August 1: Saint Alphonsus Ligouri, Bishop and Doctor

Memorial; Liturgical Color: White
Patron Saint of moral theologians and confessors


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Today’s saint was given the gift of a comprehensive education by his parents from a young age. He finished his university studies with degrees in civil and canon law when he was just sixteen years old. After practicing law for eight years, and declining a marriage arranged by his father, the noble, highly educated, and intelligent Alphonsus made a mistake. A bad mistake. He overlooked a simple matter of fact in a legal proceeding and lost an important case for his client. Alphonsus was crushed by the embarrassment. He had never made such a galling, avoidable, public error before. But this one mistake would redound to the great benefit of the Church. Alphonsus decided to abandon the practice of law and his lust for vanity, wealth, and earthly glory. Shortly afterward, he heard an inner voice speak to him, on two separate occasions, while visiting the deathly ill at a hospital: “Leave the world and give yourself to me.” This was the turning point. Alphonsus made a dramatic gesture. He went to a church dedicated to the Virgin Mary, placed his sword on the altar, and petitioned acceptance to a local religious Order.

He was ordained a priest in 1726 and travelled throughout the region of Naples as a missionary, becoming well known as a lion in the pulpit and a lamb in the confessional. In 1732, after forming various friendships with local clergy and convents of nuns, he founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer. The rest of Alphonsus’ long life was spent building up this Order. Like so many nascent Orders, it struggled with internal divisions over its identity, matters of authority, and its specific mission in the Church. These struggles caused our saint no end of spiritual torment, especially after a deep division resulted from an act of forgery and betrayal by one of Alphonsus’ closest priest collaborators.

Saint Alphonsus took a personal vow to never waste a moment of time. It showed. He did everything, and he did it well. Amidst all of his duties as a founder and priest, he stole an hour hour here and an hour there to write a page or two, to dictate a few lines, or to take rough notes on a train of thought that had just crossed his mind. Over time, these stolen hours accumulated, and Alphonsus composed volume after volume on theology and devotion. He became particularly well known as a moral theologian. In that sensitive field of study, he acquired just the right balance. He was clear on the Church’s teachings and demanding of its faithful but was not overly rigorous. His razor-thin moral distinctions clarified correct behavior on contentious topics but may seem belabored and overly detailed from a post-modern perspective. Alphonsus was personally scrupulous but aware of it. He never imposed his finely tuned conscience on the morally deaf. A Pontifical University in Rome dedicated to moral theology was founded by the Redemptorists and is named the Alphonsianum in his honor.

Saint Alphonsus was made a bishop, over his objections, when he was sixty-six years old. He brought his typical energy and zeal to his diocesan responsibilities, demanding his priests celebrate Mass with true devotion or not at all. He maintained contact with every class of society as a bishop, no matter how downtrodden, poor, or forgotten a group was. His works on the Blessed Sacrament, the Virgin Mary, and Prayer became widely read. His reflections on the Stations of the Cross are still used in many parishes over two hundred years after his death. Alphonsus was also a talented musician and composed the music and words for a beloved Italian Christmas carol. After a long and holy life, he died at the age of ninety-one, an image of the Virgin Mary resting in his hands.

Saint Alphonsus, may your life of spiritual suffering, writing, dedication to the truth, and apostolic energy provide sufficient witness for all priests and religious to do half as much as you did, laboring without cease for the good of the Church and the world. Amen.

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