REBEL SAINT

The Surprising Story of

ST. ALOYSIUS
GONZAGA

ST. ALOYSIUS GONZAGA



needs rescuing from the hands of overzealous hagiographers. On holy cards and in stained-glass windows, the young Jesuit is usually depicted in a black cassock and white surplice, gazing beatifically at a crucifix he holds in slim, manicured hands. For good measure, he is sometimes portrayed gently grasping a lily, the symbol of his religious chastity.

There is nothing wrong with those images, except when they obscure what was anything but a delicate life and prevent young Christians (and older ones, for that matter) from identifying with someone who was actually something of a rebel.

On March 9, 1568, in the castle of Castiglione delle Stivieri, in Lombardy, Luigi Gonzaga was born into a branch of one of the most powerful families in Renaissance Italy. His father, Ferrante, was the marquis of Castiglione. Luigi’s mother was lady-in-waiting to the wife of Philip II of Spain.

As eldest son, Luigi was the repository of his father’s hopes for the family. So anxious was Ferrante to prepare his son for the world of political intrigue and military exploit that he dressed the boy in a tiny suit of armor and brought him along to review the soldiers in his employ.

By the age of seven, though, Luigi had other ideas. He decided that he was more attracted to a very different kind of life. Nevertheless, Ferrante remained enthusiastic about passing his fortune and title on to his eldest. In 1577, he sent Luigi and his brother to the court of Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici of Tuscany, where the two were to gain the polish and training needed to succeed in court.

Again, rather than being fascinated with the intrigue and (literal) backstabbing in the decadent world of the Medicis, Luigi withdrew into himself, refusing to participate in what he saw as a corrupt environment. At ten, he made a private vow never to offend God by sinning.

After two years in Florence, the marquis sent his two sons to Mantua, where they boarded with relatives. Unfortunately for Ferrante, the house of one host boasted a fine private chapel, where Luigi spent time reading the lives of the saints and meditating on the Psalms. It was here that the thought came to him that he might like to become a priest.

Upon returning to Castiglione, Luigi continued his studies, and, when Cardinal Charles Borromeo visited the family, the twelve-year-old Luigi’s seriousness and learning impressed him greatly. Borromeo discovered that Luigi had not yet made his First Communion and so prepared him for this. (In this way one future saint received his First Communion from another.)

In 1581, still intent on passing on to Luigi his title, Ferrante decided that the family would travel with Maria of Austria, of the Spanish royal house, on her return to Spain. Luigi became a page attending the Spanish heir apparent and was also made a Knight of the Order of St. James.

These honors only strengthened Luigi’s resolve. In Madrid he found a Jesuit confessor and eventually resolved to become a Jesuit himself. His confessor, however, told Luigi that he needed to obtain his father’s permission first.

His father flew into a rage and threatened to have Luigi flogged. There followed a protracted battle of wills between the intransigent marquis and his equally determined sixteen-year-old son. Hoping to change his son’s mind, he promptly sent Luigi and his brother on an eighteen-month tour around the courts of Italy. But when Luigi returned, he had not changed his mind.

Worn out by his son’s persistence, the father finally gave permission. That November, Luigi, at 17, renounced his inheritance and left for Rome. Aloysius (as he is most often called today) carried a remarkable letter from his father to the Jesuit superior general, which read, in part, “I merely say that I am giving into your Reverence’s hands the most precious thing I possess in all the world.”

My own announcement

His determination to enter religious life in the face of fierce opposition from his father filled me with admiration when I was a Jesuit novice. When I first announced to my parents my own intention to enter the novitiate, they too were angered and pleaded with me not to join. (They did not, however, threaten to have me flogged!)

Painting of Aloysius

Gonzaga’s route to the Jesuit novitiate was tough. His father insisted that he learn the ways of arms and courts and inherit the title of marquis. It was a “protracted battle of wills between the intransigent marquis and his equally determined sixteen-year-old son,” according to the author.

After a few years they came to accept my decision and support my vocation. But in that interim period, when I was determined and so were they, Aloysius was my patron.

Because of the strict religious practices that Aloysius had already adopted, the Jesuit novitiate proved surprisingly easy. As Joseph Tylenda, SJ, writes in Jesuit Saints & Martyrs, “He actually found novitiate life less demanding than the life he had imposed upon himself at home.” His superiors encouraged him to eat more regularly, pray less, relax more, and reduce his penances. Aloysius accepted these curbs.

In 1587, Aloysius pronounced vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, and the next year he received minor orders and began theology studies.

At the beginning of 1591, a plague broke out in Rome. Aloysius carried the dying from the streets into a hospital founded by the Jesuits. There he washed and fed them, preparing them as best he could to receive the sacraments. Though he threw himself into his tasks, he privately confessed to his spiritual director, Robert Bellarmine, that his constitution was revolted by the sights and smells of the work and that he had to work hard to overcome his physical repulsion.

