New book on St Alphonsus de Liguori

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Last December, the biography of Saint Alphonsus de Liguori, written by Pippo Corigliano, was published in Italy. – In his review, Fr. Vincenzo La Mendola CSsR presents the author and shows interest in the new book, which shows the relevance of the apostolate of Saint Alphonsus and wishes to popularize the person of the founder of the Redemptorists among his fellow citizens, especially among young people.

REVIEW

Fr. Corigliano,  Alfonso Maria de’ Liguori. The most Neapolitan of saints, the holiest of Neapolitans,  Ares Editions, Milan 2023, pp. 120.

It is always exciting to enter a bookshop and see among the novelties a new, unexpected biography of Saint Alphonsus. And it is equally nice to discover that it is written by a lay person. In fact, Saint Alphonsus is not only of the Redemptorists but of the whole Church, and – as some say – of the whole world, like every man who produces culture. And he not only generated a lot of culture, but gave confidence and hope to men, of his and subsequent eras, as evidenced by the diffusion and translation of his works into almost all known languages.

Some will ask: why another biography? We seem to find the reason in the Author’s own words: «Alphonsus is a saint who deserves to be known much more» (p. 101). And we all agree on this.

The subtitle of the volume  The most Neapolitan of saints the holiest of Neapolitans gives us more precise indications to trace the Author: Pippo Corigliano (Naples 1942), spokesperson for Opus Dei in Italy, author, with Mondadori, of several books, and recently – also with Ares – of two volumes:  Postcards from Paradise were a great success. 

Corigliano’s is a work of maturity, the result of reading, research and reflection. We immediately point out, as indicated in the  Preface,  that «The portrait that emerges from this book has nothing to do with the usual hagiography» (p. 8), to clear the ground of expectations that will not be satisfied. It is rather the shaping of a profile, drawn up with passion and with the clear intention of making a historical figure known to everyone. It is for a vast audience of readers that the Author thinks and publishes his agile volume of him: short, dense and manageable, responding to the criteria of today’s book marketing. 

In thirteen short, substantial chapters, we are offered a compelling summary of the life of the Neapolitan saint, bringing to light some previously unpublished aspects. The focus is on the personality of the protagonist, outlined with effective brushstrokes: «Alphonsus is a Neapolitan passionately in love with God. His life can be explained like this: love» (p. 13). Already from the first lines of the  Preface written by Costanza Miriano, it is clear that the book in question is a  new profile of Saint Alphonsus, an alternative way of presenting him to the contemporary world. Some impactful descriptions reveal this. Alphonsus is: «A lawyer with attributes», «A genius, a nobleman, son of the elite, one of those who anyone would have done anything to marry. […] someone who had everything and could have chosen everything. The top of the range. The Lord has good taste, and he chooses the best, there is no doubt” (p. 8). 

The cut is almost journalistic—the direct, immediate tone. The loose and flowing prose, seasoned from time to time with appropriate considerations, which helps to grasp the modernity of the biographer, presented as «the saint of optimism and trust, of humor and joviality, a Neapolitan to the core» ( p. 89). Precise references to the Neapolitan nature of Saint Alphonsus could not be missing, as he was captured in this unmistakable aspect of his personality by another Neapolitan, who, approaching him more than two hundred years later, discovered all the freshness of his Neapolitan character.

The Author – from what emerges from his Work – is a passionate reader and scholar of Saint Alphonsus. His pages are warm and express all his admiration for a Saint that he wants to reevaluate: «The figure of Alphonsus is interesting as a model. All the saints are examples of life, but Alphonsus teaches us to put our hearts and commit ourselves to the things of God” (p. 15). He reviews the most salient aspects of personality, proposing some coordinates that facilitate the understanding of each of them. The first autograph writing that we find cited, to get in touch with the character, are the  Lawyer’s Rules  (p. 26), a summary of the ethics of the young Neapolitan patrician, grappling with his great success in the intriguing forum Neapolitan. Corigliano is attentive to Alfonso’s vocational story and his essential stages.

