Communicanda – 1985-1991
Rome, July 1, 1987
Gen. 250/87 Rome
A Reflection on the
Two Hundredth Anniversary of His Death
“Accertato Alfonso della volontà di Dio, si animò e prese coraggio; e facendo a Gesù Cristo un sacrificio totale della Città di Napoli, si offerse menar i suoi giorni dentro proquoi, e tuguri, e morire in quelli attorneato da’ Villani e da’ Pastori”.
(“Sure that it was God’s will, Alphonsus found courage and started to act; and making the total sacrifice of the city of Naples to Jesus Christ, he offered to live the rest of his days in sheepfolds and hovels, and to die among shepherds and country folk”.)
A.M. Tannoia, Della Vita ed Istituto del Ven. S. di D. ALfonso M. Liguori, I, 66.
- These words of Tannoia offer the context of the reflection which the General Council offers to the members of the Congregation on the Two Hundredth Anniversary of the Death of St. Alphonsus. During this Bicentennial, we think it is proper to take a look at St. Alphonsus in order to ask a particular question: Does his life help us to enter into the central theme of our last General Chapter: evangelizare pauperibus et a pauperibus evangelizari?
- In looking at Alphonsus, we must not try to make him say things he did not say. His era of history did not have the same questions or understandings of the world that is ours today. All we can do is examine his life and personality, and try to discern the attitudes that speak to our theme. In doing this, we will find that, as our Father and Founder, Alphonsus succeeded in unifying both his love for Christ the Redeemer and his love for the poor. And this appreciations will be a help to us who celebrate two hundred years of our heritage received from the first Redemptorist.
CONVERSION AND THE WILL OF GOD
- Alphonsus’ journey toward evangelizing the poor can be studied in the light of his concern for “distacco” (detachment) in order to follow the will of God. This Alphonsian detachment is an attitude which expresses his personal experience of “exodus” and of conversion. And this conversion involved a total focusing of his life toward a new goal which was never to be set aside.
- Alphonsus’ detachment was the consequence of his desire to discover the call of his Heavenly Father. Alphonsus was not a man with a fixed idea or an ideological fantasy. He had to seek the will of God through the very contradictory signs of his time. Events, persons, sufferings, successes, dreams, inspirations – all of them together did not suffice to make his way clear. Therefore, Alphonsus’ discernment had to be made in intimate dialogue with the Lord. He will become the Master of Prayer because he sensed the vital need of it. He carried all these confusing signs before the Lord and they were transformed through a dialogue of faith into the decisions which changed the history of Alphonsus’ life and that of our own.
- From the point of view of our theme, Alphonsus’ conversion is highlighted in three important moments. First, there is Alphonsus1 .abandonment of the law courts which should not be taken simply as a gesture caused by bitterness over a defeat or by crushed ambition. Is it not true, rather, that in this moment he received from God an insight which brought about a disenchantment with his entire world, a disillusionment with a society which promised justice but which would permit injustice to triumph in its very courts of law. While we cannot expect of Alphonsus a critical analysis of society, we can certainly discover in his spirit of detachment a critical sensitivity which shaped his understanding of the social world in which he lived. He perceived an injustice and corruption which went beyond a lost legal case and which penetrated the customs, the norms and the values of the dominant society of his day: “Mondo, ti ho conosciuto” (“O world, I have understood you”)
- The second great moment of conversion came as Alphonsus cared for the sick in the Hospital of the Incurables, that intense moment when he heard the words: “Lascia il mondo, e datti a me” (“Leave the world and give yourself to me”). These words made him rush to the shrine of Mary at whose feet he laid his sword. In this profound gesture, he set aside his whole world and all it stood for. It was a moment of opening his heart to wherever the Lord would lead him.
7 His detachment would then carry him toward another world: the world of the spiritually abandoned, abandoned because they were marginalized and counted for nothing in the society in which he had lived. We cannot expect to find in Alphonsus the same understanding of poverty or of an option for the poor which the Church has in our day. There is no doubt, however, that he made a real “option for the poor” in his life.
8 It was to this third moment of his conversion that the Lord led Alphonsus, as he went one day to the hills above Scala for a rest. Here he discovered another world, until then little recognized by him. And it was in this world that Alphonsus found the people to whom he was called to live and announce the Gospel with all his strength: those who were spiritually abandoned because they were poor. They were to become the preoccupation of his life.
- We can now see the thrust of Alphonsian de tachment. It was part of his exodus-conversion from one world to a life-giving commitment to another world. It moved him from a disenchantment and total renunciation of one type of society to the acceptance of another as the place where he was to encounter Christ the Redeemer.
CONTINUE THE REDEEMER
- Alphonsus found that the will of God for him was personalized in Jesus Christ. Jesus was the incarnate will of the Father, a will of saving love. Christ will be the center of the spirituality of Alphonsus. Every moment of the life of Jesus will be for him an amazing manifestation of the saving love of God. Crib, Cross, Eucharist: these are the symbols making visible the paschal force of the Incarnation, Death-Resurrection, and Sacrament at work in the depths of the life of Alphonsus. Christ is not just a model for Alphonsus; there is rather a profound rapport of love between the two of them, that is akin to a sacramental identification. The missionary power of Alphonsus grew from that of Christ. As Christ’s loving union with his Father broke out in his desire to proclaim this love to all, so Alphonsus’ loving union with Jesus made him want all others to love Him too.
