A Most Misunderstood Saint

June 21 is the Feast Day of one of the most misunderstood saints in the Catholic church: St. Aloysius Gonzaga.  A little history, then, may be in order to help us begin to understand this complex and holy young man, today one of the patrons of youth.  One must, in a sense, recover the real Aloysius, and the true Luigi.

Aloysius Gonzaga needs rescuing from the hands of overly pious artists. On holy cards and in countless reproductions, the young Jesuit is usually depicted clad in a jet black cassock and snowy white surplice, gazing beatifically at an elegant crucifix he holds in his slim, delicately manicured hands. For good measure, he is sometimes portrayed gently grasping a lily, the symbol of his religious chastity.

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There is nothing wrong with any of those images per se, except when they obscure what was anything but a delicate life and prevent young Christians (and older ones, for that matter) from identifying with someone who was, in fact, something of a rebel.

On March 9, 1568, in the castle of Castiglione delle Stivieri, in Lombardy, Luigi Gonzaga was born into a branch of one of the most powerful families in Renaissance Italy. His father, Ferrante, was the marquis of Castiglione. Luigi’s mother was lady-in-waiting to the wife of Philip II of Spain, in whose court the marquis also enjoyed a high position.

As the eldest son, Luigi was the repository of his father’s hopes for the family’s future. As early as age four, Luigi was given a set of miniature guns and accompanied his father on training expeditions so that the boy might learn, as Joseph Tylenda, SJ, writes in his book Jesuit Saints and Martyrs, “the art of arms.” He also learned, to the consternation of his noble family and without realizing their meaning, some salty words from the soldiers. So anxious was Ferrante to prepare his son for the world of political intrigue and military exploit that he dressed the boy in a child-sized suit of armor and brought him along to review the soldiers in his employ. By the age of seven, however, Luigi had other ideas. He decided that he was less interested in his father’s world and more attracted to a very different kind of life.

Nevertheless, Ferrante, mindful of Luigi’s potential, remained enthusiastic about passing on to his son the marquisate. In 1577, he sent Luigi and his brother Ridolfo to the court of a family friend, the grand duke Francesco de’Medici of Tuscany, where the two were to gain the polish needed to succeed in court. But again, rather than being fascinated with the intrigue and (literal) backstabbing in the decadent world of the Medicis, Luigi withdrew into himself, refusing to participate in what he saw as an essentially corrupt environment. At ten, disgusted by his situation, he made a private vow never to offend God by sinning.

It was around this time that Luigi began the serious and often severe religious practices that strike contemporary observers as prudish at best and bizarre at worst, especially for a child. It is certainly the main reason that the life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga sometimes repels even devout Catholics today. He fasted three days a week on bread and water. He rose at midnight to pray on the stone floor of his room. He refused to let a fire be lit in his bedchamber even in the bitterest weather. And he was famously concerned with keeping his chastity and safeguarding his modesty. Butler’s Lives of the Saints notes that from as early as age nine, Luigi maintained “custody of the eyes,” as spiritual writers say. “We are told, for instance, that he kept his eyes persistently downcast in the presence of women, and that neither his valet nor anyone else was allowed to see his foot uncovered.”

These practices, so admired by earlier generations, are what turn some contemporary believers away from Gonzaga and what appears to be his almost inhuman piety.

But when considering these aspects of his life, one must remember three things. First, the prevailing Catholic piety at the time, which warmly commended such practices, obviously exerted a strong influence on Luigi. The young nobleman was, like all of us, a person of his times. Second, Luigi adopted these practices while still a boy. Like some children even today, Luigi was given less to mature moderation and more to adolescent enthusiasm. Third, and perhaps most important, without any religious role models in his life, Luigi was forced, in a sense, to create his own spirituality. (There were no adults to say, “That’s enough, Luigi.”) Desperate to escape the world of corruption and licentiousness in which he found himself, Luigi, headstrong and lacking any adult guidance, went overboard in his quest to be holy.

