Saints: March 2011 Archives

Saint Alfonso Maria de Liguori

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It is no secret, to my friends at least, that I am immensely fond of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, and I would like to think that he is somewhat fond of me. There is comfort in such mysterious friendships with the saints, friends that span heaven and earth. I was delighted to discover that yesterday, 30 March 2011, Our Holy Father dedicated his Wednesday audience to The Saint of Bourbon Naples, my dear friend Saint Alphonsus. I should very much like to be considered an honorary son of Saint Alphonsus. The subtitles in boldface are my own.

Dear Brothers and Sisters,

Teacher of the Spiritual Life for Simple People

Today I would like to present to you the figure of a holy doctor of the Church to whom we are very indebted, since he was an outstanding moral theologian and a teacher of the spiritual life for everyone, above all for simple people. He is the author of the words and music of one of the most popular Christmas songs in Italy, "Tu scendi dalle stelle" [You come down from the stars], and of many other things.

From the Bar to the Altar

Alphonsus Maria Liguori was born in 1696 of a noble and rich Neapolitan family. Gifted with remarkable intellectual qualities, at just 16 he received a degree in civil and canon law. He was the most brilliant lawyer of the bar in Naples: For eight years he won every cause he defended. However, his soul thirsted for God and desired perfection and the Lord led him to understand that he was calling him to another vocation. In fact, in 1723, indignant about the corruption and injustice that plagued his environment, he left his profession -- and with it wealth and success -- and decided to become a priest, despite his father's opposition.

His Theological Culture

He had excellent teachers, who introduced him to the study of sacred Scripture, history of the Church and mysticism. He acquired a vast theological culture that he brought to fruition when, after a few years, he began his work as a writer. He was ordained a priest in 1726 and for his ministry, joined the diocesan Congregation of the Apostolic Missions.

The Cappelle Serotine: Evening Chapels

Alphonsus began evangelization and catechesis among the most humble strata of Neapolitan society, to whom he loved to preach and whom he instructed on the basic truths of the faith. Not a few of these persons whom he addressed, poor and modest, very often were dedicated to vices and carried out criminal activity. With patience he taught them to pray, encouraging them to improve their way of living. Alphonsus obtained great results: In the poorest quarters of the city, there were increasing groups of persons who gathered in the evening in private homes and shops, to pray and meditate on the Word of God, under the guidance of some catechists formed by Alphonsus and other priests, who regularly visited these groups of faithful. When, by desire of the archbishop of Naples, these meetings were held in the chapels of the city, they took the name "evening chapels." They were a real and proper source of moral education, of social healing, of reciprocal help among the poor: thefts, duels and prostitution virtually disappeared.

Leaven in the Heart of Society

Even though the social and religious context of St. Alphonsus' time was very different from ours, these "evening chapels" are a model of missionary action in which we can be inspired today as well, for a "new evangelization," particularly among the poorest, and to build a more just, fraternal and solidary human coexistence. Entrusted to priests is a task of spiritual ministry, while well-formed laymen can be effective Christian leaders, genuine evangelical leaven in the heart of society.

Missionary to the Rural Poor

After having thought of leaving to evangelize the pagan peoples, Alphonsus, at the age of 35, came into contact with peasants and shepherds of the interior regions of the Kingdom of Naples and, stricken by their religious ignorance and their state of abandonment, he decided to leave the capital and dedicate himself to these people, who were poor spiritually and materially. In 1732 he founded the religious Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, which he placed under the protection of Bishop Thomas Falcoia, and of which he himself became superior. These religious, guided by Alphonsus, were genuine itinerant missionaries who reached the most remote villages, exhorting to conversion and to perseverance in the Christian life, above all through prayer. Still today, the Redemptorists spread over so many countries of the world with new forms of apostolate, continue this mission of evangelization. I think of them with gratitude, exhorting them to always be faithful following the example of their holy founder.

Bishop of Sant'Agata dei Goti

Esteemed for his goodness and pastoral zeal, in 1762 Alphonsus was appointed bishop of Sant'Agata dei Goti, a ministry that he left in 1775 by the concession of Pope Pius VI because of the illnesses afflicting him. In 1787 that same Pontiff, hearing the news of his death that came after many sufferings, exclaimed: "He was a saint!" And he was not mistaken: Alphonsus was canonized in 1839, and in 1871 he was declared a doctor of the Church.

