail to describe. The lessons of his office in the Roman Breviary testify that, even during his novitiate, he was looked upon as a model of virtue. He never transgressed a single rule, and there was no virtue of a perfect religious which he did not practise. Every one particularly admired the humility with which he performed the most menial work, his perfect obedience and poverty, his heroic self-abnegation, his seraphic love of God, and his tender devotion to the Blessed Virgin and the Saints. Wonderful examples of these virtues are to be found in his circumstantial biography. We will only add a few words upon his happy death.
When, in 1591, Rome was ravaged by a terrible pestilence, Aloysius requested permission to nurse the sick, and having obtained it, he was indefatigable in his kind solicitude for them. He begged bread and other necessaries for them, made their beds, administered their medicine and food, and carried many, who, seized by the epidemic, were lying in the street, into the hospital. In a word, he left nothing undone that Christian charity could require in such circumstances. At last, the disease laid its hold on him and confined him to his bed. On the eighth day, his sickness changed into a fever, from which he suffered for three months. All this time he spent in meditations on the passion of Christ, in devout discourses and aspirations, and in reading pious books. An impatient word never passed his lips. The most nauseous medicines which they gave him he swallowed slowly, so as to mortify his taste. They requested him to make a vow in order that the Almighty might grant the prolongation of his life; but he answered: “It is better to be dissolved.” When they informed him of his approaching end, which had already been revealed to him by God, he exulted with joy, and requested them to intone the Te Deum, and exclaimed, in the words of the Psalmist: “I have rejoiced in what has been told to me; we shall enter into the house of the Lord.”
To more than one who came to see him, he exclaimed: “We go, we go exulting.” When they asked him, “Whither? “he answered: “To heaven, to heaven!” During the last three days he almost constantly kept the crucifix pressed to his heart, and the rosary in his hand. Sometimes, gazing upon his Saviour, he shed tears of love and devotion. One day he desired to be laid on the other side, but when they reminded him of the hard cross of Christ, he looked at the Crucifix and remained quiet. Shortly before his end, he bared his head, saying: “Christ died not with his head covered.” At length, on the Octave of Corpus Christi, he gave his innocent soul, adorned with so many virtues, into the hands of his Creator, holding the crucifix, the rosary and a blessed candle in his hands. The last words he uttered were the holy names of Jesus and Mary. His happy death took place in the year 1591, in the 24th year of his age, and in the sixth year after his entering the Society of Jesus.
Benedict XIII., who, in 1726, canonized Aloysius, calls him a model of innocence and purity. The great Bellarmin, who was his confessor, testified that God had graced this holy youth with especial and almost unprecedented gifts. These were: first, that though he lived at so many courts, and having such frequent opportunities, among people devoted only to pleasure, yet he never stained the robe of his baptismal innocence, not only by a mortal sin, but even by the smallest venial sin: secondly, that he remained always free from all impure thoughts or desires: thirdly, that distractions during prayers were almost unknown to him, for he said himself, that all his distractions, for many months, would not equal the time it would take to say an Ave Maria. Truly, these were great and extraordinary graces of God!
Not less eminent were his virtues. Besides those above related, the following shone in his life like so many brilliant stars: his love to God and man, his angelical innocence and purity, and austerity towards himself, quite unusual for one of his years. No sooner had he commenced to know God, which was at the age of seven, than he immediately began to love Him from the bottom of his heart. His love constantly increased. At the mere mention of the Almighty, his whole face was overspread with fire, and his heart began to beat as if it would burst. He was frequently found in ecstasies during his prayer. He was constantly united with God, and as it was feared that his fervent devotion would weaken his health, his Superiors ordered him sometimes forcibly to detach his thoughts from God. But this cost him more pain than it costs us to turn ours heavenwards. Eager to obey, he sometimes cried, “O Lord, leave me!” but it was useless–he remained united to God and God remained in him.
A consequence of his love for the Almighty was his love towards men. This he evinced particularly in nursing those stricken down with the pestilence, as is above related. He often desired to preach the Gospel to the heathen, not only to gain souls for life eternal, but also to give his life for Christ and men. While only a boy, he already instructed his younger brothers and the servants in the doctrines of the Christian faith, and by his pious discourses and admonitions, persuaded many to lead a better life. Wherever he found an opportunity, he endeavored to assist his neighbor in temporal or spiritual matters.
