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St. Alphonsus Maria de Liguori – The Most Zealous Missionary

By Fr. Joseph Royan, C.Ss.R

Fr. Joseph Royan, C.Ss.R
Fr. Joseph Royan, C.Ss.R

Early in the year 1730 a young priest was recovering from his broken health in the west of Italy. While there, he met a number of the local people, mostly peasants, who gathered around him and asked to be instructed in their Faith. He was astonished and upset at the ignorance of these poor people, about the good God whom he himself loved with such ardour; and he determined to found a Congregation of Priests who would work as missionaries to spread the knowledge and love of God among neglected souls such as these.

Today that young priest is known as St. Alphonsus Liguori, and his Congregation of Priests and Brothers as the Redemptorists. St. Alphonsus was an amazing character; a successful lawyer before he became a priest, the founder of a religious order, a zealous missionary for many years, the author of many beautiful books on spiritual and moral subjects, a Bishop and finally a canonised Saint and Doctor of the Church. One of his fellow bishops said of him: “Monsignor Liguori thinks of nothing but the glory of God.” How true were those words! So ardently did he love God himself, so earnestly did he desire to see all men love Him also, that he took a vow never to lose a moment of time, but to spend every minute of his life promoting the love of God in the hearts of all people.

Early Years

He was born Alphonsus Marie Antony John Cosmos Damien Michael Gaspard de Liguori on September 27, 1696, at Marianella, near Naples, Italy. Raised in a pious home, Alphonsus went on retreats with his father, Don Joseph, who was a naval officer and a captain of the Royal Galleys. Alphonsus was the oldest of seven children, raised by a devout mother of Spanish descent. Educated at the University of Naples, Alphonsus received his doctorate at the age of sixteen. By age nineteen he was practicing law, but he saw the transitory nature of the secular world, and after a brief time, retreated from the law courts and his fame. Visiting the local Hospital for Incurables on August 28, 1723, he had a vision and was told to consecrate his life solely to God. In response, Alphonsus dedicated himself to the religious life, even while suffering persecution from his family. He finally agreed to become a priest but to live at home as a member of a group of secular missionaries. He was ordained on December 21, 1726, and he spent six years giving missions throughout Naples.

At a point where his health was seriously endangered by his apostolic labours, he went for a rest to Santa Maria dei Monti in the Plateau above Amalfi.  There he came in contact with the poor peasants and shepherds who were totally deprived of spiritual care.  This experience gave birth, in the heart of Alphonsus, to the desire to found an institute for the evangelization of the poor, scattered in the countryside and rural villages.  Thus the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer was born at Scala on November 9, 1732. 

Though the foundation faced immediate problems, and after just one year, Alphonsus found himself with only one lay brother, his other companions having left to form their own religious group. He started again, recruited new members, and in 1743 became the prior of two new congregations, one for men and one for women. Pope Benedict XIV gave his approval for the men’s congregation in 1749 and for the women’s in 1750.

Rigorous Austerities

 Alphonsus was preaching missions in the rural areas and writing. He refused to become the bishop of Palermo but in 1762 had to accept the papal command to become the bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths near Naples. Here he discovered more than thirty thousand uninstructed men and women and four hundred indifferent priests. For thirteen years Alphonsus fed the poor, instructed families, reorganized the seminary and religious houses, taught theology, and wrote. His austerities were rigorous, and he suffered daily the pain from rheumatism that was beginning to deform his body. He spent several years having to drink from tubes because his head was so bent forward. An attack of rheumatic fever, from May 1768 to June 1769, left him paralyzed. He was not allowed to resign his see, however, until 1775. He died on August 1,1787, at the age of 91, at Nocera di Pagani, near Naples as the Angelus was ringing. He was beatified in 1816 and canonized a saint by Gregory XVI on 26th May, 1839. In 1871, Alphonsus was declared a Doctor of the Church by Pope Pius IX. He is buried at the monastery at Pagani near Naples. Shrines were built there and at St. Agatha of the Goths. On April 26th, 1950, Pope Pius XII proclaimed him the Patron of Confessors and Moral Theologians.

Doctor of Prayer

He is also called by the Church as the Doctor of Prayer. He used to spend hours in prayer before the Blessed Sacrament each day. He never preached without exhorting his listeners to be constant in prayer. Preaching and prayer formed the heart of his missionary activity.  Where he could not reach people with the spoken word, he sought to do so through his writings.  His 111 works went through many editions.  The most important are: his Theologia Moralis, The Great Means of Salvation, The Eternal Maxims, The Glories of Mary and The Practice of the Love of Jesus Christ. He wrote a little booklet on prayer that he considered more important than any other of his works. Of it he said: “Would that I could have it translated into every language, and place a copy in the hand of everyone, so that all might see the necessity of prayer.” In that little booklet we find these significant words: “All who are in Heaven today are there because they prayed; all who are in Hell are there because they did not pray.” And he adds: “If you pray you will certainly be saved; if you do not pray, you will infallibly be lost.” We might well ask him to obtain for us the grace of fidelity to prayer, that, like him, through our prayers and good works, we may “certainly be saved.”

Pope Emeritus Benedict the XVI while beginning a new department in the Vatican for evangelization, a dicastery or Pontifical Council for Promoting a New Evangelization, place before the church a model, a type of patron saint for this new enterprise, he suggested that St. Alphonsus Liguori might be a good choice. Since preaching the Gospel is the principal task of the Church, he hopes that his new initiative will help revitalize dechristianized Europe and other secularized places in the world. He said that Liguori is “a model of missionary action which can also inspire us today for a New Evangelization, especially among the poorest, and for building a more just, fraternal and united human coexistence.” May St. Alphonsus inspire us to be zealous in making the love of God known to all.