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ST. ALPHONSUS LIGUORI. B. C.
From his life, entitled, Vita di S. Alfonso Maria de Liguori: Roma, 1839. Composed from authentic documents adduced in the process of his canonization.
A. D. 1787.
HE was born in Marinella, in the suburbs of Naples, on the 27th of September, 1696, the feast of Saints Cosmas and Damian, and baptized two days after, on the feast of St. Michael the Archangel. Amongst the names given him, Alphonsus, Maria, were the leading ones, and by these, to the exclusion of the others, he is usually known. His father Joseph, of the noble house of Liguori, was alike distinguished for talent (especially military) and for virtue: and his mother Catherine (also of a noble house) was sister to the celebrated servant of God, Emilio Jacomo Cavalieri, Bishop of Troy in partibus, who died in the odor of sanctity. Indeed she was worthy such a brother, being scarcely, if at all, inferior to him in sanctity of life.
Alphonsus, in early youth, nay, we might almost say, in infancy, even then, edified all with whom he conversed; and those who have written his life in detail, mention numerous instances of virtue, which we cannot afford to specify. He had a remarkable disinclination for the amusements of children, and never took part in them, unless when charity, or the fear of singularity, ruled it otherwise. He evinced the most tender devotion to mysteries, which most children of his age can scarce be brought to understand, and even amongst the youths with whom he was obliged to associate in the college of nobles, under the conduct of the priests of the oratory, his conduct never varied; his devotion to the sacrament of the altar, and the Mother of God, continually gaining strength. His progress in human learning kept pace so well with his progress in the science of the saints, that when he had completed his legal studies, he required a dispensation of three years for admission to the degree of doctor in canon and civil law.
He practised for some time at the bar, and was fast growing into repute, when an incident occurred, to which, in the dispensations of Providence, we are indebted for the apostolic labors and learned writings of our Saint. Alphonsus having been retained as counsel for the defence, in a case of great interest and importance, his pleading was so ingenious and so eloquent, that the president, Signor Caravita, felt disposed to give judgment in favor of his client, when the counsel on the other side, instead of replying, simply begged of Alphonsus to reconsider his argument, and see whether it was not unsound. Alphonsus, to his great confusion and surprise, perceived it to be flawed by reason of his having overlooked one negative particle in the process. The court and audience complimented him upon his able defence, and acquitted him of any blame upon the score of negligence; attributing his oversight to the warmth so natural to a young lawyer in his situation. Alphonsus, however, did not so readily acquit himself; but, having bowed to the court, was heard to say, as he withdrew, “false world, I know you, and have done with you;”—he had given up the bar.
Almighty God was pleased to enlighten his mind, during a retreat of three days, which he made under the direction of his confessor; at the end of which period he was confirmed in his resolution, to attend solely to the care of his salvation. Alphonsus having now nothing to divide his attention with the pursuit of virtue and sacred science, devoted himself unreservedly to the attainment of both,—and applied his powerful intellect so vigorously to the study of theology, as rapidly to fit himself for the office of a teacher in Israel. The rapid and steady progress of Alphonsus in piety and learning induced Cardinal Pignatelli, the then Archbishop of Naples, to hasten his promotion to tonsure and minor orders; unwilling that the church should longer remain without numbering such a youth as he amongst her ministers. Immediately that Alphonsus was advanced to minor orders, he entered upon the discharge of his functions, and kept it with faith and assiduity. Anxious, not only to preserve that purity of life to which he was exhorted by the ordaining bishop, but, moreover, continually to amass new treasures of grace, he regularly attended the religious exercises of the fathers of the mission; a practice which he persevered in up to the time of his ordination to the priesthood. No sooner had Alphonsus received deaconship, than the Cardinal Archbishop, not content with permitting, exhorted him to preach; and the obedient levite, in compliance with the desire of his pastor, preached his first sermon in the parish church of St. John, in Porta, upon the Blessed Sacrament of the Altar.