But how shall I describe his innocence, his angelical purity? He hated and avoided even the least shadow of sin; shunned, as much as possible, all dangerous occasions, and carefully guarded himself in order to remain pure and innocent. At a game of forfeits, he was once requested to kiss at least the shadow of a young lady; but he was not to be persuaded, and never again took part in similar games. Just so he acted when he was desired to dance, and was never present at nightly entertainments or theatrical performances. Even while he was at court, he avoided as much as possible all such vain amusements, and, hiding himself in his room, he occupied the time in prayer and devout reading. These edifying employments constituted his greatest enjoyment from his tenderest youth. With what reverence and piety he worshipped the Most High, especially when at Church, is made known by the fact, that all those who saw him pray, attest that he looked more like an angel than a human being. His senses; particularly his eyes, he kept under such strict control, that he never turned them upon strangers. For nearly two years and six months he was page to the Crown-prince at the Spanish Court, and had to appear daily before the queen; and yet he knew her not by sight. He avoided all intercourse with the other sex, even of his relatives and friends. He was therefore called a human being without flesh, or an angel in the flesh. It is most certain that, in this manner, he kept his innocence unimpaired.
His constant mortification, and the austere penances which he practised contributed greatly to this. His whole life shows that it was his constant care to control himself and mortify his delicate and innocent body. He fasted three days of every week on water and bread, and at other times, he partook of so little that it might justly be said that his whole life was a continual fast. As at first he possessed no hair-shirt or chain to wear around his loins, he used instead of them his spurs. When his mother requested him to sleep no longer upon the bare floor as he was wont to do, but to use the soft bed prepared for him, he placed pieces of wood under the bed-clothes and so took a short rest. He scourged himself daily, not only once but several times. When one day they showed his mother the linen which he had used to wipe off the blood, and she begged him, with tears in her eyes, not to be so cruel to himself, he said: “O let me atone for my sins by such slight penances.”And what sins? He meant those two faults which he committed before he was seven years old, when he, as will be recollected, took some powder from a soldier, and repeated a few profane words without understanding their meaning. This was only the shadow of a sin and yet he repented of it daily through his whole life. During his last sickness, he recited every day the Seven Penitential Psalms, or had them read aloud to him. He was unwearied in the practice of penances after he had entered upon a religious life, and even requested in his last illness the permission to scourge himself, or because he was too weak to do it himself, to be scourged by another.
Whoever considers all this and much more that is related of this Saint, will readily understand the exclamation uttered by Saint Magdalen of Pazzi, at Florence, when in an ecstasy she saw the glory of the Saint in heaven: “Oh! what great glory Aloysius, the son of Ignatius, enjoys! I could never have believed it, had not my Jesus shown it to me. There seems hardly to be in heaven a greater glory than his. Hence I say, Aloysius is a great Saint. I wish that I could wander through the whole world and cry that Aloysius, the son of Ignatius, is a great Saint. He was a hidden martyr . . . . Oh! how overwhelmingly did he love God here on earth; therefore he now enjoys the full love of the Almighty in heaven!” The Almighty Himself, to this hour, gives most certain proofs of the holiness and glory of the Saint, by many and great miracles. In 1756, a book was printed at Augsburg, in which a hundred miracles were related which had taken place, during 30 years, in Italy and Germany–; all of which had been examined and approved by the ecclesiastical authorities. Many books could be filled with the miracles that have been wrought throughout Christendom by the intercession of this holy youth. Hence they act very wisely, who, in mental or physical suffering, fly for refuge to St. Aloysius. (2)
The oldest son of Marquis Ferrante of Castiglione, Aloysius Gonzaga was born on March 9 1568 at the family castle in Lombardy. He was destined for the military by his father, but early in his childhood decided on a religious life. He was sent to Florence to be educated in 1577, joined the court of the Duke of Mantua. He suffered a kidney attack that was to leave him with digestive trouble the rest of his life, and began to practice great austerities and to devote himself to religious practices and teaching catechism to the poor of Castiglione. While at the court of Prince Diego of the Asturias in Spain, he desired to enter the Jesuits, was refused permission by his father, and on their return to Italy in 1584 renewed his plea.