- Alphonsus came to discover how Christ was to become incarnate for him in the world of the abandoned poor. Alphonsus saw himself called, not to see Christ in the poor, but rather to identify himself with the Redeemer who became poor that we might become rich. Alphonsus1 choice in favor of the abandoned poor flowed from his identification with Jesus Christ, not from an ideological commitment to a social class.
- For Alphonsus, Mary always stood out as the ultimate model of this “Christification” which he sought. She was the symbol of the merciful love of Christ for all, especially for the most abandoned. And she more than anyone else could awaken in others a response to this love.
- When Alphonsus discovered those to whom he was called, all his efforts and all his talents came to be placed at the service of a single objective: these abandoned poor. Alphonsus the writer and musician will compose simple meditations and sing popular songs; Alphonsus the theologian will devise the “vita devota” and will teach confessors to bring mercy, not judgment to the abandoned; Alphonsus the preacher will invent a simple style of preaching and the mission renewal; Alphonsus the bishop will feed the hungry during time of famine. Everything in him was to be united in order to “evangelizare pauperibus“, to bring the Gospel to the abandoned poor.
- In Alphonsus the preferential option for the poor was one which did not exclude. He did not refuse to frequently offer his ministry to all classes: the clergy, to nuns, and even to the nobility and well-to-do. Indeed, he always tried to be available for these others. But it was only for the sake of those who were abandoned because they were poor that he will become Alphonsus the Founder. Precisely for them he will begin his greatest labor: he will develop an apostolic community, the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer.
- This community was to bring to these poor folk Alphonsus’ kind of explicit, prophetic, and liberating proclamation of the Gospel. This was to be a proclamation which leads to conversion because it is full of mercy and hope. Alphonsus never limited himself to the denouncement of sin, but offered a plan for a new life. He was never satisfied to provoke only an immediate response; he sought to articulate a new and deeply Christian life. And although he was not as conscious of social justice as we are today, can it be denied that he did extraordinary work to establish this Christian life on the fundamental dignity of the human personality of even the poorest and simplest? This inalienable dignity of the human person, which comes before any natural or conventional difference among human beings, shines strongly in the moral theology of Alphonsus, where the sanctity of the conscience of each person has an indisputable primacy over every law. Is it not precisely this affirmation of each person’s personal dignity before God which is the first act of justice owed to everyone, and which is the basis of our equality and indeed of every other demand of social justice?
A PAUPERIBUS EVANGELIZARI
- The second part of the theme for this sexennium comes from experiences and thoughts of our contemporary times. But in Alphonsus’ life there are some hints which indicate that he found that the poor had a Gospel message for himself and his companions. It is in this sense that we can understand his demand that Redemptorists must live among those to whom they are sent. He saw only ruin for the Congregation if it would move away from the poor to return to the courts and palaces of the city, which for him were the symbols of a society he had rejected. They were powerful symbols which affected one’s interior dispositions. Away from the poor the Congregation would lose its mission because it would lose its sensitivity to those to whom it was called. These people would teach the members what salvation means for a Redemptorist.
- Alphonsus did not attempt a life of “solidarity with the poor” as this is understood today. But on this point three things seem clear from Alphonsus practice. First, as a rich man, most of whose first companions were from the upper strata of Neapolitan society, he demanded of himself and of them a change of life-style which was truly significant. This was seen by him, not from the point of view of identity with the poor, but with the poor Redeemer: the one who left everything divine to be one of us. In order to find him, one must become poor.
- Second, Alphonsus always sought a direct and personal contact with the poor. The poor were not just received, but rather were sought out with apostolic zeal in order to find the most abandoned. Alphonsus took the initiative to begin an apostolic Congregation so he could reach these abandoned poor. His was a pastoral attitude of doing and not just of reacting.
- Third, Alphonsus did not choose a life of impoverishment; his practical bent united with his detachment to see that material goods were used so that confreres could effectively reach out to the spiritual abandonment of the poor. The goods of the community were to enable it to be available to the abandoned poor to whom it was called. They were not to be a means of separating the community from these people.
THE APOSTOLIC COMMUNITY
- These aspects of Alphonsus’ life signify more than a mere personal devotion; they are signs of an authentic spiritual dynamic which he has left to his Congregation as its inheritance.
- “To follow the example of Jesus Christ, the Re deemer, by preaching the Word of God to the poor” (Constitution 1). To follow the Redeemer and to live for the poor always constituted for Alphonsus a single reality which flowed directly from his living experience. And it constitutes the single purpose of his Congregation.
- Alphonsus quickly realized that the path to identification with the Redeemer was not an individualistic adventure. For him, the founding of the Congregation did not simply mean the creation of a team for pastoral work. Rather it was to produce an apostolic community which in its being and its acting would be a continuation of the saving presence of the Redeemer. The apostolic community, not just the individual Redemptorist, was to be the visible sign of the Redeemer. The community was to strive to create a climate of mutual respect, support and sanctification within itself. In this way, the community itself becomes a living model of the Lord’s kingdom of justice and peace. As such, it can preach with power and conviction to those abandoned poor to whom it is sent.
23 This is our Saint Alphonsus, sketched in a small portrait with only a few of his features. This picture seems sufficient, however, to give us some clues about what our attitude should be regarding the central theme of the General Chapter: “Evangelizare pauperibus et a pauperibus evangelizari“. Without a doubt, our Alphonsian heritage should lead us to accept this theme as a genuine product of his charism.
24 The General Council offers these thoughts to all our confreres and communities on the occasion of the Bicentennial of the Death of our Founder, St. Alphonsus. We hope that they are suited to this important moment in our history.
Fraternally yours in J.M.J.A.
Juan M. Lasso de la Vega, C.Ss.R.