On the 27th of December, 1726, Alphonsus, being in the thirty-first year of his age, was ordained priest. We shall not dilate upon the raptures of Alphonsus, when he found himself on the summit of the holy mountain. We pass over the sentiments of faith, love, and gratitude, with which he immolated, for the first time, the sacred victim of the altar. We speak not of the redoubled fervor with which he applied himself to all his usual practices of piety, and more especially to the loving adoration of the Blessed Sacrament; we press onward to his apostolical labors, and taking a hasty survey of all he did, and taught, and weighing his title to greatness in the balance of the sanctuary, over which is inscribed, “qui fecerit et docuerit sic homines, hic magnus vocabitur in regno cœlorum,” we shall see whether his title be such, that in the kingdom of Heaven he is called great.
As a matter of course, the pulpit labors of Alphonsus increased on his advancement to the priesthood; and to these were added the toilsome and revolting duties of the confessional. So great, in fact, was the esteem in which Alphonsus was held by his Archbishop, that he had no sooner been ordained priest, than he was appointed to conduct the retreat of the clergy, although there were amongst them many apostolic and eloquent men of older standing than he. He was peculiarly fitted for the confessional, not by the qualities which he possessed (all of which are indispensable to every good confessor), but by the degree in which he possessed them. His tenderness in receiving, his patience in hearing, his sweetness in admonition, were such as few or none have ever met with. The unction with which he represented to the sinner his ingratitude, and the moving words by which he sought to excite him to repentance, were irresistible.
Inspired by his zeal for the salvation of souls, he bethought him of a means whereby to confirm his penitents in their holy resolutions, and instruct them more at large in the science of perfection. On festival days assembling them around him, in some remote and silent quarter of the city, he there addressed them on spiritual subjects. There, encircled by persons of the meanest condition, he was all the better pleased on that account, as they afforded him an opportunity of enlightening them upon many portions of the Christian doctrine, of which they had, till then, been ignorant. After a time several priests, and some laymen of a spiritual life, joined him in his conferences, when the assembly having been represented to the governor as of a suspicious character, was dissolved, though not without the innocence of its object having been recognised. The priests, upon this, retired to a house in the city, and spent their time in exercises of penance and devotion, and those of no ordinary character, but, to Alphonsus, scarce any extremity of vigor, scarce any pitch of fervor was unknown. Alphonsus took care that the dispersion of his hearers should not be prejudicial to the poor people who shared most of his attention, for he caused the more enlightened and zealous of his penitents to assemble their less favored brethren, and speak to them on spiritual subjects, with the consent of the Archbishop, in private houses, and hired rooms, and at length, even in public oratories and chapels.
Father Matteo Ripa, a truly apostolic priest, having returned from China, with some youths of that nation, destined for the sacred ministry, succeeded in 1729 in establishing a college for the Chinese mission. To this college Alphonsus withdrew, as well to escape the distractions of his father’s house, as to perfect himself in the ministry of the divine word, under such a master as Matteo Ripa. Alphonsus lived in the college on no other footing than that of a guest, although for a time he had some thoughts of China, which he relinquished in obedience to his confessor, Father Pagano. Our Saint meanwhile continued to preach in all the churches of Naples to immense congregations, and with abundant fruit. At stated periods of the year, he conducted missions in various quarters of the kingdom, and while laboring for the sanctification of others, took such measures for his own, as are taken only by saints such as he.
He addressed himself to God in prayer, and took counsel of several learned and pious men, all of whom assured him that it was the will of God he should become the founder of a new congregation of missionary priests for the spiritual aid of those souls who are most destitute. The Bishop of Scala engaged him to establish the first house of the future Order in his diocess. He set off for Scala, and on the ninth of November, 1732, after having celebrated a Mass of the Holy Ghost, and sung the “Te Deum,” in thanksgiving for all the protection vouchsafed him in this matter, he laid the foundation of his new society. His first companions numbered twelve, consisting of ten priests, and two candidates for orders, together with a serving lay-brother, Vito Curzio by name, a rich gentleman of Acquaviva di Bari, who, admonished by a vision at Naples, had chosen that humble post amongst the brethren of the new congregation.
