THE DOCTOR AND APOSTLE OF PRAYER, ST. ALPHONSUS.
Meanwhile Pius VI had appointed a new Superior for the Congregation, Father Francis de Paula. Alphonsus at once submitted to him with the most profound humility, and since he had not yet lost the hope of re-establishing unity in his Congregation, he made every effort to bring this about by proving his own innocence and that of his companions. But all was in vain. Leggio, who was now Procurator for the houses in the Pontifical States, had succeeded so well with his perfidious schemes, that he obtained a Papal degree ordering things to be left as they were, and forbidding any further petitions on the subject to be received. Thus all hope of a reconciliation vanished; and Alphonsus, with heroic patience, resigned himself to the Divine will, offering to God the sacrifice of this work, which had cost him the labours and anxieties of fifty years. God rewarded the perfect submission of His servant by granting him to see, in prophetic vision, that unity which was not to be effected in his lifetime. For one day he expressly foretold that after his death his disunited family would once more be joined together under one head–a prophecy that was fulfilled in the year 1793. When Alphonsus was dead, the Pope learned too late the real state of affairs, and exclaimed with grief: “I have persecuted a Saint!”
But the troubles of the holy man were not yet at an end. A new and still more cruel martyrdom awaited him. It seemed as though Divine Providence had decreed that in Alphonsus should be produced a perfect image of Christ crucified. In the midst of the sufferings occasioned him by the troubles of his Congregation, he had also to endure in his soul the grievous trial of temptations and bitter anguish of mind. He was assailed by a dark and gloomy feeling of despair, which attacked him so vehemently and so persistently, that all who saw him were moved to pity. But the soldier of Christ had recourse to the weapon of prayer, and thus succeeded in winning the victory. Yet this temptation to despair was followed by another not less dreadful. Alphonsus began to be tortured by scruples of every description. God permitted that his intellect should be overshadowed by the thickest darkness, so that everything he wished to do seemed to him unlawful, and everywhere he thought he saw sin and the occasions of sin, and was constantly being racked by the doubt whether he had not lost the grace of God. These scruples so tortured him that he appeared as though in agony, and would fix his sorrowful eyes on the Crucifix, and exclaim with a tearful voice: “My Jesus, suffer me not to be lost.” The holy old man was tempted by thoughts of vainglory, presumption, disbelief, and (who would believe it?) by the sting of the flesh. One day when he was suffering from this last-named temptation, he cried out piteously: “Alas! I am eighty-eight years of age, and the fire of my youth is still burning in me. O Mary, unless thou help me, I shall become worse than Judas.” That nothing might be wanting to his sufferings he was assaulted also by many diabolical apparitions. These trials, more bitter than death itself, lasted for more than a year. But at the end of this time God took pity on his servant, and drew him out of this state of darkness to place him in one of peace and bliss and consolations. From this time he had frequent ecstasies, uttered prophecies, and worked many miracles.
But the fruit was now ripe for Heaven, and the time had come for gathering it. The Saint’s long and weary pilgrimage at length was at an end. “When he had reached the ninety-first year of his life, now hastening to its close,” says the Bull of his Canonisation, “he was compelled to keep his bed, pressed down as he was by the weight of years, and suffering from a grievous malady. Having endured with incredible patience the excruciating pains of his illness, and having earnestly exhorted the brethren of the Religious Society which he had founded to the practice of every virtue, he was refreshed by the Viaticum of the Most Holy Eucharist, and fortified by the Sacrament of Extreme Unction.” On his deathbed he displayed the same virtues which he had practised in the whole course of his life. He prayed without ceasing, and kept up tender colloquies with Jesus Christ and His Virgin Mother, and with his other holy patrons as though they had been present at his bedside.
And now a final consolation was to be granted him. He had frequently during life implored his beloved Mother Mary to be with him at the moment of his death. “Oh, consoler of the afflicted,” he exclaimed, “do not abandon me in the last moment of my life. Bestow upon me the grace of invoking thee in that moment with greater eagerness, and grant that I may die with the sweetest Names of Jesus and Mary upon my lips. But there is yet a greater favour that I beg of thee, my Lady. Pardon, I beseech thee, my boldness. Come thyself in that hour, and console me with thy presence. Thou hast granted this favour to many of thy clients, and therefore I expect it of thee. I am indeed unworthy to obtain it, but I am thy devoted servant. I love thee, and place in thee all my hopes. O Mary, I expect thee; do not refuse me this consolation.” The prayers of her beloved son were heard by the Mother of Mercy. On the day before Alphonsus died, as he was holding in his hands a picture of the Blessed Virgin, his face was suddenly seen to glow with an unusual brightness, and smiling sweetly at the picture the holy old man began to address his beloved Mother as though she were really present. From that moment his fervour increased as the moment of death drew near, and so frequently and so lovingly did he kiss the sacred pictures of Jesus and Mary that it seemed as though he could never satisfy the ardour of his love. The dying moments of the aged Saint could not be called an agony; for, instead of struggling with death, he was, as it were, rapt in a heavenly ecstasy in which a foretaste was granted him of the joys of Paradise. He lay upon his deathbed calmly reposing in a peaceful slumber, until, at the sound of the Angelus, amid the sobs of his children, who had hurried from their various houses to his dying-bed, his saintly soul took its flight to Heaven, and there was united to Jesus and Mary, whom on earth he had loved with such faithful devotion. He died on the 1st of August, at mid-day, in the year 1787, at the age of ninety years, ten months, and five days.