Trust and Hope in God's Mercy

This title was bestowed on him for many reasons. First of all, because he proposed a rich teaching of moral theology, which adequately expresses Catholic doctrine, to the point that Pope Pius XII proclaimed him "patron of all confessors and moral theologians." Widespread at his time was a very rigorous interpretation of moral life, also because of the Jansenist mentality that, instead of nourishing trust and hope in God's mercy, fomented fear and presented God's face as frowning and severe, very far from that revealed to us by Jesus.

Moral Theologian of Gentleness and Mercy

Above all in his principal work, titled "Moral Theology," St. Alphonsus proposes a balanced and convincing synthesis between the demands of God's law, sculpted in our hearts, revealed fully by Christ and interpreted authoritatively by the Church, and the dynamics of man's conscience and his liberty, which precisely by adherence to truth and goodness allow for the maturation and fulfillment of the person. To pastors of souls and to confessors, Alphonsus recommended faithfulness to Catholic moral doctrine, accompanied by a comprehensive and gentle attitude so that penitents could feel accompanied, supported and encouraged in their journey of faith and Christian life.

The Priest: A Visible Sign of the Infinite Mercy of God

St. Alphonsus never tired of repeating that priests are a visible sign of the infinite mercy of God, who forgives and illumines the mind and heart of the sinner so that he will convert and change his life. In our time, in which there are clear signs of the loss of the moral conscience and -- it must be acknowledged -- of a certain lack of appreciation of the sacrament of confession, the teaching of St. Alphonsus is again of great timeliness.

Love of Jesus and Mary

Together with the works of theology, St. Alphonsus composed many other writings, designed for the religious formation of the people. The style is simple and pleasing. Read and translated into numerous languages, the works of St. Alphonsus have contributed to mold popular spirituality of the last two centuries. Some of them are texts to be read with great profit again today, such as "The Eternal Maxims," "The Glories of Mary," "The Practice of Loving Jesus Christ" -- this last one a work that represents the synthesis of his thought and his masterpiece.

He Who Prays Is Saved

He insisted a lot on the need for prayer, which enables one to open to Divine Grace to carry out daily the will of God and to obtain one's sanctification. In regard to prayer, he wrote: "God does not deny to anyone the grace of prayer, with which one obtains the help to overcome every concupiscence and every temptation. And I say, and repeat and will always repeat, for my entire life, that the whole of our salvation rests on prayer." From which stems his famous axiom: "He who prays is saved" (From the great means of prayer and related booklets. Opere ascetiche II, Rome 1962, p. 171).

Schools of Prayer

There comes to mind, in this connection, the exhortation of my predecessor, the Venerable Servant of God John Paul II: "Christian communities must become genuine 'schools' of prayer. Therefore, education in prayer should become in some way a key-point of all pastoral planning" (Apostolic Letter Novo Millennio Ineunte, 33, 34).

Adoration and Visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament

Outstanding among the forms of prayer fervently recommended by St. Alphonsus is the visit to the Most Blessed Sacrament or, as we would say today, adoration -- brief or prolonged, personal or in community -- of the Eucharist. "Certainly," wrote Alphonsus, "among all the devotions this one of adoration of the sacramental Jesus is the first after the sacraments, the dearest to God and the most useful to us. O, what a beautiful delight to be before an altar with faith and to present to him our needs, as a friend does to another friend with whom one has full confidence!" (Visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament and to Mary Most Holy for Each Day of the Month. Introduction).

Christocentric and Marian

Alphonsus' spirituality is in fact eminently Christological, centered on Christ and his Gospel. Meditation on the mystery of the incarnation and the passion of the Lord were often the object of his preaching: In these events, in fact, redemption is offered "copiously" to all men. And precisely because it is Christological, Alphonsus' piety is also exquisitely Marian. Most devoted to Mary, he illustrated her role in the history of salvation: partner of the Redemption and Mediatrix of grace, Mother, Advocate and Queen. Moreover, St. Alphonsus affirmed that devotion to Mary will be of great comfort at the moment of our death. He was convinced that meditation on our eternal destiny, on our call to participate for ever in God's blessedness, as well as on the tragic possibility of damnation, contributes to live with serenity and commitment, and to face the reality of death always preserving full trust in God's goodness.


