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Bishop, Confessor, and Doctor of the Church, c.1696-1787

 THE eighteenth century was not a happy one for the Church. It was an age when rationalism and skepticism were dangerously threatening the faith of men; an age when such brilliant cynics as Voltaire, with his battle cry of "Crush the infamous thing!" (the "infamous thing" being the Catholic Church), were the leaders of intellectual activity. Europe was pervaded by a poisonous moral atmosphere and Catholics were badly infected with it; some abandoned everything about their faith except the outward practice of its forms, while others were driven into a heartless rigorism fostered by the wide-spread heresy of Jansenism, Saint Alphonsus Liguori lived almost the length of the century and was plagued by all its evils; unlike so many others, however, he fought the corrupting influences and became a saint in doing so, Alphonsus was born in 1696, in the town of Marianella, near Naples. A precocious child, he was educated in everything from Greek to harpsichord playing and, at sixteen, passed an examination at the University of Naples for a doctor's degree in law. He had his own practice by 1715 and was a familiar figure in Neapolitan society for the next eight years. Love of music brought him often to the opera, although the tastefulness of the staging caused him to sit with his spectacles off, sparing his near-sighted eyes the vulgarities of the productions. His taste for law, and for the world, lessened after a humiliating incident in court. Alphonsus had made a brilliant speech defending a client, when a lawyer for the opposition told him that a certain document in the case completely refuted his arguments. Alphonsus had carefully read the document, but on a second examination saw that his opponent was right and thereupon relinquished the case with a public admission of his error. Humbled by the experience, the young man began thinking more seriously about his life and finally decided to become a priest. His father, who was assiduously lining up marriage prospects for him, protested, but Alphonsus began his theological studies, and in 1726 was ordained.

 His first assignment was mission work in the Naples area, where he soon became noted for two things: his sermons and his manner of hearing confessions. When Alphonsus preached, he spoke simply and directly, without the stale rhetoric that characterized most sermonizing of the day. In the confessional where harsh severity toward the sinner was common, Alphonsus was always gentle and patient, gaining the reputation of never having refused anyone absolution. The common people loved these qualities in him and responded to him as they did to few others.

 His missionary activity continued for several years but gradually became overshadowed by his role as a religious founder. In 1730, in the city of Scala, Alphonsus reorganized a community of nuns (later known as the Redemptoristines), and in 1732, in the same city, founded a community of priests for missionary work among the growing masses of the poor in Italy. The Redemptorist order was thus born and became an undertaking that was to keep Alphonsus involved in controversy for the rest of his life. From the very beginning, he was opposed in the work by many of the hierarchy, who regarded the saint as having dangerously lax theological views, and by the government of Naples, which was militantly anticlerical in its policies. For several years the order suffered suspicion and harassment, but survived because of the approval of its constitutions by Pope Benedict XIV, in 1749.

 Alphonsus found time for other activities, of which theological writing was the most important. His monumental Moral Theology was published in 1748, and became an immediate success, although his enemies were ready with their usual charges; the wildest of these was that he had defended lying. This was false, of course, and the treatise, which avoided the extremes both of laxity and of Jansenistic rigorism, was soon recognized as a safe guide in moral questions.

 The saint's duties increased in 1762, when Pope Clement XIII appointed him bishop of Sant'Agata de' Goti. This was a small diocese with a bad reputation, which Alphonsus quickly transformed. He forced the clergy there to abandon such practices as the careless celebration of Mass ("the sight of a Mass celebrated in this way is enough to make one lose the faith," he said) and gave the people the same charitable, intelligent attention that had marked his earlier work as a missionary.

 An old man now, Alphonsus had an illness in 1767 that left his neck permanently curved and his chin digging painfully into his chest. An operation relieved the condition somewhat, but in 1775 he was allowed to resign his See because of his health. A short period of peaceful retirement followed, and then Alphonsus had to face his most difficult trial: the climactic attack on his religious order.

 In 1777 the royal government, which had long sought to destroy the Redemptorists, threatened to disband them on the grounds that they were carrying on in disguise the work of the Jesuits, who had been officially suppressed in 1773. Alphonsus refuted this charge so completely that the government relaxed its attack and there even seemed some chance of obtaining the king's approval for the order's rule. Alphonsus signed and sent a copy of the rule to the monarch, not realizing (he was almost blind by now) that drastic alterations had been made in the copy by certain members of the order anxious to placate the king. The altered rule was approved by the king; but when Pope Pius VI saw how far in spirit it was from the original, he condemned it and stripped Alphonsus of leadership of the order.

 This was a bitter blow to the man who had been completely innocent in the whole affair and perhaps the action contributed to Alphonsus' last cross: an agonizing siege of scruples and doubts about the faith that lasted through 1784 and 1785. The storm passed, however, and by the time of his death in 1787, peace had returned to him. Before he died, he foretold the restoration of his order that was to take place a few years later under Saint Clement Mary Hofbauer. Pius VI, the same pope who had condemned him, gave Alphonsus the title of venerable in 1796 he was declared a saint in 1839, by Gregory XVI, and Doctor of the Church by Pius IX in 1871.



Copyright 2004 Victor Claveau. All Rights Reserved