Yet, in later years, even he recognized his excesses. When he entered the Society of Jesus, he admitted as much about his way of life. “I am a piece of twisted iron,” he said. “I entered religious life to get twisted straight.” (This famous saying of his, according to the Jesuit scholar John Padberg, may also have referred to the twisted character of the Gonzaga family.)

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 plans, the house of one host boasted a fine private chapel, where Luigi 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.”

There is a colossal painting by Guercino hanging in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (pictured above) that shows, in allegory, the moment of Luigi’s decision. From contemporary portraits we know a little of what Luigi looked like, and the painting depicts him with the long nose and slim face of the Gonzaga family. Covered by a marble arch and standing under a canopy of lute-playing cherubim and seraphim, Aloysius, in a black Jesuit cassock and white surplice, looks intently at an angel, who stands in front of an altar and points to a crucifix. Far in the distance under a blue Italian sky is his father’s castle. At Aloysius’s feet lies the symbol of chastity, a lily. Behind him, on the ground, is the crown of the marquis, which Aloysius has relinquished. A cherub hovers in the sky, holding above the young man’s head a crown of another kind, the crown of sanctity.

Aloysius’s determination to enter religious life, even in the face of his father’s fierce opposition, filled me with admiration when I was a Jesuit novice. When I first announced to my parents my own intention to leave the corporate world and enter the novitiate, they too were, at least for a time, upset, and they hoped that I would not join the Jesuits. (They did not, however, threaten to have me flogged.) After a few years, they came to accept my decision and cheerfully support my vocation. But in that interim period, when I was determined and so were they, Aloysius became my patron.

In his single-minded pursuit of God, and especially his willingness to give up literal riches, Aloysius perfectly emblemizes a key meditation of the Spiritual Exercises called the “Two Standards.” In that meditation, St. Ignatius asks the retreatant to imagine being asked to serve under the banner, or “standard,” of one of two leaders—Christ the King or Satan. If one does choose to serve Christ, it must necessarily be by imitating the life of Jesus, choosing “poverty as opposed to riches; . . . insults or contempt as opposed to the honor of the world; . . . humility as opposed to pride.” There are few who have exemplified this as well as Aloysius. So to me he has been a great hero.

Because of the severe religious practices that Aloysius had already adopted, the Jesuit novitiate proved surprisingly easy. As Fr. Tylenda writes, “He actually found novitiate life less demanding than the life he had imposed upon himself at home.” (The disappearance of the constant battles with his father must have given him some relief as well.) Fortunately, his superiors encouraged him to eat more regularly, pray less, engage in more relaxing activities, and in general reduce his penances. Aloysius accepted these curbs. In an essay entitled “On Understanding the Saints,” Richard Hermes, SJ, noted that though Aloysius’s single-minded pursuit of God’s will had led him to embrace some of these extreme penances, “it was the same single-minded obedience which led him to moderate these practices as a Jesuit.”

“There is little to be said about St. Aloysius during the next two years,” says Butler's Lives, “except that he proved to be an ideal novice.” He pronounced his vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience in 1587 and the next year received minor orders and began his theology studies.

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.

His unique sanctity was recognized, especially by his Jesuit confrères, even during his life. After his death, when Robert Cardinal Bellarmine would lead the young Jesuit scholastics through the Spiritual Exercises in Rome, he would say about a particular type of meditation, “I learned that from Aloysius.”

Aloysius Gonzaga was beatified only fourteen years after his death, in 1605, and canonized in 1726.

It was in the novitiate that I was introduced to Aloysius Gonzaga. Actually, it would have been impossible to miss him there: he is one of the patron saints of young Jesuits and is, along with St. Stanislaus Kostka and St. John Berchmans, part of a trio of early Jesuit saints who died at a young age. Frequently they appear together as marble statues in Jesuit churches: Aloysius carrying his lily, John holding a rosary, and Stanislaus clasping his hands and looking piously heavenward.

As a novice, I found it natural to pray to the three—since I figured all of them understood the travails of the novitiate, of Jesuit formation, and of religious life. St. John Berchmans, in fact, was quoted as saying, “Vita communis est mea maxima penitentia”: Life in community is my greatest penance. Now there was someone to whom a novice could pray.