Immediately after having narrated the tormented vocation of the young Alphonsus, in the difficult confrontation with the granitic father figure, the Author gives us an insight into his vocation as a confessor and spiritual director, emphasizing the novelty represented by Alphonsus, who «he did not just limit himself to absolving sins but worked hard to envisage higher goals” (p. 33) and again, bringing out the originality constituted by his moral theological teaching, he states: “If today one confesses in a climate of warm welcome, we owe it to him” (p. 74). 

Another detail of his pastoral genius – which emerges from the story – is the innate ability to educate the faith, especially the lay faithful: «His ideal? Form simple people, transforming them with the grace of God into saints” (p. 35).

Sifting through the works of De Liguori, Corigliano fills his text with numerous quotations, allowing the reader to come into contact with Alphonsus’ vast production, and inviting him to take them into his hands: «his books are full of anecdotes and easy to read» ( p. 97).

The most reported text is  Practice of loving Jesus Christ,  an indispensable starting point for understanding the spiritual message of the Saint, who we do not hesitate to include among the mystics. By recounting his ecstasies, bilocations and miracles, in life and  post-mortem , aspects that in some biographies have perhaps been relegated to the background, the Author gives us the figure of the interior life and sanctity of the Founder of the Redemptorists. As a reliable mystic, Alphonsus is an extremely practical man, «A manager at the service of God» (p. 67), a man in love with Jesus Christ and the Mother of God «the only woman in his life» (p. 28 ). 

The ecclesial profile of Alphonsus, as it emerges from Corigliano’s pen, is that of a counter-current priest, capable of objectively analyzing the context in which he lives and of suggesting the most appropriate remedies for its renewal: «he was convinced that the ruins of world are preaching evils and confessing evils  and that  whoever preaches at random and foolishly will do more harm than good ” (p. 71). In this area of ​​the pastoral activity of his time, Alphonsus was innovative: «One of the greatest communicators of the Church. His concern is to make himself understood” (p. 96). He «demonstrated how positive values ​​can be communicated by making the best use of the means of communication of his time: preaching, books, songs, painting, architecture» (p. 98).

Not without a hint of realism and a sense of pungent regret, the Author denounces the danger that such a current Saint could be forgotten or relegated only to the religious sphere: «Civil society has almost erased his memory. In Alphonsus’ own Naples, the students who are finishing high school today do not know who he is or who he was, while they know a lot about his contemporary Voltaire […]. One might think that Voltaire has won and that modernity can do without Alphonsus but this is not the case. The problems that grip Western civilization today are precisely the problems about which Alphonsus has so much to teach. He indicated the path to the solution which passes through attention to the person and to education” (pp. 97-98).

Some chapters are added to the chronological treatment of the biography which aim to complete the profile of the Saint. The ninth, for example, constitutes a brief presentation of the songs of Saint Alphonsus, with abundant quotations from the  Canzoniere. The twelfth is a collection of  exhortations and maxims , a short anthology, to be kept as a reminder. The last, the thirteenth, reports what for the Author are “the indispensable bibliographical references” (p. 109), for knowledge and initial in-depth analysis. He explains, in a few words, Alphonsus’ vocation as a writer: «All of his work is dominated by a powerful idea: the salvation of all souls. The missionary inspires the spiritual writer, his written work is a permanent mission, a prolonged course of spiritual exercises” (p. 111). He also takes care to point out that «Most of these books are now published by Shalom Publisher» (p. 110) and that some of his spiritual songs «are also present online on YouTube» (p. 112).

The pages of the book flow quickly, they can be read in one go. They arouse interest and admiration. Almost giving the impression of being face to face with a living character. Unfortunately, there are no notes or bibliographical references to be found. Deliberately – we suppose – the Author has left out these methodological elements so as not to weigh down the text, preferring to focus on the content. However, it doesn’t take long to realize that nothing is improvised or risky. Corigliano carefully read the main biographies, the letters and many works of Saint Alphonsus, not stopping at the most well-known or recently published ones, but also sifting through the lesser-known ones. 

All we have to do is get the booklet and start reading it, to know, even better, that Saint Alphonsus is «A creative talent who has a lot to say to the Church and to each of us» (p. 9).

Fr. Vincenzo La Mendola CSsR

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