St. Alphonsus Liguori was canonized in 1839, only 52 years after his death—the only professional moral theologian ever to be officially declared a saint by the Church. In 1871 he was made a doctor of the Church and, in 1950, he was named a patron of confessors and moral theologians.
An eighteenth-century European Catholic seeking to please the Lord might have had reason to despair. The prevailing theology of the day depicted God as a stern taskmaster who laid impossible burdens on his creatures. In this view, God expected blind obedience to a long list of rules.
It was not uncommon for confessors to withhold absolution and discourage people from receiving Communion too frequently. The law seemed to be everything, and individual human conscience had little, if any, say in determining the rightness of an action. A popular manual for confessors, noted one dissenting priest, breathed “fury, passion, sternness and fanaticism” and drove “the faithful to desperation.”
Alphonsus Maria de Liguori, a Neapolitan nobleman, was formed in this strict “Rigorist” tradition, and it left an indelible mark on his character. Especially in his younger days, Liguori was scrupulous to a fault, always worried that he had somehow offended God. It is one of the ironies of Church history that this lawyer-turned-priest revolutionized theology and pastoral practice with an approach that (according to the same priest quoted above) preached “charity, sweetness and moderation.” Although scorned by leading theologians of his time, many of Alphonsus’s works have become treasured Christian classics whose relevance endures to this day.
Why did his teachings strike such a chord? Most likely because they were rooted in his own experiences in prayer and as a pastor. As he grew closer to the Lord, Alphonsus came to see the futility of numerous rules. Keenly aware of God’s love—most vividly expressed in the Passion—he sought to preach this love and to show how deeply God desires our love in return.
From Serving the Courts to Serving God
Born in 1696—the eldest of eight children—Alphonsus earned his law degree at just 17 years of age. His father, a navy captain and strict authoritarian, was devout but had no plans for his eldest son—who was his heir—to enter the priesthood. However, on a retreat in 1722, Alphonsus experienced a deep encounter with the Lord and decided to make a private vow of celibacy, even as his father was arranging a marriage which would probably have been socially and financially advantageous for him.
It was also around this time that Alphonsus, ever the perfectionist, lost his first court case—an important one involving large sums of money and prominent Neapolitan noblemen. Walking out of the court room in disgust, he cried: “Ah, world, I know you now!” He went home and locked himself in his room for three days, during which time he ended his legal career. He chose to enter the priesthood instead.
Both as a seminarian and diocesan priest, Liguori threw himself into apostolic work, often laboring to the brink of exhaustion. He joined the Apostolic Missions, a group of priests who planned highly organized evangelistic programs that involved sermons, confessions, catechism, and prayer in the city of Naples. His simple preaching style became popular and attracted not only the uneducated, but the local nobility as well.
Alphonsus quickly discovered that the Rigorist approach bore little fruit in the confessional. Stressing instead God’s mercy in the spirit of the prodigal son, he soon became a sought-after confessor. He and several companions reached out to the very poor living in inner-city neighborhoods—people known as the lazzaroni—to catechize them. Soon, a movement known as “The Evening Chapel” developed as groups of poor lay people from all over the city met together to pray and learn about their faith.
The Way of Prayer
As Alphonsus moved away from Rigorist school of theology, he began to see the importance of prayer in the ordinary flow of lay people’s lives. Prayer was the only way, he believed, that people could receive the grace they needed to overcome temptation. Strict adherence to rules could never take the place of a living relationship with God. Many of his pastoral writings emphasized this point, as he assured his readers that God gave everyone the ability to pray. In his preface to The Great Means of Salvation, published in 1759, for example, he wrote:
I do not think I have written a more useful work than this one, in which I speak of prayer as a necessary and certain means of obtaining salvation and all the graces we need for it. If it were in my power, I would distribute a copy to every Catholic in the world to show him the absolute necessity of prayer for salvation.
In spite of his preaching about God’s love and mercy, however, Alphonsus had to fight, throughout his lifetime, a tendency to be scrupulous. His solution was to pledge absolute obedience to his spiritual director, who could then relieve his constant anxiety that he had displeased God.
Life for the young priest was arduous. He worked so hard that he brought himself to the edge of collapse and was advised to take a few weeks’ rest. Traveling by sea, he and a few fellow priests were caught in a storm near the Amalfi Coast and decided to remain at a place just outside the town of Scala for their vacation. They were soon visited by poor shepherds who were hungering for the gospel. In Naples, many men were ordained because it provided a way for the family property to escape taxation. As a consequence, there was an average of one priest for every 100 people. Here in the mountainous countryside, however, the people had no one to teach them about Christ. Liguori and his friends abandoned their vacation plans and launched a number of missions to serve these peasant families.
