The Message of Msgr Antonio De Luca, Bishop of Teggiano-Policastro, for the liturgical commemoration of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of his proclamation as a Doctor of the Church.
Dear friends, brothers and sisters
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the proclamation of Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori as the Doctor of the Church. In the liturgical commemoration of the Holy Doctor, I am writing to share with you some of the traits of the figure of Saint Alphonsus, not excluding, in brief, the cultural and ecclesial contribution he made, having a significant impact on the theological and moral debate of his time.
As I visit the communities of our diocesan territory, I recognize the signs of a spirituality that is the fruit of the evangelization that the Redemptorist fathers left behind over time through preaching and popular missions. The widespread diffusion of the cult of St. Gerard Maiella has confirmed the Alphonsian idea of an ordinary holiness within the reach of all. Many of you have familiarized yourselves with the figure and work of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori by learning about the history of moral theology, but the signs of a popular saint can be found in the consolidated form of popular Christian life that focuses on the Eucharist, devotion to Our Lady, the sacrament of reconciliation and attention to the poor, in order to live a real practice of loving Jesus Christ.
Patron of confessors and moralists
Pope Francis, on the occasion of this jubilee date, wanted to address a message to the Redemptorist family: “One hundred and fifty years after this joyous anniversary, the message of St. Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori, patron saint of confessors and moralists, and model for the whole Church in missionary outreach, still vigorously indicates the main road to bring consciences closer to the welcoming face of the Father, because “the salvation that God offers us is the work of his mercy” (EG 112). […] Alphonsus’ theological proposal stems from listening to and welcoming the fragility of the most spiritually abandoned men and women.”
I like to begin with a dutiful and filial recognition: Saint Alphonsus [is] my teacher of Christian life. These words are also the title of a text by the well-known Lucanian priest Giuseppe De Luca (1898-1962). A writer, sociologist, and a profound connoisseur of the religious history of Southern Italy, having studied the works of Saint Alphonsus and having grown up in the shadow of the spiritual tradition of the Redemptorist missionaries, De Luca does not hesitate to recognize its beneficial influence and its considerable support for the formation of his conscience and his life of faith.
He thinks back to the so-called Visits to the Blessed Sacrament, to meditation on the eternal maxims, to the songs of the Lord’s passion. It is clear that these are not only practices of the Christian life, but a vision of existence marked by love of God and of one’s brothers and sisters. A dynamic of Christian discipleship, which gives soul to works and days, indeed, transpires in every moment through words and choices that every baptized person is required to live. After all, it is the dimension of life that is constantly inspired and guided by the person of Jesus Christ, Son of God.
Thus, through his writings and his life, Saint Alphonsus still becomes a model of pastoral commitment for anyone who lives intensely the challenge of evangelization and mercy that becomes charity.
The gigantic change of epoch in which we are immersed, does not allow us inappropriate comparisons, nor mournful nostalgia for the past, but the holiness and pastoral wisdom of the Neapolitan Saint give a reference in the search for truth and beauty of the Christian life. Pope Francis writes: “The proclamation of the Gospel in a society that changes rapidly requires the courage to listen to reality, to ‘educate consciences to think differently, in discontinuity with the past'”.
I perceive as urgent some very current instances of Alphonsus’ thought. The young Neapolitan lawyer, who later became a priest, did not remain circumscribed within the sphere of abstract and intellectual research, but plunged into concreteness. It will be precisely this commitment that will determine his way of thinking about moral theology, as Pope Francis points out: “formed in a rigorist moral mentality, he is converted to ‘benignity’ through listening to reality.” So, I would place among the pastoral characteristics of St. Alphonsus, what Pope Francis calls “the smell of the sheep.”
St. Alphonsus, with the popular missions and the exercise of the ministry of reconciliation, succeeds in decoding the intimate needs of the human soul, in which the thirst for God is placed at the top.
Aware of frailty and sin, he does not indulge in excessive or high-sounding paths or incomprehensible closures. He advocates the concreteness of humble discipleship, which in daily life is expressed by uniformity to God’s will, by the great means of prayer and above all by the practice of loving Jesus Christ. For Saint Alphonsus, the Copiosa redemptio is the state where man, collaborating with his commitment to the construction and expansion of the Kingdom, discovers and rediscovers, in an ever new and unprecedented way, the will of the Father, who “wants all to be saved and to come to the full knowledge of the Truth” (1 Tim 2:4).