The life which Alphonsus and his companions led in Scala, resembled nothing so exactly as the life of those penitents whom St. John Chrysostom speaks of in his “Mystic Ladder.” Their lodging was small and incommodious; their beds a little straw shaken on the floor; their bread black, hard, and coarse; their other food disgusting from its insipidity, and taken kneeling, their religious exercises incessant. From time to time they dispersed themselves over the country to conduct the missions, and gathered in such harvests of souls (Alphonsus always foremost in labor and success), as caused the bishop to thank God with all the fervor of his heart, for having provided his diocess with these apostles, and above all, with Alphonsus, who was the great instrument in the hands of the Almighty, and next to God best entitled to its gratitude.
Whilst Alphonsus and his brethren, laboring thus for their neighbors’ salvation, and their own, seemed like the primitive Christians to have one only heart, and one only soul, the enemy contrived to sow his tares amongst them, and scatter the infant congregation. Our Saint thinking it high time to have a code of rules framed for the government of his congregation, wished to collect the views of his brethren upon the subject. Some would fain combine the care of poor schools with their missionary labors; some were advocates for more absolute, and some for mitigated poverty; some insisted upon increased austerity, and some advised relaxation; nearly all condemned the plan of Alphonsus. The saint at other times so deferential to his brethren, defended his plan, and adhered to it in every particular, notwithstanding the opposition of his companions, who at length deserted him, with the exception of Cæsar Sportelli, as yet a secular, and the lay-brother Vito Curzio.
As soon as it reached Naples that Alphonsus was abandoned by his brethren, those who had originally been hostile to his design, renewed their condemnation of it in no very temperate strain. They taxed the saint with presumption, and held him up to ridicule, not allowing even the Archbishop to escape uncensured for the favor which he showed Alphonsus; but the venerable Archbishop, uninfluenced by these malicious speeches in his opinior of Alphonsus or his design, sent for the holy man, and encouraged him to prosecute his good work, an encouragement which, though well meant, was little needed, as Alphonsus, nothing daunted, went the mission by himself in the confidence that God in his own time would provide him with fellow-laborers. The man of God was not disappointed in his expectations; after a while he was joined by father John Mazzini, and as others began to flow in apace, Alphonsus submitted to the holy see the rules he had drawn up for the government of the congregation, and which met with the entire approval of the Pope.
The congregation being now distributed into different houses, the brethren set about the election of a superior-general, and were unanimous in their choice of Alphonsus, whom they appointed general for life. We shall not go into many details upon the government of the holy superior-general; suffice it to say, that he united the greatest humility with the highest dignity—the greatest meekness with the most unlimited command—and all the virtues of the subject with all the qualities of the superior. He made a yearly visitation of all the houses of his order; and as soon as he had completed the visitation, addressed to each house a circular replete with tender piety and spiritual learning, breathing the most ardent charity towards God and his neighbor, and expressive of the tenderest love for the congregation. He was wont to embody in short and pithy sentences, the whole duty of a missionary of the congregation, or place the observance of the rule in a new and striking light.
In training the students for their missionary labors, every other study was of course subordinate to the great object of the congregation—the ministry of the divine word; and it was the anxious care of Alphonsus to impress them with correct notions upon this all-important matter. He instructed them to avoid defacing the simplicity of the gospel with the frippery of rhetoric, or even the genuine beauties of purely human eloquence. He took especial care that they should fit themselves for the confessional by the study of moral theology; which, he said, should finish only with the life of the student, and without the knowledge of which, a confessor, he said, would damn himself, and bring ruin on his penitents. He instructed them, moreover, in the proper treatment of different classes of penitents, impressing upon them the necessity of sweetness and charity, the danger of severity and harshness, and the importance of using to advantage their discretion in giving or withholding absolution in those cases where the church has left either course open to them.