Aloysius, full of love for his father, and full of the Grace of God, said to him, “I am in your power, father, and you can do with me what you please. But know this, that God calls me to the Society of Jesus, and you're resisting His Will by opposing my vocation.” His father’s only reaction was to turn to the wall and burst into tears. After a few days of his sorrow he called for his son saying, “My son, what a cruel wound you have inflicted on my heart! I have always loved and still love you, because you deserve my love and I had set all my hopes on you. And now you tell me that God calls you elsewhere, I will not keep you back any longer; go where you will, and may God grant you happiness!”
Following receipt of his father’s permission to become a Jesuit at age 17, Aloysius renounced his considerable inheritance and left for Rome. He carried a letter from his father to the Jesuit superior general, which read, “I merely say that I am giving into your Reverence’s hands the most precious thing I possess in all the world.”
Before the end of his novitiate, he passed a brilliant public act in philosophy. He had in fact distinguished himself, when in Spain at the University of Alcala, by a public examination not only in philosophy, but also in theology. Because of his poor health he was recalled to Rome, made his vows in 1587, and when a plague struck the city in 1587, served in a Jesuit hospital.
Prior to his death, Saint Aloysius sent his mother a letter, detailing his devotion and faith. His words convey the purity, obedience, humility, and love of this holy man, who through selfless service, helped so many:
“May the comfort and grace of the Holy Spirit be yours for ever, most honored lady. Your letter found me lingering still in this region of the dead, but now I must rouse myself to make my way on to heaven at last and to praise God for ever in the land of the living; indeed I had hoped that before this time my journey there would have been over. If charity, as Saint Paul says, means to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who are glad, then, dearest mother, you shall rejoice exceedingly that God in his grace and his love for you is showing me the path to true happiness, and assuring me that I shall never lose him. The divine goodness, most honored lady, is a fathomless and shoreless ocean, and I confess that when I plunge my mind into thought of this it is carried away by the immensity and feels quite lost and bewildered there. In return for my short and feeble labours, God is calling me to eternal rest; his voice from heaven invites me to the infinite bliss I have sought so languidly, and promises me this reward for the tears I have so seldom shed. Take care above all things, most honoured lady, not to insult God’s boundless loving kindness; you would certainly do this if you mourned as dead one living face to face with God, one whose prayers can bring you in your troubles more powerful aid than they ever could on earth. And our parting will not be for long; we shall see each other again in heaven; we shall be united with our Saviour; there we shall praise him with heart and soul, sing of his mercies for ever, and enjoy eternal happiness. When he takes away what he once lent us, his purpose is to store our treasure elsewhere more safely and bestow on us those very blessings that we ourselves would most choose to have. I write all this with the one desire that you and all my family may consider my departure a joy and favor and that you especially may speed with a mother’s blessing my passage across the waters till I reach the shore to which all hopes belong. I write the more willingly because I have no clearer way of expressing the love and respect I owe you as your son.”
Aloysius' health was so poor that he received Holy Viaticum and Extreme Unction on several occasions. It was revealed to him that he would pass on the Octave of Corpus Christi, and though he appeared much better in the days proceeding the Feast, Saint Aloysius Gonzaga did in fact turn and die on the Octave of Corpus Christi, June 21st, 1591.
He caught the plague while ministering to its victims and died after he received the last rites from St. Robert Bellarmine. Aloysius Gonzaga was canonized in 1726, was declared protector of young students by Pope Benedict XIII and patron of Catholic youth by Pope Pius XI.
His remains are in the church of St. Ignazio in Rome in a magnificent urn of lapis lazuli wreathed with festoons of silver. The altar has for its centerpiece a large marble relief of the Saint by Le Gros.
Image: The Vocation of Saint Aloysius Gonzaga, artist: Giovanni Francesco Barbieri, circa 1650
Research by Ed Masters, REGINA Staff