THE DOCTOR AND APOSTLE OF PRAYER. ST. ALPHONSUS.*
Amongst those who have been eminent in the Church of God, both for their lives and their labours, a foremost place must be assigned to St. Alphonsus Mary Liguori. This illustrious man, who may truly be styled an apostle, spent a long life of upwards of ninety years in the zealous service of God, and in unwearied labours for the good of souls–a proof sufficient of the greatness and varied nature of his sanctity. The long life of this holy man presents us, indeed, with examples of every virtue; yet there is one virtue which shines forth conspicuously from among the rest, and gives a definite tone and character to his whole life–I mean his burning love for Jesus Christ. With Alphonsus, as with St. Paul, to live was Christ. This love was the sacred source from which were derived all the other virtues which he practised in an heroic degree. It was from his love for Jesus that there sprung that ardent zeal for souls which ever inflamed his heart, and which found vent in apostolic labours without number. This love it was which urged him on to write so many books replete with learning and piety, by which he won for himself the glorious title of Doctor of the Church. Hence the lesson which the life of Alphonsus ought to teach us is that in order to sanctify ourselves and our neighbours there is but one thing necessary, and that is a great and genuine love for Jesus Christ; especially if this love is accompanied, as it was in the heart of Alphonsus, by an affectionate and filial confidence in the Virgin Mother of God.
St. Alphonsus Mary Liguori was born on the 26th of September in the year 1696, in a country place called Marianella, near Naples, where his father possessed a villa. His infancy was marked by those signs of future sanctity which generally adorn the cradle of the Saints. When his mother presented him, shortly after his birth, to Father Francis of Jerome, S.J. (as we read in the Roman Breviary), and begged the holy man’s blessing for her infant, Father Francis (who was afterwards canonised on the same day as Alphonsus) prophesied of him that he would live to the age of ninety, would become a bishop, and would do great things for the Church. Our history will show how happily this prophecy was fulfilled.
The parents of Alphonsus were both of them members of noble families of great antiquity. They were also distinguished by a piety of no common order. His father, Don Joseph Liguori, belonged to the family of the Prince of Presiccio, and was brother of Monsignor Liguori, Bishop of Cava. His duties as a naval officer did not prevent him from diligently practising all the duties of a good Christian. He was particularly devout to Our Lord’s Passion, frequently approached the Sacraments, and his delicacy of conscience was so well known that no one dared to utter an unseemly word in his presence. Yet he was too fond of worldly honours and his ambition urged him on to oppose his son’s Divine call to a higher life, as we shall afterwards see.
The mother of Alphonsus, Anne Catherine Cavallieri, was a person of extraordinary merit and piety. She was not the only member of her family remarkable for holiness of life, for her brother was that great servant of God, Monsignor Cavallieri, the saintly Bishop of Troja. The great aim of her life was to bring up in a truly Christian manner the seven children with whom God had blessed her. In order to attain her end, her first care was to instil into their hearts a truly ardent love for Jesus Christ, together with a tender and filial devotion to the Immaculate Mother of God. Her maternal anxiety was crowned with the happiest success for of the three brothers of Alphonsus, one became a Benedictine; another chose the sacerdotal state, and lived a most holy life in his father’s house; and the third, who married, led a life worthy of a good Christian. Of his sisters, two became nuns, and dedicated their virginity to Christ; the third, who was married, was a model of Christian mothers. But Alphonsus himself became the pride and glory, not only of his own family but of the whole Church. Even in his old age he used to thank God for having given him so holy a mother. “This,” he used to say, was one of the greatest graces which God bestowed upon me, for if I avoided evil when I was a boy, I owe it to my mother.”
Under the care of such parents, Alphonsus in his earliest years, laid the solid foundation of his wonderful sanctity. He was accustomed to pay frequent loving visits to Jesus hidden in the Sacred Tabernacle, and was assiduous in the devout invocation of the Blessed Virgin, especially by reciting her Rosary–a custom in which he persevered until his death. As for sin, the pleasures of the world, and the company of the licentious, all these he fled from as from a serpent. In order to tread more securely in the path of virtue, by the advice of his mother, he joined the Congregation of Young Nobles, and so perfectly observed the rules of this confraternity that, as the Roman Breviary testifies, all the young noblemen were drawn to Christian modesty by his words and example. His pious manner of life obtained for him the gift of a high contemplation, even when he had scarcely reached his twelfth year, as is proved by the following remarkable occurrence. On a certain occasion he had been taken, with some of his companions, to a country house for recreation. The boys began to play at some game, in which they wished Alphonsus to join. At first he refused, but finally, yielding to their importunities, he took part in the game. Fortune favoured him to such an extent that one of his companions, envious of his success, completely lost his temper and broke out into blasphemies against God. As soon as the pious youth heard these imprecations, indignant that God should be thus outraged for such a trifle, he at once quitted the company, and retired into a neighbouring wood to pray. Here, after a long search, he was found in the evening, kneeling before a picture of the Blessed Virgin, and rapt in a sweet ecstasy.
*This sketch of the Life of St. Alphonsus, the Doctor and Apostle of Prayer, was taken from Surius’ Lives of the Saints (Marietti, Turin), and edited by Very Rev. Aston Coffin, C.SS.R., in 1880. We thank the Publishers, Messrs. Gill and Sons, Dublin, for allowing us to insert it in this volume.–Ed.