The sanctity of Alphonsus, and the wonders by which his preaching was attended, began to attract the notice of the entire kingdom, and, amongst others, of Cardinal Spinelli, who immediately fixed his eye upon him for promotion to the episcopacy. Shortly after, the Archbishopric of Palermo becoming vacant, the king determined upon appointing Alphonsus to that dignity, saying, “If the Pope appoint good bishops, I shall appoint still better.” Alphonsus, who, upon the mere suspicion of Cardinal Spinelli’s designs, had left his unfinished mission in Naples, was dreadfully alarmed when he heard of the king’s intention, and bestirred himself so vigorously to counteract it, that he did at length succeed, and was consoled by witnessing the appointment of another. But his joy was of short duration, and his escape from the burthen of the episcopacy proved to be nothing more than a reprieve; for the see of Sant’ Agata de’ Goti becoming vacant, he was nominated by the Pope himself to the care of that church. Alphonsus having recovered from the desolation into which he was thrown by the announcement of this intelligence, addressed a letter to the Pope, setting forth his unfitness for that high office, as well by reason of his infirm health, and advanced age, as of his spiritual unworthiness. The Holy Father upon receiving the letter of Alphonsus was deeply moved by the pathetic remonstrances of the saint; and, on the evening of the 14th of March, communicated to his Pro-auditor, Cardinal Negroni, his intention of allowing Alphonsus to decline the dignity; but, on the following morning, informed Cardinal Negroni, that God had inspired him during the night to have Alphonsus consecrated. The Pro-auditor then, by command of the Pope, wrote to Alphonsus, acquainting him with the determination of His Holiness, and put him upon his obedience.
The companions of our Saint, in sore affliction at their approaching bereavement, and unwilling to lose his sweet and fatherly government, having assembled in chapter, confirmed him in the perpetual superior-generalship, empowering him at the same time to govern through one of his vicars, when he should find it necessary: and this decree, in order to its greater stability, they submitted to the sacred congregation of bishops and superiors of orders, by whom it was confirmed on the 25th of May, 1762.
Alphonsus having accepted the episcopal office, through pure obedience, set out for Rome accompanied by Father Andrea Villani, a man of approved virtue.
During his residence in Rome, notwithstanding his retired habits, and the scantiness of his retinue (a single servant), he was paid the most distinguished respect by generals of religious orders, bishops, princes, and cardinals. Almost every moment of his sojourn in the Eternal City he spent in austere watchings, disciplines to blood, constant adoration of the most holy Sacrament, and the exercise of acts of mercy. Having been at length formally declared bishop of Sant’ Agata de’ Goti, by the Sovereign Pontiff, in the secret consistory held on the 14th of June, 1762, Alphonsus was consecrated on the 20th of the same month, the third Sunday after Pentecost, in the sixty-sixth year of his age, in the Church of St. Mary Sopra Minerva, by Cardinal de Rossi, assisted by Monsignor Gorgoni, Archbishop of Emessa, and Monsignor Giordani, Archbishop of Nicomedia, governor of Rome. As soon as he had been consecrated, Alphonsus took leave of the Sovereign Pontiff, unwilling that he should be absent from his church a moment longer than was necessary.
Upon his return to Naples, many persons of the highest distinction, as well as many of his former colleagues, endeavored to detain him there, and dissuade him from his precipitate journey to Sant’ Agata. which seemed to portend so constant a residence in that unwholesome town as would prove ruinous to his health. Their remonstrances, however, were ineffectual, and he set out on the 11th of July, accompanied by his brother Hercules, and Father Francis Margotto. His journey through the country was like the triumphal procession of a conqueror. He was met at every stage by reverential multitudes, and welcomed into Sant’ Agata by the citizens, and the chapter of the process. Having proceeded to the Church, he spent some time in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament, and then addressing the people in a moving strain gave them his benediction and the indulgence usual upon such occasions The very next morning he began the mission to the people, which he continued during eight days, giving each morning spiritual exercises to the clergy, secular and regular, as well as to the gentry; so that shortly after his arrival, the entire aspect of the city and diocess had undergone a most surprising and consoling change.
Alphonsus, in the government of his diocess, simply carried out the principles which he had laid down in a book, entitled “Reflections useful to bishops in the government of their Churches,” and published before his elevation to the episcopacy. Though removed in body from his congregation, it ceased not to be directed by his spirit, as he was in constant communication with Father Villani, his Vicar-general, and the superiors of houses, continually exhorting and instructing them by letters full of unction and wisdom alike divine. His elevation to the episcopal dignity no wise prejudiced that eminent spirit of poverty by which he had been distinguished while residing with the congregation. His dress (invariably the habit of the congregation) was of the coarsest texture. He left the best apartments to his household clergy, occupying himself a couple of the most unpretending, and furnished in the meanest style, possessing, in fact, only some straw chairs, a table with an inkstand and a few books, a small wooden bedstead with a straw bed, and coarse sheets, some pictures of saints and one of our blessed Lady of good counsel, together with a little altar for the celebration of Mass, when his health should not permit him to go to the Cathedral. His table was originally very simple, and every day experienced new retrenchments, until it reached the standard of insipidity, which Alphonsus had laid out for it. His household resembled nothing so closely as a religious community, so regular were the hours of prayer, and silence, and meals, and religious converse.