Launching a New Congregation
After returning to Naples, Alphonsus gave a retreat for a local convent. During the retreat, one sister experienced a vision in which she felt the Lord calling her to establish a new religious community. Asked to pray about the vision’s authenticity, Liguori discerned that God had indeed spoken, and that he should help organize the new community. In 1731, the rule was adopted. Later that year, the same sister received another vision in which Jesus said he wanted Alphonsus to form a new congregation of men as well.
Father Falcoia urged him to consider founding such an order, but Alphonsus was still a young priest and very committed to the missionary work he was then doing. Still, he couldn’t let go of the idea and decided to go ahead with it. Several priests whose opinions he valued encouraged him, but his friends in Naples condemned the idea, calling him mentally unbalanced, arrogant and under the influence of a deluded nun.
Despite initial setbacks and disputes Liguori’s community grew in numbers, and several houses were established. The men lived austerely, often without adequate food or clothing, but never without hope and faith. Having refined the mission model he used in Naples, Alphonsus sent his priests into small towns and villages. They would give stirring sermons, hear confessions, and teach the people how to pray.
At the beginning of his priesthood, Alphonsus had vowed never to waste a moment that could be put to service for the Lord—and it appears that he lived up to that vow. In addition to leading the congregation and conducting missions, he became a prolific writer of books and pastoral guides. Nine editions of his great work, Moral Theology, were published during his lifetime, along with 110 other titles.
In his writings, Alphonsus emphasized the importance of forming an upright conscience so that people could use their God-given freedom to make proper moral decisions. For Liguori, a well-formed conscience could make God’s laws come alive far more effectively than a long list of prohibitive and sometimes arbitrary rules. Even more importantly, a well-formed conscience would allow a person to respond to God creatively and out of love.
A Bishop of the Poor
By 1761, the 65-year-old Alphonsus Liguori was in semi-retirement at the congregation’s monastery in Pagani—partially deaf and blind, asthmatic, and suffering from a damaged leg that caused him to limp. Yet God was not ready to let him retire! In 1762, Pope Clement XIII appointed him Bishop of St. Agatha of the Goths, a diocese near Naples. The news put him into a deep depression and he begged the Pope to change his mind—to no avail.
For 13 years, until he was almost 80 years old, Alphonsus was a bishop of the poor. He chose a glass ring and a simple iron cross, and served his illustrious guests vegetable soup and a little boiled beef. With his characteristic zeal for pastoring, he sought to educate the local clergy and invited the priests from his own congregation to give missions. When famine struck in the winter of 1763, he borrowed money from friends to obtain grain and dried vegetables for his people. “The bishop must think of the poor who have no one to dry their tears. They are special members of Jesus Christ,” he said, often forgoing his own meals because he was so painfully aware of those who had nothing to eat.
As his health continued to deteriorate, Liguori asked to be relieved of his duties, but was again refused. Finally, in April 1775, Pope Pius VI accepted his resignation, and he returned to Pagani to live out his final days. Yet Liguori lived for 12 more years, often in intense physical pain. A disease that had first settled in his right hip now traveled up and down his body, causing such a curvature in his neck that a deep wound formed where his chin pressed against his chest.
“I Have Been Betrayed!”
Probably more painful than his physical ailments, however, were the problems that cropped up with his beloved congregation. Eight houses existed—four in the kingdom of Naples and four in the Papal States. The congregation had received papal approval in 1749 under the title of the Fathers of the Most Holy Redeemer, or the Redemptorists. But the rule of the order still lacked a royal stamp of approval from the King of Naples—a necessary step to ensure its continued existence. Alphonsus sent two trusted advisers to the court at Naples to obtain approval, but in the negotiations, the rule became compromised almost beyond recognition. Worst still, the nearly blind Liguori signed the new rule in 1779 without fully knowing its contents. When he learned how the original rule had been changed, he sobbed in anguish: “I have been betrayed!”
Since the rule had been changed so drastically by the King, the four Naples houses risked papal dismissal from the original congregation. At the instigation of the leaders of the houses in the Papal States (who wanted to be independent from Naples) and before he had heard the Neapolitan side of the story, Pius VI signed a decree that essentially dismissed from the order Liguori and the members of the houses in Naples. Hearing the news, Alphonsus sank into a deep depression. “Do not call me founder,” he told a fellow priest. “Call me a miserable sinner.” In the last few months of his life, however, he found peace and on Aug. 1, 1787—no longer a member of the order he had founded—Alphonsus Liguori died.
Liguori was canonized in 1839, only 52 years after his death—the only professional moral theologian ever to be officially declared a saint by the Church. His Redemptorist order has grown and spread to all parts of the world. In the 200 years since his death, more than 20,000 editions of his works have been published, making his writings second only to the Bible in popularity. In 1871 he was made a Doctor of the Church, and in 1950 he was named a patron of confessors and moral theologians.