Alphonsus Liguori was born in Naples, Italy, in 1696. As a young nobleman with a rare intelligence, Alphonsus received the finest education eighteenth century Naples could offer. At the age of sixteen, we has practicing both civil and Church law. During an eight-year career as an attorney, he lost only one case – and that was to be his last. It was this loss which changed his whole outlook on life. Alphonsus had come face-to-face with corruption in the courts, and realized he would always be uncomfortable in the world of politics.
After his defeat in court, it was not easy for Alphonsus to face his father and tell the great nobleman that his firstborn so no longer planned to marry or to pursue a career that would enhance the family name. It took many years for his father to accept that Alphonsus was not going to be the famous heir, the great lawyer, or the splendid nobleman.
Alphonsus searched for his place in life. While visiting the sick in a hospital for the incurably ill, he heard God calling him to the service of the most abandoned. Ignoring his family’s opposition, he began studies for the Priesthood.
Alphonsus was ordained a priest in 1726, at the age of thirty. He spent the first two years of his priesthood as a missionary in the area surrounding Naples.
At once he made his mark. The early eighteenth century was a time when speakers used pompous oratorical styles and florid verbosity. It was also an era characterized by harsh confessors who gave severe penances. Alphonsus rejected both of these characteristics. He preached simply. He proclaimed to the people the same message that Jesus Christ had spoken 1,700 years before, “Repent and believe the Good News.” He spoke to be heard and understood. He inflamed hearts with a deep love for their Savior, Jesus Christ. His goal was to have people follow Christ more closely.
Alphonsus would later give his Redemptorist missionaries the instruction that their sermons were to be simple in style, yet well constructed and delivered in a clear manner. Everyone in the church should be able to hear and understand their message.
In the confessional, Alphonsus treated people as penitents to be saved, not as criminals to be punished. He saw that frightening or threatening the sinner needlessly would do little good. He could always bring the sinner to show a sorrow for the sins committed. Alphonsus believed that the deeper a person had fallen into sin, the more kindness he would have to show as a confessor to win back the person to Jesus Christ.
Along with his love for the poor and his great ability to preach and hear confessions, young Alphonsus yearned to go off to the foreign missions. It was a desire he was to have for the rest of his life, and one that led him in 1729 to become the chaplain at a college for the training of missionaries to China. It was here that he met Father Thomas Falcoia. This holy priest was to be his confessor and spiritual director for the next ten years. He was also the one who would put Alphonsus in touch with Sister Marie Celeste.
Alphonsus, Sister Celeste, and Father Falcoia would all have important roles in God’s plan for the starting of the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. Sister Celeste had been having visions about a new religious Order of Sisters following a specific rule and living a cloistered life. Alphonsus, acting with his lawyer’s precision, spoke to Sister Celeste and determined that the visions were truly from God. He helped Sister Celeste in founding the Redemptoristine Sisters. From that first convent in 1731, the Redemptoristine Sisters have spread throughout the world and give witness to the kingdom of God through their contemplative way of life.
Less than a year after the Redemptoristine Sisters had begun, the time was right for Alphonsus to set out with a small band of men to start a new religious community of his own. They would become the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. While Sister Celeste envisioned the Redemptorist Congregation, and Father Falcoia provided the impetus for the first foundation at Scala, it was Alphonsus who actually directed the small band of men. His spirit inspired the first members and remains with the Redemptorists to the present day.
On November 9, 1732, the Redemptorist Congregation officially began. Alphonsus had four followers that first day, and three more men were on their way. Dissension set in almost immediately, and five months later only Brother Vitius Curtius remained with Alphonsus. He must have been more than a little discouraged, but he could not abandon his divine mission.
Fortunately, Alphonsus attracted new men to fill the ranks. Teams of missionaries went through the countryside preaching in Alphonsus’ simple style, while the monastery itself became a center for counseling and retreats. By 1736, a second monastery was opened in Ciorani.
Growth of the Congregation
Soon the tremendous zeal and apostolic success of Alphonsus’ band of missionaries reached the ears of the pope in Rome. Unfortunately local political leaders were not so impressed, and they made things difficult for the Redemptorists by limiting the number of mission houses they could occupy. Although this was a hindrance to their work, and especially their growth as a religious congregation, it did not stop Alphonsus and the Redemptorists. There had been many departures from the early community, so in 1740 the members took an oath of perseverance to remain in the Congregation. Three years later they repeated this oath at the first General Chapter. It was at the General Chapter of 1743 that the rules and constitutions that would govern their daily living and determine the procedures to be followed in governing the Redemptorists were written and accepted. It was at this Chapter that they voted to make Alphonsus their leader, or Rector Major, for life.