St. Alphonsus Maria Liguori is an example of a zealous pastor who won souls preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments, combined with a way of acting marked by gentle and meek goodness, which was born from his intense relationship with God, who is infinite Goodness. He had a realistically optimistic vision of the resources of goods that the Lord gives to every man and gave importance to the affections and sentiments of the heart, in addition to the mind, to be able to love God and one's neighbor.

Holiness for Everyman

In conclusion, I would like to remind that our saint, similar to St. Francis de Sales -- of whom I spoke a few weeks ago -- insists on saying that holiness is accessible to every Christian: "The religious as religious, the lay person as lay person, the priest as priest, the married as married, the merchant as merchant, the soldier as soldier, and so on speaking of every other state" (Practice of Loving Jesus Christ, Opere ascetiche I, Rome 1933, p. 79). I thank the Lord who, with his Providence, raises saints and doctors in different times and places who, speaking the same language, invite us to grow in faith and to live with love and joy our being Christians in the simple actions of every day, to walk on the path of holiness, on the path to God and to true joy. Thank you.

Go to Joseph

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The Icon

Brother Claude Lane, O.S.B., the iconographer who painted this singularly expressive image of Saint Joseph, is a monk of Mount Angel Abbey in Oregon. Brother Claude's image is, in its own way, a homily on today's Gospel.

On the Road

Saint Joseph is shown on the road with the Virgin Mary. There is tenderness and strength in his face. He is looking forward, facing the unknown with faith, looking ahead without seeing. As I wrote in one of my prayers to him, Saint Joseph is "a model of faith in the night, obedience in adversity, chastity in tenderness, and hope in uncertainty."

A Young Joseph

Brother Claude portrays him as a young man. Most traditional images depict an older Joseph, but Scripture says nothing about the age of Saint Joseph at the time of Jesus' birth. We know that at the time of the Crucifixion (cf. Jn 19:27), the Virgin Mary was a widow. Saint Joseph is not mentioned in any Gospel accounts of Jesus' public ministry; he is presumed to have died during the years of Jesus' hidden life. During the first century, life expectancy was short. Joseph could have been an "old man" of twenty-one when he married his new bride of fourteen.

The Virgin Bride and the Child in Her Womb

The Blessed Virgin Mary is shown with child; she is wearing a lovely rose-coloured maternity dress. You recognize that Brother Claude has used the imagery of the Virgin of Guadalupe here, precisely because the miraculous image of Guadalupe depicts a pregnant Virgin. Saint Joseph is shown, putting fear aside to take his Virgin Bride into his home. In welcoming Mary, Saint Joseph welcomes the Infant Christ whose Sacred Heart already beats in Mary's womb. In welcoming the Infant Christ, Saint Joseph welcomes each of us in our vulnerability, in our littleness, in our need for protection, and comfort, and warmth, and care.

The Angel

The angel is not named for us in the Gospel account, but tradition suggests that he is the Archangel Gabriel, the same heavenly messenger who brought the news to Mary at her Annunciation. Brother Claude shows the Angel gazing with admiration, with wonder, on both Mary and Joseph. The Angel sees in this couple the man and women chosen by God to protect and nurture the Word made flesh, the King of the Angels. The Angel';s finger points forward. "Let us go," he seems to be saying, "more deeply into the Mystery."

The Donkey

The donkey bearing the Virgin Mary represents that other donkey who will bear Jesus into the holy city of Jerusalem amidst cries of jubilation and the waving of palm branches. The donkey is important to this icon: a sign of the unfolding of the Paschal Mystery of Christ the King.

Toward the Altar

In the beginnings of the mysteries of Christ, Saint Joseph is present humbly, tenderly, and decisively. The Angel's hand, pointing forward, indicates that there is more to come. That "more to come" is given us in the Most Holy Eucharist. There, Saint Joseph is present to us and with us in the mystery of Christ. Pray to him. Go to Joseph, Guardian of the Living Bread come down from heaven.