If Alphonsus, by reason of his pastoral cares, was unable to pray as much as he could have desired during the day time, he abridged to a mere nothing the hours of repose, spending the greater part of the night in meditation, or those appalling acts of penance which we have mentioned. The little time which he contrived to steal from his pastoral cares, or his devotions, he spent not in recreation, but in writing, or dictating letters, or composing works for the good of souls, or reading spiritual or theological books. An application unintermitting as was his, could not, unless by miracle, fail to prejudice his health, and in addition to his other infirmities, he began to be afflicted with grievous headaches. But it mattered not, for even when obliged to go out in his carriage, he had his secretary to read a book to him, so that he contrived not to allow a single moment to pass unoccupied. And, lest by possibility a single imperfection should escape his notice, he appointed a discreet and pious priest to make him acquainted with anything he should observe in him, which might require correction.
Alphonsus having fallen sick in Arienzo during one of his yearly visitations, had no sooner recovered his health sufficiently to travel, than he began to think of returning to Sant’ Agata, and the representations of his vicar-general regarding the unsafe condition of a portion of the palace, would have been ineffectual had not the doctors insisted upon his remaining where he was; the damp and insalubrious air of Sant’ Agata being peculiarly hurtful to one afflicted as he was with asthma. But neither his infirmities, nor his withdrawal from the usual seat of episcopal government, caused him to suspend for a day the instructions, private as well as public, which he was in the habit of giving his flock. He preached as usual on Sundays and holidays; and on Saturdays, in honor of the blessed Virgin; he continued to give missions, conduct retreats, and attend at conferences; in a word, he never permitted his health to interfere with the discharge of any of those duties which even holy bishops deem themselves justified in devolving upon others. He catechised in person the infants of both sexes, holding out, and awarding with his own hand, little prizes for their encouragement. He gave audience to persons of either sex, or any degree, who wished to consult him upon their wants and occasions, spiritual or temporal, but summarily dispatched all visits of mere compliment; and once a year made a visitation of half the diocess, so that he saw every portion of it once in two years. In travelling he rode upon an ass, or hired mule (his equipage he had early disposed of), and made use of no other conveyance, no matter how great his infirmities, or what the badness of the road. During the course of the visitation, he everywhere addressed the people, confirmed the children, and inspected the churches, even in the poorest and remotest districts; his household, his table, and his devotions, wherever he resided, being the same as in Sant’ Agata. To the sick of his entire diocess he was attentive, and not satisfied with relieving their wants when they thrust themselves upon him, took measure to discover such wants as might not have attracted his notice. In the administration of justice in his episcopal court, he was so assiduous and vigilant, and weighed so well both sides of the question, that there never was an appear from his decision to that of the Archiepiscopal Court of Benevento: and with regard to ecclesiastical privileges and immunities, though not so tried, he was full as unflinching an asserter of the church’s rights, as was St. Thomas of Canterbury.
There were many things in the clergy requiring reformation, when our saint came to the government of the diocess; and he effected a total change, at once so rapidly and noiselessly, that the people perceived it to be finished almost before they had perceived it to be in progress. To the canonries and other benefices in his gift, he collated none whose moral and intellectual fitness he had not ascertained; the moral, by personal experience, or strict investigation, and the intellectual, by what is technically termed, a “concursus,” or an examination, properly speaking, of two or more candidates, but sometimes of one only. Nor was this strictness confined to his choice of dignitaries only, he was equally exact in the appointment of every priest who was to have the cure of souls, and sit in the tribunal of penance. The rules which he drew up for the conduct of his seminary were equally admirable with every other portion of his government; providing not only for the maintenance of discipline and piety within doors, but for the practice of piety by the students in their own homes during the vacation, at the close of which, if they meant to be readmitted, they should bring with them a certificate of their religious conduct, signed on oath by the parish priest.