On February 25, 1749, Pope Benedict XIV gave his official approval of the Redemptorist way of life. The members took the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, along with the oath of perseverance.
Alphonsus the Writer
Alphonsus was more than busy as a priest, missionary, confessor, and leader of the Redemptorists. Somehow he also found time to be a writer. More than any other single book, his Moral Theology revolutionized the thought of the whole Church. It was a fresh outlook in an age characterized by the rigorism of the Jansenists. Alphonsus did for moral theology, in the middle of the eighteenth century, what Saint Thomas Aquinas had done for dogmatic theology several centuries earlier.
Only an extraordinary person could perform this task. And what makes his work more incredible is that it has stood the test of time over the last 200 years. Alphonsus Liguori is quoted even today by popes and moral theologians as an authority on moral questions. As testimony to his vast knowledge, Alphonsus made 80,000 citations from 800 different authors in the course of writing his monumental Moral Theology.
Moral Theology established Alphonsus as a theologian beyond equal, yet this scholarly approach was not his usual style of writing. Most of his works sought to reach the people he could not reach through the spoken word. He wanted to help people in their everyday life. He made a conscious effort to move them into the saving arms of Christ.
Alphonsus wrote for priests, Brothers, and Sisters. He instructed them in their religious life and explained the duties they had as servants of the people, bringing the message of Jesus Christ. He wrote for lay people, telling them how to love God, avoid sin, and realize eternal salvation. Alphonsus is known to have written 111 different works. In his own lifetime, these went through 402 editions. He lived to see his Visits to the Most Blessed Sacrament go through 40 editions alone. In the 211 years since his death, the works of Alphonsus Liguori have gone through more than 20,000 separate editions and have been translated into at least 61 languages.
Alphonsus the Bishop
In 1762, Alphonsus, at the age of 65 and in very poor health, was named Bishop of Saint Agatha of the Goths by Pope Clement XIII. Although partially paralyzed and still the Rector Major of the Redemptorists, he now had a diocese of over 30,000 to shepherd.
The faith of the people was very weak. Alphonsus began a general mission throughout the diocese. He visited every parish, reorganized the seminary, and revitalized the clergy. The diocese made a complete turnaround and became an example of holiness for all of Italy.
For health reasons Alphonsus asked permission to retire on several occasions. It was not until 1775 that the pope accepted his resignation. He returned to his beloved Redemptorists at Pagani and felt that his life would end shortly.
The Final Years
With his return to Pagani, Alphonsus once again assumed leadership of the Redemptorists. Although Pope Benedict XIV had given his approval thirty years earlier, the King of Naples had yet to recognize the Redemptorists. Alphonsus felt the time had come to tackle this thorny problem. Alphonsus gave Father Majone the task of amending the rule so that it would be approved by the King.
Father Majone and his companions felt that drastic changes were necessary. The three vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience were eliminated. The authority of the superiors was greatly diminished. All notions of a common life were ended. Obviously, these changes would destroy the substance of the Redemptorist religious way of life.
This amended rule was brought to Alphonsus for his signature. Suffering from many physical afflictions, and trusting in the testimony of Father Majone that nothing substantial had been changed, Alphonsus signed the new rule. This act caused a split in the Congregation: Those in the Papal States continued to live according to the rule approved by the pope; and those in the Kingdom of Naples began to live under the royally approved rule. Alphonsus lived his final days in Pagani, excluded from the Congregation he had founded. Only after his death was the institute he had founded reunited under the original rule.
Alphonsus Liguori died on August 1, 1787, at the monastery in Pagani. In the 211 years since then, his little Congregation has grown to be the seventh largest congregation of men in the Church. Alphonsus once told his confreres: “If you want to be a Redemptorist, you must aspire to be a saint.” Alphonsus Liguori was canonized a saint in 1839. Thirty-two years later he was declared a Doctor of the Church. In 1950, he was named the patron saint of confessors and moral theologians. His feast is celebrated by the universal Church on August 1st.
Being a member of the nobility by birth, St. Alphonsus Liguori gave up fame and fortune to meet God among poor shepherds in the countryside. In this same spirit, Redemptorists came to Canada and saw the needs of our Ukrainian pioneers who were poor and without spiritual assistance. Today, Redemptorists around the world are attempting to re-enact for our times St. Alphonsus’ heartfelt and passionate response to the Gospel.