THE DOCTOR AND APOSTLE OF PRAYER, ST. ALPHONSUS.
It must not, however, be imagined that the minute care which he bestowed upon his own household hindered him from attending to the diocese at large. He allowed only a few days to go by before he opened a mission for his people in the cathedral, and this had an immense success. He then proceeded to visit every part of his diocese, making provision everywhere for the sanctification of the flock which had been entrusted to him. This first pastoral visitation of Alphonsus, and, indeed, each succeeding one, may be compared to those holy journeys which Christ and His Apostles used to make throughout the towns and country-places of Judea. This admirable pastor used generally to spend eight days in each parish, and he arranged that a mission should be given to the people during the time of his visitation, and he would then himself deliver many of the discourses. The aim of all his sermons was to inspire his flock with an intense horror of sin, and for the occasions of sin, to urge them to frequent the Sacraments, and to be persevering in prayer, to enkindle in their hearts a filial devotion to the Blessed Virgin, and an ardent love for Jesus Christ. The loving solicitude of the holy bishop embraced all classes. He would frequently assemble the children in the church in order to test their knowledge of Christian doctrine, and to teach them all that was necessary to enable them to save their souls. The young men were exhorted to join pious confraternities; the young women were inspired by him with a love of virginal modesty. Parents were exhorted by him, in words full of burning zeal, to fulfil the duties of their state. The sick found in him a father who was ever anxious to relieve and console them. He left nothing undone in order to bring back public sinners to the path of virtue, and, if they were incorrigible, he did not shrink from inflicting the severest punishments. No labour, no fatigue, could induce him to relax, even for a moment, this incessant vigilance. Both in public and in private he was always impressing upon his priests the duty of living holy and edifying lives; and if any of them was an occasion of scandal to the faithful, he punished him with uncompromising severity. And since idleness is the root of all evil, he tried his utmost to free the clergy from this hateful pest, by establishing everywhere theological conferences, to which everyone was bound to come, and to be fully prepared to take part in the discussions. He was equally anxious about the fervour of the religious communities in his diocese. He made the most careful inquiries about their manner of life, and did all in his power to ensure a strict observance of rule. In one word, Alphonsus, during his visitations, displayed the zeal and vigilance of a true bishop.
It might have been thought that the holy bishop, whilst traversing his diocese, would have relaxed somewhat of the extreme severity of the life which he led when at home. But such was not the case; he practised the same poverty as in his own palace, and made no change in his accustomed prayers and penances. In order to avoid sleeping on a soft bed, he used to take about with him a large sack stuffed with straw, and this he made use of until his confessor compelled him to give it up, on account of his numerous infirmities. And that even in his sleep he might not be free from pain, he put a number of pebbles in this miserable kind of bed, so that it afforded but little relief to his wearied limbs. The humility of Alphonsus was as admirable as his spirit of penance. Tell ye the daughter of Sion, said the Prophet, speaking of our Divine Lord, behold, thy king cometh to thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass. When the holy Bishop was making his visitation, his people witnessed in him a perfect imitation of the meek and lowly Jesus. He had no splendid equipage, no glittering retinue, but came along seated on a hired ass, which was led by a boy, whilst a man walked by his side, supporting him, on account of his age and great weakness. This humble appearance of Alphonsus gained for him the love and admiration of his people, for they saw him coming to them, as the Saint himself smilingly observed, not “in chariots and horses, but in the Name of the Lord.”
As soon as he had returned home after visiting his diocese, the holy Bishop applied himself with zeal to carry out the plans he had formed for the sanctification of his flock. He was well aware that if he wished the people to be holy, he must give them holy priests, and so his chief care was to form a pious and learned clergy, and to do this a good seminary was absolutely necessary. “All my hopes of sanctifying my diocese,” he used to say, “rest on the seminary; if that is not what I wish it to be, then all my trouble will be of no avail.” Those students whom he found to be either unworthy of the priesthood, or unfitted for it, he at once dismissed, and for those that remained he drew up rules, framed with such admirable wisdom and discretion, that nothing was wanting either for the discipline of the house or for the spiritual welfare of its inmates. He pointed out the abuses which are wont to creep into establishments of this kind, and indicated the means for avoiding them. He made several wise changes in the course of studies, and selected as professors men who were as remarkable for their piety as their learning. He insisted upon a diligent study of philosophy, dogmatic theology, and, above all, moral theology. “We must certainly,” he said, “be good dogmaticians, but it is far more important that we should be good moralists. Without a sound knowledge of moral theology, a man can neither be a good confessor nor a good parish priest.” All the seminarists were the objects of his special care, but chiefly those who were on the point of being raised to Holy Orders. He was always present in person at the examination of candidates, and never allowed them to receive any Order until he was perfectly satisfied about their science and virtue.
He was not less vigilant with regard to his priests. He insisted on their preaching in an apostolic manner, and condemned with equal severity the two extremes of negligence and affectation. No one was allowed to hear confessions until he had given proofs of his capacity. In bestowing ecclesiastical benefices, the holy prelate acted with the most rigid impartiality, and conferred them only on those whom he considered to be the most worthy, even when there was no care of souls attached to these dignities. He strictly enjoined on all the obligation of residence. All the convents of his diocese were the special objects of his zealous solicitude. He had scarcely been consecrated bishop when he ordered the Exercises of retreat to be given in every convent under his jurisdiction; and these retreats he afterwards established as an annual custom, since he considered them as the most efficacious means for sanctifying souls. “There is no iron,” he would say, “however rusty, that would not be purified and softened in so great a furnace.” The nuns of the Most Holy Redeemer were the most favoured of his spiritual daughters; he had brought them into his episcopal city from the motherhouse at Scala. He guarded them as the apple of his eye, and was always assisting them by every means in his power. He gave them also admirable rules to aid them in attaining religious perfection, and is justly regarded as their spiritual father and founder. Between these nuns and the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer there exists, indeed, the bond of a common origin and a common love for the same father, although they are not subject to the Superior-General of the Redemptorists, but to the Bishop of their respective dioceses.