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This oil painting of a youthful and svelte Saint Thomas by Paolo de Majo (1703-1784) is in a private collection in Caserta. You can see Tantum ergo sacramentum, the beginning of the penultimate strophe of his hymn for Vespers of the feast of Corpus Domini in the book he is holding. Our monastic lectionary for Matins gives the text below: splendid advice, I think, for all lovers of Truth.

If you are interested in the Confraternity of the Cord of Saint Thomas or of the Angelic Warfare, be sure to look at what I wrote about it two years ago here. The cord of Saint Thomas, a sacramental, is a powerful aid to chaste living.

A Summary of Practical Wisdom

You asked me, Giovanni, dearest brother in Christ, how you should go about studying so as to acquire the treasure of knowledge. Here then is the counsel that I pass on to you. Seek to enter the sea by way of little streams, and not all at once. It is by means of what is easier that one ought to arrive at what is more difficult. I would have you be slow to speak, and reluctant to frequent places where there is a lot of talking. Keep the purity of your conscience. Never abandon meditation. If you want to be let into the wine cellar, cherish staying in your cell.

Living With Others

Be affable with everyone. Don't examine the actions of others. Don't become too familiar with anyone; excessive familiarity breeds contempt and gives one occasions to leave off studying. In no way should you get involved in the words and doings of seculars. Above all flee useless goings-on. Place your feet in the footsteps of the saints and of the good.

Fruitful in the Vineyard of the Lord

Do not stare at the one addressing you, but entrust to your memory the good things that you may hear. When you read and listen, do so in such a way as to understand what you are reading and hearing. Make certain the things you doubt. Strive to arrange all that you can in the library of your mind, as one is wont to fill up a vessel. Don't go after things beyond you. By walking in the path I have traced for you, you will bear and produce foliage and fruits useful in the vineyard of the Lord Sabaoth, all the days of your life. If you follow these counsels, you will attain what you desire.

(Saint Thomas Aquinas, Exhortatio de modo studendi ad fratrem Ioannem: Opus. th. ed. Marietti, 1, 451. The translation is my own.)


I almost forgot that today is the feast of Saint Giovan Giuseppe della Croce.

A Family Connection

My mother's grandmother was born and raised in a baroque palazzo nestled in a lazy southern Italian paese called Piedimonte d'Alife. From the windows of the house one can look up and see the hermitage of La Solitudine where a humble Franciscan lived an extraordinary holiness. The grace of Saint Giovan Giuseppe della Croce seems to linger still in the wild nature and austere friary above Piedimonte d'Alife.

I first visited La Solitudine in 1975. The cells, refectory, and hermitages are narrow with extremely low ceilings; this particular form of architectural austerity was characteristic of the Alcantarine Reform to which Saint Giovan Giuseppe belonged.

Our saint died on March 5, 1739. Four years later, in 1743, Bishop Isabella dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel the family chapel constructed by my Onoratelli ancestors at the foot of the mountain crowned by Saint Giovan Giuseppe's hermitage.

A Franciscan Father of the Desert

In obedience to the express desire of his superior, our saint submitted to receive the dignity of the priesthood, and was appointed to hear confessions; in which task he displayed a profound theological learning, which he had acquired solely at the foot of the cross. But, carried onward by an ardent love of the cross, whose treasures he more and more discovered as he advanced in the dignity and functions of the sacred ministry, he resolved to establish in the wood adjoining his convent a kind of solitude, where, after the manner of the ancient Fathers of the Desert, he might devote himself entirely to prayer and penitential austerities, and give to the Church an illustrious and profitable example of the sacerdotal spirit exercised in a perfect degree. There was found in the wood a pleasant fountain, whose waters healed the sick; and hard by he erected a little church, and round about it, at intervals, five small hermitages, wherein, with his companions, he renewed the austere and exalted life of the old anchorites, and advanced greatly in spirituality. And in order that no care or worldly thought might ruffle the sublime tranquillity of this contemplative life, the convent had charge of daily supplying the holy solitary with food. (1864 Edition of Butler's Lives of the Saints)

About Dom Mark

Dom Mark Daniel Kirby is Conventual Prior of Silverstream Priory in Stamullen, County Meath, Ireland. The ecclesial mandate of his Benedictine community is the adoration of the Most Holy Sacrament of the Altar in a spirit of reparation, and in intercession for the sanctification of priests.

Donations for Silverstream Priory