Many young Jesuits had become infected with the disease, and Aloysius’s superiors forbade him from returning to the hospital. But Aloysius—accustomed to refusals from his father—requested permission to return. Eventually he was allowed to care for the sick at another hospital, where those with contagious diseases were not admitted. While there, Aloysius lifted a man out of his sick bed, tended to him, and brought him back to his bed. But the man was infected with the plague: Aloysius grew ill and was bedridden by March 3, 1591.

A fever and a cough set in; Aloysius declined for many weeks. On June 21, two priests brought him Communion. With his eyes fixed on a crucifix, Aloysius struggled to pronounce the name of Jesus and died. He was 23.

His unique sanctity was recognized even during his life. After his death, when Cardinal Bellarmine would lead young Jesuits through the Spiritual Exercises, he would say about a particular type of meditation, “I learned that from Aloysius.” Aloysius Gonzaga was beatified in 1605, only 74 years after his death, and canonized in 1726.

Page from an old biography of Aloysius

A 1792 biography of Gonzaga, which focuses on his personal piety, includes this illustration of Gonzaga and Charles Borromeo, one future saint receiving Communion from another.

A trio of saints

It would have been impossible to miss Aloysius in the novitiate: he is one of the patron saints of young Jesuits and is, along with Stanislaus Kostka and John Berchmans, one of a trio of early Jesuit saints who died young.

As a novice, it was natural to pray to the three, since I figured that they understood the travails of Jesuit life. Berchmans, in fact, was quoted as saying “Vita communis est mea maxima penitentia.” Life in community is my greatest penance. Now there was someone to whom a novice could pray!

But it wasn’t until two years later, when I was working with the Jesuit Refugee Service in East Africa, that I began to pray seriously to Aloysius himself. Even at the time I wondered why. The sudden devotion came as a surprise. Sometimes I think that one reason we begin praying to a saint is that the saint has been praying for us.

In any event, I found myself thinking about Aloysius whenever life in Nairobi became difficult. When I was frustrated by a sudden lack of water or electricity, I would silently say a little prayer to Aloysius to intercede for me and help me be more patient. And when mononucleosis stuck me in bed for two months, I sought his encouragement. I figured he knew something about being sick. During my two years in East Africa, I had a feeling that Aloysius was in his place in heaven looking out for me as best he could.

On the way back from Africa, I stopped in Rome for a sort of mini pilgrimage. Besides visiting Ignatius’s rooms and the Church of Gesù, what I most wanted to do was see the rooms of Aloysius in what was called the Roman College, the Jesuits’ main educational institution in Rome, attached to the Church of San Ignazio.

Having visited the austere, barely furnished rooms of Ignatius the day before, I expected a similar scene. But Aloysius’s room was the opposite. The small chamber was dominated by a marble Baroque altar that occupied almost an entire wall; a murky oil painting of the saint hung over it. The walls were covered in heavy red damask, with small framed pictures of scenes from his life. On one side stood a dusty glass cabinet that held his cassock, clothes, and assorted possessions. Unlike the stripped-down rooms of Ignatius, this room bespoke centuries of piety and devotion to the saint that had slowly been built up, layer by layer.

Alone in the room, I knelt down on the prie-dieu. After a hectic two years of working in Nairobi, it was perhaps the first time I had found myself in such a quiet and secluded setting. I thought of all the people who had prayed to Aloysius. As patron of youth he has doubtless heard millions of schoolchildren’s prayers asking for help on an exam or with a hard-nosed teacher. He had been prayed to by generations of Jesuit novices. And more recently, thanks to his work with plague victims, he has been embraced by people with AIDS as patron.

I thought of all of these men and women asking for his help. And I remembered the two years in Africa I had spent praying for his intercession. Suddenly I was given a surprise—what Ignatius called the “gift of tears.” I wondered where they came from. Perhaps relief at having safely completed my time in Africa, perhaps sadness at having left friends there, perhaps gratitude to Aloysius for his intercession. Perhaps all those things.

Why is one attracted to a particular saint? Why do the stories of persons whose lives have, at least on the surface, little in common with our own speak so deeply to us? How is it that one feels so drawn to ask the help of a sixteenth-century Italian noble? In many ways, an attraction or interest or devotion to a saint is, to use an overused expression, a mystery. Because of this, such devotions need to be reverenced for what they are — graces in the spiritual life, gifts from the God of surprises.  *


James Martin, SJ

Fr. James Martin, SJ, associate editor at America magazine, wrote My Life with the Saints (Loyola Press, 2006), from which this story is excerpted.



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