THE DOCTOR AND APOSTLE OF PRAYER, ST. ALPHONSUS.
Worn out by a constant succession of labours, and weakened by the austerities of his life, Alphonsus withdrew with some of the companions of his apostolate, for the sake of a little rest, into a solitary spot called Santa Maria dei Monti, near Scala. This was in the month of May in the year 1731. The inhabitants of the place were poor peasants and shepherds, whose knowledge of religion was very small, and whose spiritual destitution was extreme. Alphonsus was moved with pity on learning their sad state. When he saw them coming in crowds to the lonely chapel, where he was accustomed to spend a great part of his time before the Blessed Sacrament, and eagerly begging for a spiritual alms, he at once devoted himself to their service, and gave all his attention to instruct them in Christian Doctrine, and prepare them for a devout reception of the Sacraments. Thus it happened that the time set aside for repose was employed most fruitfully for the salvation of souls, and at the same time an ardent desire was implanted in the soul of Alphonsus of henceforth devoting himself in a special manner to the service of such poor, abandoned beings. The desire came from God; it was the seed from which in a short time was to spring the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. But we must now briefly relate how this important work began, and how it was brought to completion.
Alphonsus returned not long afterwards to the town of Scala, in order to celebrate a Novena with the people in the cathedral. Here God was awaiting His servant, in order to manifest His will to him. There was in a convent in the city a certain nun–Sister Celeste Crostarosa by name–who was frequently favoured by God with extraordinary graces. This holy nun was a member of the Community which had been founded by Monsignor Falcoja in the town of Scala in the year 1719. She was born in Naples on the 31st of October, 1696, being, consequently, just one month younger than Alphonsus. God made known to her many things concerning the Institute of the Most Holy Redeemer; and Falcoja, who had in the meantime become Bishop of Castellamare, after mature consideration, charged Alphonsus, in the spring of 1731, to give the spiritual exercises to the nuns of the Most Holy Saviour, with the permission of the Bishop of Scala. This Alphonsus accordingly did; and when he returned again in the autumn, Sister Celeste had a vision on the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi, in which our Divine Lord, accompanied by St. Francis, appeared to her, and showed her a number of priests zealously engaged in instructing a countless multitude of men, who were scattered through villages and hamlets, deprived of spiritual aid. The leader and director of these priests was Alphonsus. Whilst the holy religious was contemplating this vision, these words sounded in her ear: “That is the man whom I have chosen as My instrument in this work, which is to glorify My Name.” She did not think it right to conceal a fact of so great importance, and spoke of it to Alphonsus, who was greatly agitated on hearing a revelation which coincided so perfectly with his own desires. Being in doubt as to the course which he ought to take, he determined at once to give himself up to the most fervent prayer, and to redouble his austerities, in order to obtain a more certain knowledge of the Divine Will. His hopes were not deceived. In a short time he clearly perceived that he was called by God to this great work, both by the heavenly light with which his soul was abundantly illumined, and also by the advice which he received from many men illustrious both for their learning and their sanctity. He was confirmed in this conviction by the approbation of his director, the saintly Bishop Falcoja. From this time Alphonsus bound himself by vow to depend entirely on the direction of this holy prelate. Moreover, in addition to all this, the will of God was made plain by a manifest miracle. One day when the nun of whom we have spoken, was eagerly maintaining in the presence of her sisters the truth of the revelation made to her, one of her hearers exclaimed: “Well, I shall believe it when Sister Mary Magdalene is cured.” Wonderful to relate, this Religious, who was then out of her mind, was at that very instant freed from her mental disorder.
When the will of God had been once made known to him, Alphonsus, relying principally on the advice of Bishop Falcoja, resolutely determined to begin the work. As soon as his intentions were known, several distinguished men felt themselves divinely called to enter his Congregation. Amongst these must be mentioned a young man of good family whose past life had been far from edifying, but who now received a vocation to join Alphonsus, which was evidently miraculous. This youth, who was called Vitus Curzio, himself related what had happened. “I dreamt,” says he, “that I was standing at the foot of a high and steep mountain which many priests were trying to ascend. I wished to follow them, but at each attempt my foot slipped, and I fell back. Seeing that all my efforts to advance were useless, I began to feel exceedingly disheartened and sad. At last, one of the priests taking compassion on me, stretched out his hand, and with his help I ascended the mountain with the rest.” Such was the young man’s dream. A few days after he met Alphonsus in Naples, and, struck with astonishment, he recognised in him the priest whom he had seen in his dream, and who had helped him to ascend the mountain. Moved by Divine grace he at once obeyed the wonderful call he had received from Heaven, and became the first Lay-brother of the new Institute.