On the other hand, as Avery Cardinal Dulles, SJ, once commented, “Well, I wonder what the community thought of him!”

But it wasn’t until two years after the novitiate, when I started working with refugees in East Africa, that I began to pray seriously to Aloysius. Even at the time I wondered why: my sudden devotion came as a surprise. Sometimes I think that one reason we begin praying to a saint is that the saint has already been praying for us.

In any event, I found myself thinking about Aloysius whenever life became difficult in Nairobi—which was frequently. When I was frustrated by a sudden lack of water in the morning, I would silently say a little prayer to St. Aloysius for his intercession. When the beat-up jeep I drove failed to start (once again), I would ask St. Aloysius for a bit of help. When burglars broke into our community and stole my shoes, my camera, and the little cash I had saved up, I asked St. Aloysius to help me hold on to the slender reed of my patience. And when I was stuck in bed for two months with mononucleosis and wondered what I was doing in Kenya, I sought his intercession and encouragement. I figured he knew something about being sick. During my two years in East Africa, I had a feeling that St. Aloysius was in his place in heaven looking out for me as best he could. At the very least, I was keeping him busy.

From My Life with the Saints.

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Marina Brenta
2 years 4 months ago
Hello! I must say I loved reading this article about Aloysius. I'm studying Theology soon to have a degree in moral theology. I've always been very fond of him. But recently I've started to fell the need of pray and talk to him. And this was very enlightening. Specially this: "Sometimes I think that one reason we begin praying to a saint is that the saint has already been praying for us." Thank you very much! Manny Blessings to you!
Michelle MacKnight
2 years 4 months ago
I loved learning more about the life of St. Aloysius Gonzaga, having known him previously as the namesake of Sebastian Flyte's teddy bear. Reading your piece, I see the myriad of ways in which Sebastian mirrors Aloysius himself, them both being aristocrats associated with youth, beauty, and a natural compulsion towards piety. Perhaps Sebastian's nursing of Kurt in the latter half of the book is another nod to the saint, who tended to plague victims despite his "physical repulsion" to dirtiness and disease. On another note, I'd like to thank you for continuing to prove such an exemplary model of God's great love, compassion, joy, and humor. As a college student, it's been wonderful to turn to clergymen such as Fr. Robert Barron and yourself for spiritual guidance.
Bruce Snowden
2 years 2 months ago
Hi, Fr. Martin, Great enlightenment on the real St. Aloysius, one of my earliest models too of what a saint looked like then, a kind of ethereal out-of-this-world untouchable, hands folded, eyes raised to heaven, special friend of Jesus. But now I understand him better and like him more! The reminiscence mentioned about his ascetical practice of “custody of the eyes” made me smile stirring a memory. Hoping to share my smile and memory with others, I offer the following post. Back in the early 60s a priest friend vowed to monastic asceticism as was I, on his way to Rome as personal theologian to the Father General, both heading to Vatican Council II, asked me to go with him to Coney Island for a day out, a place he hadn’t seen in many years. Permission obtained off we went by subway and arriving at the beach we changed to our bathing suits and found a place on the sand. It was very crowded with swimmers, children, men and especially women some of them “head turners” scantily clad, bad then, but much worse now! Seeing all the near nakedness sashaying around, my priest friend pretending I think to be shocked, said to me, “Cast your eyes down Brother, all this Flesh!” He was telling me to do what St. Aloysius did, hoping to avoid sexual temptation – practice “custody of the eyes.” If Father wasn’t joking, I have to wonder why did he want to go to Coney Island in the first place! We returned home sooner than I expected. This story has a surprising end. My friend Fr. Cuthbert Gumbinger a short time later became Archbishop of Izmir, Turkey, 1965-66, humanly speaking dying much too soon, but of course Faith assures the Father does know best. His episcopacy was for him, me and for others, an unexpected heavenly gift. Obviously he was well respected in high places. I hope his eyes are now “cast down” prayerfully on me. I liked him, a confrere of good humor and ready laughter. God grant that St. Aloysius too, along with the Archbishop, keep me in mind prayerfully.

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