Scarcely had Alphonsus quitted this mortal life when many persons of high position, moved by the ever-increasing opinion of his sanctity, petitioned Pius VI to institute a juridical inquiry into the holy life of the servant of God. The Supreme Pontiff granted their requests, and such was the success of the investigation that Alphonsus was declared Venerable nine years after his death. In the year 1803 a solemn decree was issued by the Holy See, declaring that after a most diligent examination nothing worthy of censure was to be found in all the works of the holy prelate. Thirteen more years elapsed, and then the Venerable servant of God was beatified by Pius VII; and finally, on the 26th of May, 1839, being the Feast of the Most Holy Trinity, he was canonised by Gregory XVI, and his feast ordered to be kept by the Universal Church on the 2nd of August. The canonisation would have taken place at an earlier date had it not been for the disturbed state of the Christian world at that time. As it was, hardly fifty-two years had elapsed since his holy death.
One would have thought that nothing now could be added to the honours of Alphonsus on earth. But our Lord Jesus Christ, who delights in exalting the humble, after having glorified the holy life of Alphonsus, willed that his writings also should share in this glorification, since they had been written solely for the love of God and for the good of souls. The Saint had been the author of a large number of works on almost every subject relating either to dogmatic theology, controversy, or morals. He had composed commentaries on Holy Scripture, and various ascetical treatises remarkable for the simplicity of their style. All that the holy author has written has a special value, not only on account of the heavenly unction which pervades all his writings, but also on account of the clear and precise manner in which he treats the most abstruse questions, and the weighty arguments with which he supports his theses. The works of St. Alphonsus were in a short space of time translated into many languages, and passed through innumerable editions, and were soon well known throughout the whole Christian world. Thus it came to pass that more than seven hundred bishops of all nations petitioned the Holy See to bestow upon St. Alphonsus the glorious title of Doctor of the Church. This was accordingly done by the Supreme Pontiff, Pius IX, in the year 1871, after all the works of “the most zealous doctor” (a title justly due to the Saint) had been subjected to a new and most rigorous examination. In the Apostolic Brief of the Doctorate occur the following words, which will form a fitting conclusion to this Life of the Saint “Christ our Lord, Who has promised that He will never be wanting to His Church, when He sees that His Immaculate Spouse is in need of a special assistance, is wont to raise up for her defence men illustrious for their virtue and learning, who, filled with the spirit of understanding, pour forth the words of their wisdom as showers.’ It was owing to this merciful Providence of Almighty God, that, at the very time when the doctrines of Jansenistic innovators were drawing all eyes upon them and deceiving many by their seductive errors–that in this moment of peril Alphonsus Mary Liguori stood forth to fight the good fight’ and to open his mouth in the midst of the Church.’ By those learned writings which cost him so much labour, he did all in his power to uproot and destroy these poisonous seeds which a diabolical malice had sown in the field of the Lord. And not content with this, Alphonsus, who thought only of the glory of God and the salvation of souls, wrote many books replete with learning and piety. He pointed out to those whose office it is to direct the souls of the faithful a safe path which they might tread without stumbling, and thus might avoid the snares of a too lax or too rigid code of morals. He instructed the clergy in their duties and in the dignity of their high office. He defended the Truths of our holy religion by works both dogmatic and polemical. He asserted the rights of this Apostolic See, and enkindled in the souls of the faithful the flame of true piety. It may truly be said that there is not a single error of these times which has not been, at least in great part, refuted by Alphonsus. Those dogmatic decrees regarding the Immaculate Conception of the Holy Mother of God, and the Infallibility of the Roman Pontiff, when teaching ex cathedra, which were issued by us amid the applause of the Christian people, and with the approving acclamations of the bishops of the whole Catholic world, are not these dogmas to be found in the writings Alphonsus most clearly set forth, and proved by unanswerable arguments? Hence, to him may be applied with admirable fitness that glorious eulogy of Divine Wisdom: The memory of him shall not depart away, and his name shall be in request from generation to generation. Nations shall declare his wisdom, and the Church shall show forth his praise.’ ” (Ecclus. xxxix. 13).