Americans owe much to St. Alphonsus de’Liguori. He was the founder of the Redemptorist Fathers, who have contributed so much to the Church in the United States over the past two centuries.
Alphonsus was born near Naples of a distinguished family. A brilliant youth, he won his doctorate of civil and church law when only 16, and then for several years engaged in a successful legal law practice. One day, however, when he was triumphantly defending a client in a lawsuit, it was shown to him that he had made an error in reading the law and had defended an unjust cause. He, therefore, not only gave up the case, he gave up his legal practice. Actually Alphonsus, though up to then a layman, had been lately attracted towards becoming a priest. He now took priestly studies and in 1726 was ordained. Then he began to work as a missionary throughout rural southern Italy. An able missionary he was, too. In an age in which it was stylish to preach bombastically, he could say, “I have never preached a sermon which the poorest old woman in the congregation could not understand.” In an age in which the errors of “Jansenism” demanded unreasonable strictness in moral behavior, Alphonsus preached common sense Christian morality. This was also the kind of moral doctrine that he wrote volumes about, for he was the greatest moral theologian of his age – a fact that would win him after canonization the title of “doctor of the church”.
While engaged in home missionary work as a diocesan priest, Alphonsus assisted in the foundation of the Redemptoristine nuns. A year or so later he established the Redemptorist Fathers as a missionary organization. When de’Liguori was sixty-six, Pope Clement XIII named him bishop of the diocese of Sant’ Agata dei Goti. He tried to get out of it, but the pope insisted. It was a small diocese, but needed reform very badly. Bishop de’Liguori gave it that reform. Meanwhile he was stricken with a rheumatic arthritis so severe that his chin was almost buried in his chest. He asked the pope permission to resign as bishop in 1775. By that time he had such a reputation for goodness and zeal that, as one churchman said of the man still alive, “If I were pope, I would canonize him without any process.”
If Alphonsus, on retiring, thought he could live out his life in peace, he was mistaken. Now began for this 80-year-old priest, his years of greatest trial – largely because of red tape.
Naples was a separate kingdom in those days. King Charles III, a Bourbon, shared the idea of the Enlightenment that a King should keep close control over church affairs. Now he required that the Redemptorists, already approved by the Pope, be given state approval, too. But his policy would not allow him to approve any religious orders (these he considered old-fashioned and unprogressive), only societies of secular priests. Unfortunately, St. Alphonsus’s advisors just showed the saint the state regulations when they asked for his signature. Poor Bishop Alphonsus at that point could not read more than the initial words, because of failing eyesight. Thus he unwittingly approved of a law that the pope had to denounce. Pope Pius VI, therefore, declared that the Naples Redemptorists were no longer Redemptorists because they had changed the rule and that only those in the Roman province of the order were such. He named another priest, located in Rome, as Redemptorist general superior. Thus Alphonsus, the founder of the order, found himself demoted from office and his order abolished in the Kingdom of Naples.
In addition to this martyrdom to red tape, Alphonsus was at the same time suffering severe temptations against faith; yet these dark hours were intermittently lighted by hours of great prayerfulness and grace. More importantly, he accepted his double burden with supreme patience. In peace of soul, he foretold that the divided order would be reunited after his death. He died at 90. Three years later the Neapolitan Redemptorists were readmitted to membership; and in 1796 Pius VI, who had felt obliged to exclude Alphonsus from his order, introduced the cause for his canonization.
Being a saint is not easy, you see!
--Father Robert F. McNamara