The regular clergy and conventuals of his diocess, men and women, claimed his most paternal attention. He did his utmost, and with the most perfect success, to improve the character of those peculiarly catholic institutions, especially such as were under the invocation of the Mother of God. His beautiful work entitled the “True Spouse of Jesus Christ, or the Nun Sanctified,” will be read with peculiar spiritual advantage by nuns, and with vast profit by any religious whosoever.
If Alphonsus was attentive to the sanctification of the clergy and sacred virgins of his diocess. Oh! how zealously and unremittingly did he not labor for the simple faithful? Not satisfied with his continual preaching by word and example, or his yearly visitations, or the missions he gave in person, or those which he procured by inviting missionaries from other diocesses, or providing the people with virtuous and learned clergy; not satisfied with all this, he tracked vice and scandals to their strongholds.
He exerted himself with the most astonishing activity to put down the absurd and atrocious practice of duelling, often personally interfering to present hostile meetings; and at length memorialing the king to put in force chose laws which had been directed against duelling in the kingdom of Naples. But there was no vice or scandal which he pursued and extirpated with so much zeal as that of immorality, in the more received and restricted sense. It would be impossible to enumerate all the licentious men and abandoned women whom he reclaimed, in very many cases by personal exertion, and often by judicious advice to the civil authorities, who always received it with respect by reason of the esteem in which they held the Saint. Knowing well however that poverty is often the most fatal incentive to vice, he procured honest employment for such young women as he had fears of, and respectable matches for others, giving them portions out of his own revenue. Some whom he reclaimed he sent to asylums of penance; and against those whom he could not reclaim, he called in the arm of the law.
Carefully as Alphonsus provided for the spiritual wants of his flock, he was not less assiduous in ministering to their temporal necessities. He knew well that the man who has not bowels of compassion for his neighbor, cannot love God, and that the funds of the church are the patrimony of the poor. We have already seen how rigid was the economy of Alphonsus in his household concerns, and that this was produced partly by charity; but to whatever it was owing, the poor had all the benefit of it. So chary was he of the patrimony of the poor, as he called the revenues of his church, that he would not entertain his brother Hercules and his two children for more than three days, saying, that to entertain them longer than that would be to defraud the poor. His brother imagining that the revenues of the diocess were more than sufficient for the maintenance of Alphonsus, as a bishop, thought he would relinquish to him the pension which he enjoyed from the estate; but this Alphonsus declined, saying, that the proceeds of his diocess belonged to the poor, and that he required the income for his own support.
He had an alms for every one who asked it, and summoned his vicar-general and others to the aid of his own zeal in discovering such as shame (so ill-consorted with penury) prevented from putting in their petitions with the others. Superannuated priests, old people of every description, widows with families, and more especially young maidens whose poverty might be the occasion of their fall, were the objects of his tenderest care. We have already mentioned his care of the sick; and it was at least equalled by his care of those in prison, both as concerned their spiritual and temporal wants. But all his other acts of love were outdone by one act of stupendous charity, in the year 1765, during which Italy was afflicted in a great and prevailing famine. As if in preparation for the disastrous season, Alphonsus, contrary to custom, had laid up a large store of corn, and as soon as the scarcity began to be felt, distributed it to the poor. After having expended his entire store, he wrote to every one of wealth and distinction, and more especially to his brother Hercules, to contribute to the relief of the starving population. He afterwards gave orders for the secret sale of the carriage and mules which his brother had presented to him, as well as of his pectoral cross, and the ring given him by Monsignor Ganini, substituting for them gilded things of trifling value. But, notwithstanding all his efforts, thousands remained unsupplied, and in the madness of their hunger, attacked the corporate officers; for whose safety Alphonsus has been known to expose his own life to the fury of the mob.