Preserving a vision
Saint Alphonsus began with an inclusive and optimistic vision: “He wants everyone to be holy!” Centuries later, the Second Vatican Council made this an assumption that seems obvious to us today but was not so in the Age of Enlightenment. Consequently, St. Alphonsus reaffirms the very high value of conscience and freedom, so the Christian life cannot be reduced to a religious practice, nor to the scrupulous observance of a code of moral behavior, but the conscious condition of being free and faithful in Christ.
Saint Alphonsus is a Doctor of the Church for his moral proposal. It is undeniable that his juridical formation also flows into it, so as a good lawyer, even in contact with wounded souls, he will not forget the role of defense, co-responsibility and support. While appreciating the very high value of the law, he does not neglect the sinner at all, provided he is willing to accept the grace that saves. He works to form the conscience, “the most secret core and sanctuary of man, where he finds himself alone with God, whose voice resounds in his own intimacy” (Gaudium et Spes, 16). Fears, conditioning, rigor, the obsession with results and the idolatry of forms are far removed from the moral proposal of Saint Alphonsus. The Pope, referring to Saint Alphonsus, writes that “in theological disputes, preferring reason to authority, he did not stop at the theoretical formulation of principles, but allowed himself to be challenged by life itself. Advocate of the last, of the fragile and the discarded by the society of his time, he defends the “right” of all, especially of the most abandoned and the poor, and of those who are “deprived of any spiritual help”. This path led him to the decisive choice of placing himself at the service of consciences that seek, despite a thousand difficulties, to respond to the call of the good to be done, because they are faithful to God’s call to holiness.
Saint Alphonsus struggles against the excesses of a moral rigorism that is concerned with safeguarding God’s free initiative and obscures human dignity. He also fought against an exaggerated anthropocentrism that led to excise God to the point of eliminating him. A theological and cultural debate that has produced sterile controversy, but also fruitful comparisons. St. Alphonsus de Liguori knows that eternal salvation cannot be speculated upon, nor is it right to leave souls in a tangle of uncertainties and confusions; consequently, he moves on the definition of certain principles: first of all, the primacy always belongs to Grace; moreover, God does not let anyone lack the necessary aids to build, day by day, a life project in harmony with the divine will. He does not neglect to emphasize the importance of freedom, not only from every form of constraint, but also from every contingent necessity. And here I like to recall the recommendation that comes to us pastors from Pope Francis: “Situated, real freedom is limited and conditioned. It is not a pure capacity to choose the good with total spontaneity. It is not always possible to distinguish adequately between a “voluntary” and a “free-act”; inclinations, habits, and conditioning sometimes lead to a “voluntary, but not free, decision” (cf. Amoris laetitia, 273). Therefore, moral theology cannot reflect only on the formulation of principles, of norms, but it must take charge propositionally of the reality that surpasses any idea (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 231). This is a priority (cf. Evangelii Gaudium, 34-39) because knowledge of theoretical principles alone, as Saint Alphonsus himself reminds us, is not enough to accompany and sustain consciences in discerning the good to be done. It is necessary for knowledge to become practical by listening to and welcoming the least, the fragile and those considered by society to be neglected.
Man and person in Christ
St. Alphonsus arrived at his moral system after passing through a rigorous way of thinking that would be definitively dismantled by apostolic practice. He wrote, “But later, applying myself to the apostolate of the missions, I realized that the benign doctrine was followed by many men of great wisdom and probity. The classification of those who define Saint Alphonsus as the author of devotional works does not correspond to the truth, nor is it appropriate. They are greatly mistaken in that even in his spiritual works of popular diffusion, he reveals the need to form the conscience and to direct everyone to the real and possible answer. He accomplishes everything with a scientific and profound intuition. It is a matter of a morality for the redeemed, and the ethical proposal qualifies and promotes the vision of man and makes him a person in Christ. On the other hand, it has been well written: “In the history of the Church, (Saint Alphonsus) is the Neapolitan with the greatest intelligence after sixteenth century , like Thomas Aquinas after one thousand years.”
