The young man stood off to the side while the people around him danced. The music was loud and the lyrics risqué. The dancing pushed the limits of propriety. As they whirled around, his peers taunted him. “Luigi, why won’t you join us? Are you too shy, or are you an angel?” Happy to be thought of as shy, Luigi nodded and walked out of the room.
This might sound like a modern tale, but in fact, it is a glimpse into the court of Grand Duke Francesco de’ Medici in 1570’s Florence. That’s where the young Aloysius Gonzaga—also known as Luigi—was sent by his father to learn the courtly manners required by his station in life. Although centuries apart, the hypersexualized and power-hungry culture was not so far removed from our own. In the midst of it, Aloysius Gonzaga stood out as a countercultural example. He shows us all, especially the young people for whom he is the patron saint, that it is possible to stand against worldliness by letting Christ guide our lives.
A Child of God at Court. Aloysius Gonzaga is a bit of a puzzle. Usually he is depicted in stained glass wearing the black and white garb of a Jesuit. He holds a lily and a crucifix, with his eyes modestly cast downward. He seems to be the epitome of meekness. And yet, this same young man had been born into one of the most politically influential families in Italy. He was exposed to the power and brutality that came with it, and he had immense wealth at his disposal.
The key to Aloysius’ unusual response to his circumstances lay in his commitment to devote himself to God amidst the corrupting influences of his society. It was not an easy process to reject all that the world was offering him, but his determined personality helped him make those difficult choices and stand firm when he experienced opposition. He used to say, “It is better to be a child of God than king of the whole world!” So how did Luigi go from Italian prince to Jesuit saint?
An Array of Influences. Aloysius, born in 1568, was the eldest of seven children born to Don Ferrante Gonzaga, Marquis of Castiglione, Italy, and Martha Tana Santena. He was heir not only to his father’s titles and holdings but also to that of two paternal uncles who had no sons. He moved in royal circles: his mother had been confidante of the queen of Spain, and one of his own childhood playmates was the future queen of France.
The Gonzaga home was a Christian one; prayer and reading letters written by Jesuit missionaries were part of the rhythm of young Aloysius’ life. But life at the court of Castiglione was also steeped in the influences of worldliness, sensuality, and ambition common to the times. For his part, Aloysius dealt with a tendency to be quick-tempered and strong-willed.
Don Ferrante wanted his oldest son to follow his footsteps as a military leader and had a little suit of armor made for his son. Aloysius loved weapons and enjoyed accompanying his father to military exercises, which led to some excitement for the young lad. Once, while the soldiers were napping, four-year-old Aloysius took some gunpowder and managed to fire a weapon, sending everyone into a panic! Later, when Aloysius returned home, he surprised his mother with salty vocabulary that he had learned from the soldiers.
Practical Resolutions. By the age of seven, Aloysius experienced something of a religious awakening. He served at Mass every day and began a habit of daily prayer. In light of this developing maturity and thoughtfulness, Don Ferrante decided to train Aloysius as a statesman. He sent Aloysius and his younger brother to the renowned royal court in Florence.
There at court, the dancing and parlor games were often suggestive. Boys of fourteen and girls of twelve were considered marriageable, and young nobles were sexually used by older noble women and men. While there was great patronage of the arts and prosperity, there was also court intrigue and violence.
In such an environment, Aloysius was certainly not ignorant of what was going on, even though he was only nine years old. Faithful to daily prayer and frequent Confession, Aloysius had already resolved to do his best to give himself to God. But how could he protect his purity? He began by refusing to participate in the court’s dances and games. He avoided being alone with any women at court. Not wanting a holy reputation, he let people think he was shy. In the end, he made a personal vow of chastity and spent time with people who could answer his questions about spiritual things.
These practical choices helped curb the drives in him that were being encouraged by his surroundings. Not simply trying to avoid sin though, Aloysius would say he was doing what was necessary to become holy by identifying what would unite him more closely to God.
Persevering in Prayer. When Aloysius returned home from Florence, he built upon the foundation that had been laid there. He read about the lives of saints and visited monasteries where he learned that he could talk to God directly in prayer. Quietly meditating about the life of Jesus helped him to understand more deeply what it meant to follow Jesus. At home and wherever he traveled, he began to treat household servants with careful respect. When they called him “my lord,” he was quick to say, “To serve God is better than all the glory of the world.”
As Aloysius deepened his devotion to God, he started to wonder if he might be called to missionary work. As a way of trying it out, he made trips into the city to teach catechism to poor children.
When his family moved to Spain to serve King Philip, courtiers speculated that Aloysius would make an excellent statesman. Don Ferrante, who relied on his son’s discretion in negotiating business matters, agreed. But Aloysius became more convinced that he was called to religious life. At age sixteen, he told his father he wanted to join the Jesuits, an order in which he could avoid promotions in the church and do mission work. Don Ferrante’s temper flared, and a battle of wills began between the stubborn marquis and his equally determined son. Ferrante sent Aloysius on an eighteen-month tour of Italy trying to change his mind. But the more Aloysius saw, the less he wanted the grandeur of nobility. He had tasted the joys of contemplation and evangelization, and everything else paled in comparison.
Aloysius found himself in a difficult situation. He was convinced that God was calling him to enter the Jesuits, yet he scrupulously obeyed his father and would not enter without his approval. Through almost two years of struggle, Aloysius persevered. Finally, realizing his son’s anguish, Ferrante relented. In 1585, Aloysius gave up his rights of inheritance and was permitted to enter the Jesuits.
Successful in God’s Eyes. Finally admitted to the religious life, Aloysius was actually able to relax a little. The Jesuit rule was more moderate than his own self-imposed penances. And even better, the strain between Aloysius and his father had been resolved. Unfortunately, Aloysius died of the plague in 1591 at age twenty-three, before he became a priest. In the 450 years since his birth, he has been considered a role model for young people, with hundreds of schools and societies bearing his name.
Aloysius Gonzaga made practical choices not to let his environment or his nobility determine his identity. His calling to be a son of God always came first. Although some people might have perceived his modesty as prudishness or his meekness as a waste of talent, young Luigi’s choices required courage, determination, and true humility. Staying pure, honoring his parents, and resisting worldliness were possible because he drew his strength—and his standard—from God. Aloysius shows us that we can live God’s way, even when the culture around us does not honor God. That’s a lesson not only for young people but for each one of us.
Hallie Riedel is an editor with The Word Among Us.