Alphonsus had accepted the bishopric through pure obedience, and ever held it with fear and trembling; but after a time his advanced years and complicated infirmities raised grievous scruples in his mind upon the score of incapacity, inducing him to think of resigning his office into the hands of the Pope, and retiring with his permission to one of the houses of the congregation. Lest, however, as he said, “The cell to which he should retire, might be to him a hell in consequence of his having withdrawn from an office in which God wished him to remain,” he took counsel of learned and pious men, and finding them favorable to his resignation, applied to Clement XIII., who had appointed him, for his removal, and received for answer, that his name alone was sufficient for the well-ordering the diocess. He received tills answer with perfect submission to the will of God, as intimated to him by His Holiness; but after a time, his increasing infirmities awakening new scruples in his breast, and supplying him with new reasons for requesting the acceptance of his resignation, he applied to Clement XIV. and received for answer, that one prayer from his bed of pain would be more worth than a thousand visitations and disciplines to blood; for the Saint had put forward his inability to make the visitation of his diocess as a ground for his removal.
Alphonsus again bowed in submission to the will of God, and it was to no purpose that his own scruples, or the representations of bishops his advisers, and others, solicited him to renew his application to that Pope. “If I apply,” he said, “my application will not be granted; we shall see what his successor will do for me,” an answer which almost tempted those who heard him to smile, Alphonsus being brought to the grave’s edge by infirmity and years, while the Pope was yet hale and vigorous. For five weary years after this did Alphonsus continue to govern his diocess, and break to his flock the bread of the divine word. Ascending the pulpit, his feeble step propped upon several supporters, his worn frame and drooping head moved every one to tears, but no sooner had he begun to speak, than he was renewed in youth and vigor; his nerves and sinews relaxed from their habitual rigidity, and he preached with all his natural vehemence and fervor. Upon leaving the pulpit, he relapsed into his former state. By order of the physicians, he was now obliged to procure a carriage and take an airing every day, together with eating meat in lent, and sundry other indulgences which mortified Alphonsus infinitely more than could have done the most grievous austerity.
For thirteen years had Alphonsus borne the burthen of the episcopacy, when, on the 21st of September, 1774, being seated in his arm-chair, he fell into a tranquil slumber, which lasted not only that night, but during a portion of the next day, the servant having orders from the vicar-general not to disturb him. On the 22d, about one o’clock in the afternoon, he awoke, and pulled the bell. Seeing the attendants in tears, he inquired of them, what was the matter? and, on being told that he had not eaten or spoken for two days, “True,” he replied, “I have been to attend the Pope, who has just expired,” and, as shortly afterwards came to be known, the Pope had actually just expired at that very moment.
Upon the earliest opportunity Alphonsus made application to Pius VI. for permission to retire from his office, and that Pontiff, although at first disposed to act as his predecessor had done, knowing that the bare presence of Alphonsus was enough to sanctify the diocess, was at length induced by the representations of many distinguished persons to accede, though (as he said with great sorrow, to the request of Alphonsus, and accept his resignation.
Immediately that Alphonsus had received the welcome intelligence, “blessed be God,” he exclaimed, “who has removed a mountain from my breast;” and, in a few days after, having arranged all matters for his departure, left the diocess amid the lamentations of the entire flock, and directed his course towards San Michele de’ Pagni, where there was a house of his order. Having reached his destination, he humbly besought the fathers to receive him once more amongst them. As he ascended the stairs, leading to the choir, he repeated the “Gloria Patri,” and exclaimed, “how light is not now this cross upon my breast, which was so heavy when I first mounted the steps of the palace of Sant’ Agata!” Here he lived completely after the manner of the other fathers of the congregation, attending all the exercises where and when it was done by the rest of the community, and enjoying every distinction and indulgence, the carriage drives, the two apartments, the silver service, and the invalid fare by mere compulsion, and solely through obedience. For the rest, the Pope had given him permission to retain the portable altar in his chamber for his own use, and that of others, and had assigned him a pension of eight hundred ducats upon the diocess of Sant’ Agata, which occasioned him so many scruples, that he wrote concerning it to the Grand Penitentiary, who left the affair in the hands of the Saint’s confessor, and thus set him at ease. Of this pension, however, the Saint appropriated barely what was necessary and distributed the rest amongst public mendicants, or private pensioners of his. For many years he continued to preach in several of the neighboring churches, and especially in the parish church of St. Michael, where his congregation was engaged in giving the mission. Upon one occasion during a season of terrible drought, wretchedly infirm as he was, he dragged himself along an entire street in a procession, with a halter about his neck, a crown of thorns upon his head, and his garments covered with ashes. He foretold to the people the happy result of the procession; and, it is useless to say, that the prediction was soon verified. During all this time he ceased not to compose works for the sanctification of souls.—Amongst other works composed and published by him after his return to San Michele de’ Pagni, he gave to the world the book entitled, “Admirable Dispositions of Divine Providence, for the Salvation of the World, through means of Jesus Christ;” and dedicated it to Pius VI., who was pleased to acknowledge it as an especial favor, and compliment the blessed author in the loftiest, and, at the same time, most affectionate strain. But the health of Alphonsus, which had been all along declining, began rapidly to grow worse. From the 29th of November, 1779, he was unable to say Mass, and continued thenceforward to communicate in one kind; his manner of life being, in other respects, as before described. Indeed, we should rather say, that in proportion to the increase of his decrepitude and weakness, his abstemiousness and general spirit of mortification increased, and he certainly would have persevered in the use of that dreadful implement of penance, the discipline, to his last breath, had he not been forbidden by his confessor, and when obliged to part with it and its fellows, he ordered his lay-brother in attendance to throw into some sewer the box in which he used to keep them.