The moral life is a life of love oriented to the beauty of redemption. As a pastor, Saint Alphonsus felt the weight and responsibility of the joy of the faithful and of the path of formation that is incumbent on each one. He wrote a brief but dense booklet entitled Riflessioni utili a’ Vescovi (Reflections useful to bishops), of which his biographer notes: “Having sent it to all the Italian bishops, [Alphonsus] received the warmest thanks from all, and with the thanks some added their own justifications.”
Stressing the priorities of pastoral commitment, he does not hesitate to point out the serious responsibility: “every bishop must be persuaded that in receiving the miter he bears great burdens on his conscience”. He listed six priorities, the first of which concerned special care for the shepherds of the People of God: the seminary and future priests, priests and parish priests…. It is these who form the conscience of a community and of each individual person, especially through evangelization and then through the sacrament of reconciliation.
As a bishop, he wrote to the priests of his diocese of Sant’Agata dei Goti, and never tired of repeating: “The confessor, in order to exercise his office well, must not leave the study of morals. This science is not so easy, as some believe it is very difficult, and it is very wide because of the innumerable circumstances that can occur in every case of conscience, and therefore by studying it one can always learn new things.”
I like to re-propose what the mentioned intellectual and cultured Lucanian priest wrote about Saint Alphonsus: “Let’s leave aside all that has been said, and what else could be said in glory of Saint Alphonsus, and let’s remember that he left us priests, us faithful, some of the dearest books of the soul. He has enlightened all, without opinion, on the lips of all, even the illiterate, the words of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. He suggested to the people the highest terms in the humblest formulas, the most ecstatic affections in the most everyday words. He has created in the simple a heart of saints, and great saints.” This is the goal of all evangelizations: to generate holiness.
Past and Present
The memory of the past cannot escape the current awareness recalled by Pope Francis: “In these recent times, the challenges that society is facing are innumerable: the pandemic and work in the post-Covid world, the care to be ensured to all, the defense of life, the inputs that come to us from artificial intelligence, the safeguarding of creation, the anti-democratic threat and the urgency of brotherhood. Woe to us if, in this evangelizing commitment, we were to separate the “cry of the poor” from the “cry of the earth.” Alphonsus de Liguori, master and patron of confessors and moralists, offered constructive responses to the challenges of the society of his time, through popular evangelization, indicating a style of moral theology capable of holding together the demands of the Gospel and human frailty”. The ecclesial and pastoral profile made a well-known theologian and bishop affirm: “A careful look at the ecclesial and human style of the holy Bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti certainly helps to better interpret the present, but, above all, it offers significant ecclesial cues to intuit appropriate ways of enhancing those remarkable possibilities, human and spiritual, still present today and with the face of new fragilities in the fabric of our complex reality… His ecclesial and social intuitions, in the light of the reception of the Second Vatican Council and in bringing to the present day all its inexhaustible fruitfulness, are elements of sure planning for today” (cf. AA.VV., Alfonso Maria de Liguori e il Concilio Vaticano II, attualità e intuizioni, Città Nuova).
The joy of being able to share these reflections with you on the day of the liturgical memorial of the Holy Doctor prompts me to make a special reference to the Marian spirituality of Saint Alphonsus, an intimately modern man of faith. In the well-known commentary on the Salve Regina, published under the title The Glories of Mary, we find the red thread of Alphonsus’ message: “Whoever has recourse to Mary is not lost, but saved. Therefore, The Glories of Mary is a work of fine pastoral theology. It is a book of human and spiritual facts of every color, which go through even the impossible, in order to persuade on the one reason: God does indeed give grace. This is demonstrated by the relationship with Mary, who acts on behalf of God. An acute connoisseur of Saint Alphonsus’ thought writes: “The Glories of Mary is the most autobiographical book he left us. They contain all the uncertainties, fears, faith, and hopes of Alphonsus de Liguori. In them, we find not a little of our inner restlessness.
I conclude by inviting you to pray with the antiphon of the Liturgy:
Master of the faith and the light of the church,
Saint Alphonsus Maria de Liguori
you have lovingly examined the mystery of God:
pray for us Christ the Lord.
I greet you all and bless you from my heart.
Teggiano, 1 August 2021
+ Father Antonio De Luca, Bishop of Teggiano-Policastro