THE DOCTOR AND APOSTLE OF PRAYER, ST. ALPHONSUS.
To begin with the holy missions: it would be difficult to express the ardent zeal with which Alphonsus laboured in this holy work. The charity of Christ so pressed this apostolic man, that in the whole kingdom of Naples but few provinces could be found which had not experienced the effects of his burning zeal. We should have to write many volumes if we wished to enumerate all the conversions that took place in the various regions he visited. A more perfect missionary than Alphonsus cannot be imagined. He aroused the admiration of the people by the marvellous power of his eloquence, but especially by the bright light of those apostolic virtues which made him, as it were, a mirror of sanctity. So great was his humility that, when journeying on the missions, his dress was no better than that of a ragged pauper. Thus it happened that on one occasion, before he had founded his Congregation, when giving a mission, in company with other priests, he entered a certain village dressed in a miserable cassock and riding on an ass, whilst the other missionaries were travelling in a carriage. The inhabitants, seeing his wretched costume, took him for the cook; and when they heard him preach in the evening they could not contain their astonishment and exclaimed: “If the cook is such a preacher, what will it be when the others begin?” The mortification of the servant of God was not less remarkable than his humility. He ate nothing but common food, and that most sparingly, and often it was only a little soup, and even that he seasoned with bitter herbs. On the missions, as well as at home, he used frequently to take the discipline, scourging himself cruelly, even to blood. To this was added the use of pointed chains, which he would fasten on so tightly that more than once he fell to the ground half dead, and almost incapable of movement; and thus at no moment of his life was he free from suffering.
A life of such austere holiness produced marvellous fruits in the salvation of souls. The words that flowed from the lips of the servant of God possessed so Divine an unction that they effected innumerable conversions. Not only individuals, but whole cities were converted, and the vices of Babylon disappeared to give place to the virtues of Paradise. Amongst his hearers there were none who could resist his eloquent appeals; all had to yield to the wisdom and spirit with which he spoke. The numerous sinners who came to him for confession were all converted to a better life. And Alphonsus himself owned that, even if he had to defer absolution in the case of certain sinners, these penitents had always returned to him in a state fit for absolution, so that no one was ever finally dismissed by him without having been sincerely converted to Almighty God.
In order to give greater efficacy to the words and actions of the Saint, God willed to ratify his ministry by miraculous favours. Chief of these were the extraordinary graces bestowed on him by his beloved Queen, the Blessed Virgin Mary. At Foggia, in Apulia, when he was preaching a Novena in her honour, for the space of a whole hour he was seen in ecstasy before one of her pictures. The Holy Virgin, as he himself declared, appeared to him under the form of a young maiden of thirteen or fourteen years of age. She wore a white veil, and seemed to be inclining her head, now to the right and now to the left. In regarding this apparition he said that he felt great devotion and spiritual joy and could not restrain his tears. The same prodigy was repeated at Foggia, and in the proper office granted in memory of it by the Apostolic See, it is described as follows: “When this fervent lover of the Mother of God was proclaiming in glowing accents the praises of the Blessed Virgin in front of one of her altars, to which the people had given the name of the altar of the Ancient Picture, a ray of splendour fell upon him from this picture, lighting up his whole countenance, whilst he was rapt in ecstasy in presence of all the people.” At the same time he was raised three feet in the air, to the great joy and consolation of the assembled faithful. Alphonsus was rewarded with a similar apparition both in the town of Amalfi and in the hamlet of St. George. He was endowed, too, with the gift of prophecy, by which he both predicted coming events and announced what was taking place at a distance. He had also the power of seeing into the inmost recesses of the heart, and would often reveal to sinners their most hidden crimes. Amongst the graces bestowed upon him was that of healing, and also of bilocation, by which he was seen more than once in two places at the same time.
But whilst he was giving himself up with such unwearied zeal to the labours of the apostolic ministry, and was gaining innumerable souls to Christ by word and example and by the splendour of his miracles, the holy founder by no means neglected the grave obligations imposed upon him by the care of his young Institute. The members of his Congregation had been gradually increasing in numbers, until, in 1746, the Institute possessed four houses, namely, at Nocera, Ciorani, Iliceto, and Caposele. Of these, Iliceto and Caposele had been founded after the death of Bishop Falcoja, in the spring of 1743. The house at Scala had been given up in 1738, on account of the vexatious opposition which had been raised against it. Alphonsus considered that the time had now arrived for placing his Institute on a firm footing, and so all his energies were directed to obtain approbation for it from the Supreme Pontiff, and from the King of Naples. From the civil power, indeed, nothing could be gained but promises, but at Rome his efforts were more successful. The Chair of St. Peter was then occupied by Benedict XIV, and to him, in the year 1748, Alphonsus addressed a supplication, begging that the Pontiff would deign to confirm the new Institute by his authority. In order to ensure success, he sent one of the members of his Congregation to Rome to direct the negotiations in person, and to bring matters to a favourable conclusion. The petition of Alphonsus was graciously received, and although an affair of this kind is generally beset with numerous difficulties, nevertheless, owing to the prayers and mortifications of Alphonsus, it had a speedy and unlooked-for termination. On the 25th of February of the following year a Pontifical decree was issued, which not only approved the rules, but also confirmed the Institute itself by a solemn approbation. When this happy news reached the Saint he fell upon his knees, and, with eyes streaming with tears of joy, he poured forth heartfelt thanks to God for so great a blessing. Then, having summoned the whole community into the Church, he intoned the hymn “Te Deum Laudamus”; and after this had been sung he addressed to God the words of David: O God of hosts, visit this vineyard, and perfect the same, which thy right hand hath planted. Then, commenting on these words, he exhorted his children to show themselves worthy of the great grace which God had bestowed upon them, by observing with scrupulous exactitude all the rules of the Institute, and by ever cherishing feelings of gratitude to Jesus and Mary. The name of the Congregation was changed from that of the Most Holy Saviour to that of the Most Holy Redeemer; and as the nuns of Scala presented their rules also for approbation about the same time, Benedict XIV approved them, with the same title of the Most Holy Redeemer, on the eighth June, 1750.