On the 18th of July, 1787, in addition to his old complaints, he was attacked by a sharp fever, together with a terrible dysentery and retention of urine. These were symptoms so little to be mistaken, that, although he had been absolved three days before by Father Vincenzo Magaldi of the congregation, he confessed again to Father Lorenzo Negri of the congregation also, and after having received absolution, was released from all his usual anxiety, and broke forth into expressions of the liveliest joy and hope, the Lord being doubtless willing to console his servant by a foretaste of Paradise, for all that he had made him suffer during this life, and especially for the grievous temptations against faith, by which he had been assailed some time after his retirement from his diocess. His sufferings lasted for fourteen days, during which he was constantly engaged in acts of piety, keeping his eyes lovingly fixed upon the crucifix and image of the blessed Mother; confessing frequently, and communicating every day.
The news of his mortal illness having been spread abroad, priests, secular as well as regular, and persons of the highest distinction, came from all parts to kiss his hand, bringing kerchiefs, and other things, to sanctify by contact with him, and preserve as relics. At length it become necessary for him to receive the sacrament of Extreme Unction, which he did with the most fervent acts of faith, hope, charity, resignation, and joy. On the 25th of the same month, he received the Blessed Sacrament as a viaticum; and when the time for communicating approached, every moment appeared intolerably long, and unable to contain himself, he incessantly exclaimed, give me the body of my Jesus—when will Jesus come to me?—when shall I possess him? His longings having been at length satisfied, he sunk into a long and deep meditation upon the love of Jesus in the most Holy Sacrament.
Four days before his death he was seized with convulsions so violent as to deprive him of the use of speech. On the thirtieth day of the month, Father Villani not thinking it safe to give him the Viaticum, as he was afraid he should not be able to swallow, one of the fathers desired him to make a spiritual communion, which he did, showing by his eyes and various signs, that he joined in the devout sentiments suggested by that father. On the day before his death, Monsignor Tafuri came to visit him, and seeing him so near his dissolution, reverently kissed his hand, and placed it on his head. On the day of his death, just before the commencement of his agony, upon hearing the names of Jesus and Mary, he opened his eyes and appeared somewhat to revive. What is even more surprising, on the night before his death, the image of the blessed Mother having been brought near his bed, he not only opened his eyes, but fixing them upon it, smiled sweetly, his countenance all radiant with delight. Whence we may all conclude, that the divine Mother blessed her holy client with one of those visits which it was his daily prayer to have at the hour of death, and which he so often held out to all who should be devout to Mary.
Alphonsus straining the crucifix and image of most holy Mary to his breast, the brethren in tears and prayer around him, calmly and without struggle or contortion, breathed forth his blessed soul, on Tuesday, the 1st of August, 1787.
On the 21st day of December, 1809, the venerable Pontiff Pius VII. issued the decree for the beatification of Alphonsus, and on the 26th of May, 1836, our Most Holy Father, Gregory, after having gone through the glorious proofs of his sanctity, vouchsafed to the Church by the Almighty, after the beatification of his servant, proceeded with the solemn ceremony of canonization. or enrolment amongst the saints.