THE DOCTOR AND APOSTLE OF PRAYER, ST. ALPHONSUS.
If Alphonsus so carefully watched over the spiritual progress of religious and ecclesiastics, he was equally solicitous for the rest of his flock–the laity. He made himself all things to all men in order to gain all to Christ, and as the Bull of his Canonisation testifies, he employed every means to preserve from destruction the flock committed to him. The poor and the sick were especially dear to his paternal heart, and as the same Bull testifies: “His charity to the poor was truly astonishing; they were liberally supplied by him with food, clothes, and money … From his own revenue he was accustomed to give young women the portion necessary to enable them to enter the marriage state; and he supported, at his own expense, young ecclesiastics of poor and humble parentage while pursuing their course of studies.” Towards the close of the year 1763 the diocese of St. Agatha was visited by a severe famine, which lasted until the Spring of the following year. It was then that the holy Bishop displayed a charity that was truly heroic. The distress of the people was so great that it was feared many would die of hunger, and in order to relieve his suffering poor Alphonsus not only sold all the furniture in his house, but even disposed of his pectoral cross and his episcopal ring. And as things grew worse instead of better, he wrote to the Sovereign Pontiff imploring to be allowed to make use of the revenues of the bishopric in feeding the poor. Meantime, to avert the wrath of God, he did not cease to exhort his people to do penance, whilst he himself added to his usual austerities, until after the lapse of six months he had appeased the Divine justice by his prayers and mortifications. But if we wished to relate all that Alphonsus did for his diocese during the thirteen years of his episcopate, we should need many volumes; suffice it to say that his efforts to relieve both the corporal and spiritual miseries of his flock were so successful that he changed the whole face of the diocese.
This devoted and untiring zeal in labouring for the good of others could not but exhaust the strength of the saintly prelate. And yet many years of life remained to him, which he was to spend in active labours for the good of his Congregation and the whole Church. His Institute advanced slowly but prosperously. From time to time new foundations were made, which were supplied with fresh subjects, whose missionary zeal produced everywhere abundant fruit. In addition to the four houses which we have already mentioned, two new ones had been established before Alphonsus had become bishop; one in the year 1755, at St. Angelo a Cupolo, near Benevento; the other at Girgenti, in Sicily. Two other foundations were made during his episcopate in the States of the Church, the first at Scifelli, in the year 1773, and the second at Frosinone, in 1776. As all these houses contained a numerous community, their government added considerably to the cares and anxieties of the holy founder.
But to these cares and anxieties, inseparable from the office of a religious superior, were now added grievous troubles of an unexpected kind. A storm of great vehemence and of long duration was about to burst upon many houses of the Institute. Certain men of high position, but distinguished for impiety, formed a scheme for ruining the Congregation, against which they had conceived an intense hatred. The civil power was at that time by no means favourable to the Religious Orders, and it was greatly to be feared that the youngest Congregation in the kingdom of the Two Sicilies would be entirely suppressed. Alphonsus observed with anxious eye the crafty plots which were being laid for the destruction of his Institute, and left nothing undone to avert the threatened evils. His first care was to recommend his cause to God and the Blessed Virgin, and having done this he wrote letter after letter to those in authority imploring them to take under their protection the Congregation, which was assailed by such grievous calumnies. In spite of his age and infirmities, he determined to go in person to Naples, and there he remained for two months pleading the cause of his persecuted children, which was at the same time the cause of Jesus Christ and the souls for whom He died. His efforts were not unsuccessful, for though he could not obtain for his Congregation the approbation of the Government, nevertheless he succeeded in warding off from it the deadly blow which shortly after fell upon the Society of Jesus. The persecution with which his sons were threatened made him urge upon them the strictest observance of the rule. “All the opposition of men and devils,” he said, “is less to be dreaded than the infraction of the smallest rule or constitution.” He seized every opportunity of writing to his children circular letters, in which he vehemently exhorted them to live in a manner worthy of their holy vocation, to be zealous in cultivating all virtues, especially humility, prayer, and the love of souls, so that they might draw upon themselves the blessing of God.
In the midst of all these troubles, God, Who is wont to test the fidelity of those most dear to Him, sent him an illness that far surpassed his previous attack both in severity and in duration. This happened in the year 1768. Alphonsus, who was then seventy-two years of age, was suddenly seized with a violent attack of sciatica, and in a short time the pain increased to such an extent that the sufferings of the venerable old man were indescribable. His pains were increased by fever, and soon the disease spread from the hips to all the other joints of the body, no portion of which was free from the excruciating torture. The head of the sick man was forced down upon his breast by these rheumatic pains, and, his beard being very thick and strong, caused a deep and painful wound in the place where his chin rested, and his whole body was so painfully contorted that, looking at him from behind, you would think his body was a trunk without a head. But Alphonsus did not give in beneath this burden of suffering. On the contrary, the more his pains increased, the more fervently did he exercise himself in acts of love for Jesus Crucified and Mary the Mother of Sorrows. He thought himself happy in being nailed to the cross with His beloved Lord and in sharing so closely in His sufferings; for, like his Crucified Saviour, he was incapable of any movement. Night and day he lay in the same position, and was found in the morning lying on the same side as on the preceding evening. For forty days this martyrdom lasted, during which time the patient sufferer gave an admirable example in his own person of the words of the Apostle: Charity is patient; charity beareth all things, endureth all things. Although he recovered from this severe attack, yet for the rest of his life he remained a constant sufferer both from intense bodily pains and from great mental anguish.